The Lake Crabtree bike trails are safe – until 2015, anyway

Yesterday WRAL posted an update on the status of the bike trails at lake Crabtree, whose future depends on the continued cooperation of the RDU airport authority who presently leases the parcel to Wake County (previously discussed here):

Airport spokeswoman Mindy Hamlin said the new deal would have an annual renewal through 2025, giving the airport authority more flexibility.

“Annual renewal” for “more flexibility.” Basically, that means that the airport wants the ability to re-use the land on short notice. This portion of Lake Crabtree Park [NB: WRAL seems to think this parcel is not part of the park, but I think they're wrong; check out this map from Wake County which does clearly show that it's included] can still go away on a whim from RDU.

Why would RDU want the ability to do things with the land? Why, perhaps they want to develop it, just as their plan states.

The reprieve until next year doesn’t change the equation in a meaningful way. RDU has issued vague assurances that they don’t have any plans to “develop” that land “at this time” (watch the video from WRAL), but that doesn’t mean much. They might well have plans to “sell” it tomorrow or develop it “at another time” for all we know.

Note how, in an apparent effort to avoid inspiring any confidence that the park will continue to exist, the RDU rep goes on to talk about all the reasons that the airport might want to develop its land right after saying it doesn’t have any plans to do so.

If you care about this park, don’t become complacent. I feel like the best way to really assure its future is to have Wake County buy it from RDU. I’m sure that’s a tough sell to the taxpayers in Wake County, but it’s difficult to imagine RDU leaving this land alone forever out of the kindness of their own hearts. There’s money to be made, after all!

The RDU Airport Authority may intend to sell off a large part of Lake Crabtree Park

OK, this is 1) technically not in Durham and 2) maybe nothing, but in the last few days I’ve noticed a lot of grumbling about the fate of the Lake Crabtree Park in Morisville.

This park has long been a popular destination for mountain bikers, with an extensive network of trails for all skill levels. Once upon a time, when I lived in (gasp) Cary, I would routinely hop on the greenways and ride up to the park; its central location near RDU makes it very easy to get to, and it’s still one of the most convenient trails for me to get to coming from downtown Durham.

So, what’s going on here, anyway? I was surprised to find out that the trail system resides on property that’s owned by the airport authority and leased to Wake County. That means that, should RDU ever be inclined to develop the land, a huge wooded chunk of the park will be lost and converted to [insert development type here].

The County’s current lease on the area expired last year, and RDU has yet to renew it, which has raised a lot of speculation that the end is nigh. RDU’s latest study indicates that this would be a good location for:

Partly restricted, high-performance development (office, hospitality) set back from the lakefront with direct access to waterfront park.

Some folks at TriangleMTB have been looking into the situation. They’ve also put together a web site specifically to raise awareness.

The Herald ran an article on the situation last week, and they got a response from the RDU authority:

Airport spokeswoman Mindy Hamlin said a lease for another 149 acres, known as the “FATS parcel,” expired last year but negotiations are under way to extend it.

“We are currently working with the county to determine what the length of the next agreement will be,” Hamlin said.

Airport officials say they have no immediate plans to develop the property.

“No immediate plans to develop” – those are the Herald’s words, not the authority’s, but that phrase leaves a massive amount of wiggle room (e.g. RDU might plan to sell immediately, or plan to develop in the future, and that could still have been a technically true statement).

It’s not really obvious to me what if any impact Durham residents can have on this process, since the park itself is just across the border in Wake County. Some potential “outs” here involve some government purchasing the land from RDU; say, DENR or Wake County. But it seems pretty clear that RDU thinks this parcel holds a lot of untapped potential, and even if they don’t act on that today, its future is very much uncertain.

Zagster bike rentals show up on Duke campus

Following the end of Duke’s in-house bike lending program last year, the student government and the university worked together to find a replacement. They gave the nod to a company called Zagster, and this week I’ve started seeing the bikes on campus:

This one’s on West Campus in a not-so-visible location behind the Allen building near the quad. I also spotted one near the main bus stop on East Campus earlier this week (but failed to grab a photo).

There are four stations to start with: two on West Campus, one on Central Campus, and the one on East Campus. Although the location behind Allen pictured above isn’t exactly prime real estate for visibility, it could be pretty convenient assuming you know where to look for it. When I swung by it looked like the rack was full, except for a single bike that I saw somebody take out of the rack as I approached.

I’m always glad to see this sort of initiative, but with the bike stations located only on campus the potential for wider utility will go unrealized. I’d love to see the city some how tie into Duke’s efforts; imagine how much more useful this kind of program would be if there were stations at Ninth St., downtown, etc.

Durham DOT director Mark Ahrendsen gets necked down at the BPAC Club Blvd meeting

Mark Ahrendsen looked a little uncomfortable last night as he answered some tough questions about the W. Club Blvd neck down project.

Not much new was learned. The story as I told it before is roughly accurate. Ahrendsen insists that the BPAC’s concerns about the impact of neck downs on cyclists (which were presented to him in writing in 2010) weren’t “ignored;” instead, they were “considered” and then discarded, since the specific examples mentioned in the letter weren’t feasible to implement. Ahrendsen, of course, didn’t tell that to the BPAC at the time. BPAC chair Erik Landfried appeared frustrated by the fact that Ahrendsen ruled out the specific examples rather than responding to the more crucial general observation that cyclists deserved some attention in the project.

According to Ahrendsen, this whole thing is now on the WHHNA. There’s no facility for any of it to be revisited by his department at this point unless the WHHNA changes its mind. No amount of public input from any other community will be considered. Ahrendsen has presented two options to the WHHNA: neck downs or scrap the thing and start over – and his sole concern is to implement whichever of those options they choose. Ahrendsen threw out “three years” in describing how long it might take to implement a revised project should WHHNA change its mind now.

As I’ve never observed the process of such street designs before, I found this shocking; the concerns of the neighborhood in which a street runs surely must be important, but considering those desires in a vacuum when constructing a plan that impacts motorists and cyclists from other neighborhoods is insane. As far as I’m aware, last night’s BPAC meeting is the first time the general public outside of the WHHNA was invited to discuss this plan with Ahrendsen, and as was made clear it’s now far too late to do anything about it.

Even though it’s been thirteen years since the original study, and it’s been eight years since Club was identified as an important road for cyclists, the assumptions and implementation goals of the original plan have never been revisited. A public works employee (whose name I didn’t catch) described all of the engineering challenges associated with installing neck downs (of which there are apparently many) and offered insights into the requirements he was given (which amounted to, basically, put in neck downs). Federal regulations have changed since the original study, and the implementation details of the neck-downs were modified to support those, but the fundamental design elements have remained unmodified. No study which considers the needs of cyclists has ever been performed. The public works employee was not instructed to consider engineering any design features to aid cyclists, and so he did not.

My take is that Ahrendsen is looking to dump this hot potato on the WHHNA to avoid any direct responsibility himself. I suspect that he understands the design isn’t ideal, but he doesn’t want to be the guy that slows down “their” project any further. The WHHNA is who he’s out to appease, and by placing it in their lap, if there are problems down the road, they are the ones responsible for accepting the plan.

It looks to me, quite frankly, like cowardice. If Ahrendsen is supposed to take the transit needs of the entire community into consideration, he’s clearly failing to do that. In this fight, it seems as if cyclists have no advocate.

Furthermore, I think the WHHNA is well on its way to becoming reviled by some cyclists. It seems as if no discussion of Club can occur without somebody bringing up the death of Seth Vidal. The WHHNA board’s endorsement of an anti-cyclist road design in close proximity to that incident certainly appears callous (or at the very least tone deaf), a point which one commenter mentioned last night.

If you live in WHH, I urge you to contact your board and express your concerns. Neck downs are actively dangerous. Do not let your neighborhood be perceived as so hostile to the needs of cyclists. Demand a better plan that works for everybody.

Somebody at the BPAC meeting last night made a suggestion so simple that I can hardly believe it was discarded in favor of this monstrosity: why not simply add pedestrian crossings with triggered stoplights? My suspicion is that the economics of such things didn’t work out in 2001, because I can’t fathom any way in which neckdowns could be considered preferable to anybody. I’ve seen these dedicated pedestrian lights sprout up in the intervening years and they’re excellent solutions (see, for example, Murray Ave near the Museum of Life+Science).

The budget for the Club neckdowns is $350,000; I wonder how many triggered pedestrian crossings you can buy for $350,000?

Maybe somebody from the WHHNA should ask that question of Mark Ahrendsen.

Tonight, the BPAC will meet to discuss the future of West Club Blvd

This evening, at 7 p.m., the Bike and Pedestrian Advisory Board will meet at City Hall to discuss the redesign of West Club Blvd. The current plan (previously discussed here) would add neck-downs and choke cyclists into the travel lane – an outcome which few people seem to believe is ideal, but some WHNNA residents seem to feel is better than the status quo for pedestrians. The BPAC, it should be noted, is solely an advisory board with no authority to impact policy directly; rather, they can make recommendations that the city is encouraged to follow (but is free to ignore).

Since my previous blog post, the neckdown plan has been the subject of an article at newsobserver.com and an editorial in the Herald-Sun. In its editorial, the H-S specifically endorses re-examining the project:

In an email Gronberg reported, Councilman Steve Schewel, who lives in Watts-Hillandale, mused “Is there a way to make Club Boulevard friendlier to both cyclists and pedestrians? I expect there is. Would such a plan be worth the wait?”

As much as we sympathize with the neighborhood’s impatience, we think the answer is yes.

In addition to the newspapers weighing in, there’s also a response from Bike Durham which (unsurprisingly, seeing as how “bike” is in the name of the group) encourages the city to reconsider:

Bike Durham would like the city to align streets designs with the Bicycle and Pedestrian Plans. In the case of West Club Boulevard, this means revisiting and likely updating the design to meet the needs and safety concerns of pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists.

The BPAC is encouraging people to attend the meeting and provide input. Mark Ahrendsen, director of the Department of Transportation, is expected to be there.

Revived neckdown plan could make West Club Blvd a nightmare for cyclists

In 2001*, somebody had a plan. A plan to “calm” traffic on West Club Boulevard.

That plan called for neckdowns. Neckdowns (also known by many other names, my favorite of which is probably “elephant ears”) are curb extensions that intentionally narrow a road. These extensions are intended to cause motorists to slow down, and they also reduce the width of road which pedestrians must traverse when crossing to the other side of the street.

The plan was created in response to a request from the Watts Hospital-Hillandale Neighborhood Association (WHHNA) to make the street safer for pedestrians.

At no time were the needs of cyclists considered in the process, nor was making the road safer for cyclists ever an objective. To be fair, there were fewer cyclists on Durham streets 13 years ago, and cyclist needs weren’t very well considered back then in general, so if nothing else it’s unsurprising that they were excluded from the design.

For whatever reason, things got delayed, and eventually the funding for the project disappeared. The plan stalled out in the mid 00’s.

But that’s not where Durham’s neckdown story ends.

No, based on the observations of that initial study, neckdowns seemed like just the ticket in another part of town with traffic woes: Anderson St. Although there wasn’t any funding to do a proper study of the impact on Anderson, there was funding for construction (!), and the city figured the findings for Club were good enough.

So they necked that sucker down. They necked it down real good.

If you look at Anderson these days, the remnants of that decision are still visible, but the street has been entirely reworked since the original deployment.

See, as mentioned above, cyclists were never considered in the original design for Club. Anderson was, even 7 years ago, a very heavily used cycling route. It had street parking on both sides of the road, but the parking was seldom fully utilized, and the wide street was a relatively safe connector for cyclists. The plans for Anderson, the designers realized, had to include some kind of concession for cyclists.

The concession chosen was to leave gaps between the neckdowns and the curb, through which cyclists were expected to ride.

Well, the plan was implemented, and it was pretty much a disaster. The foliage in the islands promptly died, the gaps proved too narrow for cyclists to navigate (and quickly filled with debris besides), and average speeds dropped by less than 1 MPH. Cyclists had to swerve into and out of the travel lane to pass through the neckdowns, a maneuver which is fraught with peril and a cause for a great deal of concern for anybody wishing to ride the road.

Basically, the Anderson project was a complete failure, and many of the neckdowns were eventually removed (at great expense) in 2009. At the time, Kevin Davis broke down the situation on his blog, Bull City Rising.

Anderson in its current incarnation does take the needs of cyclists into consideration; the remaining neckdowns are no longer placed directly across from each other, and proper bike lanes have been added to most of the street. Due to the staggered design, there’s enough room for cyclists to avoid the neckdowns while remaining within the lines of the bike lane. It’s still unclear whether the neckdowns actually do anything to calm traffic, but at least they aren’t actively pushing cyclists into cars. The foliage is still dead too, but whatever.

In light of the Anderson experiment, imagine my surprise when the original Club plan rose from its slumber – unaltered from the original vision.

The man with that plan is Mark Ahrendsen, Director of the Durham Transportation Department. Ahrendsen is now blazing ahead with the decade-old scheme, and rumor has it that the WHHNA is all aboard. Here’s an image from the 2013 draft plans for the project (you can peruse the entire document if you have access to the BPAC yahoo! group):

 

 

This shows the intersection with Alabama, and the plan calls for similar structures at a total of four intersections. There will be no bike lanes, and street parking will be maintained on both sides.

It’s pretty obvious that there’s no room for cyclists in this plan to do anything but swerve out into the middle of the travel lane, right at the point where the street is at its narrowest on both sides. Unlike Anderson, there’s no pretense of allowing cyclists to ride to the right of the structures (look at the extra curbs on the corner), and even worse they’re on both sides of the intersection, squeezing cyclists down twice per cross street.

Now, do you know the greatest irony? In 2006 (five years after the initial study of Club) Durham adopted a comprehensive bicycle transportation plan which makes note of the fact that Club is a major cycling route and actually specifies that Club should have bike lanes. And yet, this zombie plan from the early 00’s (hey plan, have you heard that sweet new Postal Service album yet?) is back from the dead and overriding subsequent, more considered approaches to transit.

What, exactly, has come over the city here? Why do they want to do something to make Club, a road that they’re supposed to be improving, actively hostile for cyclists? Why has the plan not been modified in light of the similar implementation on Anderson, which failed to even achieve the desired calming results?

Way back in 2010, when this project bubbled back to the surface, the BPAC drafted a letter in opposition to the current plan which it sent to Ahrendsen. The BPAC letter provided some well considered constructive criticism, and it suggested several ways that neckdowns could be implemented without harming cyclists.

That advice was ignored.

So, this is the part where I defend the WHHNA, just a little bit, because although they’re apparently on board with this plan, they’ve not been given much choice. At this juncture the plan is being presented as the only option, and the WHHNA has been waiting over a decade for something to happen. Apparently, this is a “use it or lose it” scenario: the choice is to either take the plan that Ahrendsen has placed on the table, or take nothing at all. Having waited so long, I can understand why they’d just take what they can get.

To his great credit, a WHHNA representative reached out to the bike and ped mailing list, and has proven very receptive and sympathetic to the (many) concerns BPAC members have with the project. But reading the tea leaves, it seems unlikely to me that the WHHNA is going to change its mind on this one. They want something done, and by god, this is something.

What I’m kind of perplexed by here are the actions of Mark Ahrendsen and/or other city representatives who have decided to continue this project. Why has Ahrendsen chosen to revive this project without accepting any input? Why has he not considered the objectives of the comprehensive cycling infrastructure plan? Why did he not respond to the BPAC’s objection? Why has he presented this as the only possible plan? And, if this isn’t coming from him directly, where exactly is it coming from?

Erik Landfried, chair of the BPAC, has invited Ahrendsen to the August 19 meeting of the BPAC to discuss this issue.

As of now, it’s unclear as to whether Ahrendsen plans to attend.

 

* NB: Some of the exact chronology is uncertain to me. Most of these details come from my own memory and accounts on the BPAC mailing list, so there might be some inaccuracies.

Riding a bike around I-85 in northwest Durham sucks

So I had an adventure yesterday: I had to go to a location on Hillandale Road (north of I-85).

I’m going to tell you right now, this part of Durham is an unmitigated disaster to ride in. It’s horrible. I don’t have much cause to go up there with frequency, which is good, because if I did I’d probably go insane.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: I-85 makes a huge wall up there, which is pretty much impenetrable to cyclists. All of your options are bad.

drawn_on_screenshot

I was trying to get from around Brightleaf Square (not visible in that map – it’s further to the right and down) up to the blue circle. For the sake of convenience let’s just assume you’re starting around Elmo’s on 9th Street (which is easy to get to from Brightleaf).

So, pop quiz hotshot: how would you go about getting up to the blue circle? Note: the red circles labeled 1, 2, and 3, are the three closest ways to penetrate I-85.

The intuitive answer is that you could take Hillsborough Rd to Hillandale Rd. and cross 85 at the “2”. No problem, right? Well, here’s the problem: Hillandale Rd. absolutely sucks:

Screenshot from 2014-07-01 16:03:58Being situated where it is and being one of the few ways to breach I-85, Hillandale Rd. gets heavy usage, and traffic can get pretty gnarly. Look at how narrow that road is! In my experience, when presented with this kind of scenario a lot of people will try to pass cyclists in incredibly dangerous ways as quickly as they can, leaving little clearance.

I will not ride on that stretch of Hillandale Rd. again, regardless of how tempting those straight lines look on Google Maps. The road is a failure of planning and it does a huge disservice to NW Durham that it’s like this. It’s not just bad for cyclists, either – you’ll notice there isn’t even a sidewalk!

How do you avoid that stretch of Hillandale, then? I ended up doing this:

Screenshot from 2014-07-01 16:13:47

There’s a whole lot of WTF going on there to do it, but I managed to avoid Hillandale completely, so yay bonus points for that. The good news is that most of these side streets have low speed limits and are really easy to ride on. However, check out that section of Guess that gets you past I-85:

Screenshot from 2014-07-01 16:18:01Luckily you’re not on that mess long, but ugh.

Just for the sake of completeness, this is what 1) above looks like:Screenshot from 2014-07-01 16:25:26

… um, yeah, about the same.

This is roughly equivalent to the way Southpoint used to be. That particular SNAFU was addressed by adding a multi-million dollar bridge to get past the I-40 wall.

What’s the solution for this mess in NW Durham? I don’t know if anybody is even seriously talking about it. I lurk on the BPAC mailing list where such problems are perennial sources of discussion, but if there’s any real, solid, practical plan to tear down the I-85 wall for cyclists I sure haven’t heard about it.