DPD: still (probably) racially biased

Yes, I know, I’m behind. You’ve probably already heard about findings that seem to indicate issues with racial profiling in the DPD. Last week, city manager Bonfield presented an official proposal on just what to do about it.

Bonfield’s document, 131 pages long, expands upon the findings of the prior HR report. Bonfield acknowledges that racial biases seem to exist, and one of the biggest areas of focus (both in his presentation and in the initial report) centers around searching. The initial report recommended acquiring consent to search homes as well as vehicles, but Bonfield seems to focus only on the former.

The Council’s work meeting was, to put it mildly, exceptionally well attended (so much so that they needed to move to the full chambers). One can only assume that events in Ferguson have informed the public’s perception of this issue; if the council wants to strike while the iron is hot, well, I don’t suppose it gets much warmer than this.

Chief Lopez responded to a reporter from WUNC and sounded, for lack of a better word… flustered.

The video of the work session is available online. The report on the DPD starts around minute 43.

Despite the massive turnout, the agenda item in the work session was ostensibly only for Bonfield to present his findings, and the Council had not yet had time to review them. Their official discussion of the report is expected during the Council meeting on Tuesday, September 2.

If you’ve never been to a city Council meeting before, this could be an interesting time to get your feet wet.

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 is national night out

National Night Out is a program designed to improve relationships between law enforcement and communities. The idea is that neighborhoods host gatherings, from potlucks to parties to parades, and law enforcement officers attend and interact with residents.

The DPD has issued a press release (PDF) about the event, which according to them includes “more than 100 neighborhoods.” (Aside: does Durham actually have more than 100 neighborhoods?). Chances are good that your neighborhood has something planned, so go look it up and get with the program.

And hey, it’s worth mentioning that Durham’s law enforcement could sure use the PR boost! The NCCU police chief was just suspended following a DWI, and a DPD Assistant Police Chief has just filed suit claiming racial discrimination in promotion practices.

Durham ranks highly on list of public transportation usage per capita

FiveThirtyEight (the blog founded by Nate Silver, et al) has an interesting post about public transportation usage in cities across America.

Durham clocks in at 43.4 trips per capita – far more than Charlotte (20.9), Greensboro (17.8), Winston-Salem (8.7), and Raleigh (7.2). It turns out we’re far and away the most public transportation using city in NC, and 21st in the whole US. This list includes most cities with populations over 65,000.

The post’s author, Reuben Fischer-Baum, doesn’t provide much in the way of analysis, but I’ll take a stab. I suspect college towns skew highly on metrics such as these thanks to University run bus systems and large numbers of students. In addition, Durham has given its bus system a great deal of attention (often in collaboration with Duke), and we have some very useful routes like the Bull City Connector (which actually happens to be free).

Given the current high usage, it’s no wonder that many Durhamites are bullish (oh god, I just made a dad joke, sorry) on light rail. Regional light rail could be a decade away at best, though, and bad news for Raleigh: it looks like the NC legislature is going to effectively kneecap Wake County’s ability to raise tax revenue to work on their own portion of a light rail system.

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.

The Open Durham Indiegogo campaign is almost over

I imagine most of you have encountered Open Durham at some point, but perhaps you aren’t aware that there’s presently an Indiegogo campaign in the works to help the project out. The site, which is the work of Gary Kueber, is used to document the history of structures and parcels throughout Durham county (and, at times, beyond). I’ve linked to it several times here, and it’s a really valuable resource which I call upon weekly (if not more).

Before he started Open Durham, Gary maintained the Endangered Durham blog (which is, at least at present, seemingly defunct), but found the blogging platform too limited for the scope of his work. The bottom line is that Gary does a lot of the content, but he pays people for their work on hosting and development, and there are several remaining features that need to get done. They won’t pay for themselves, apparently, and hence this campaign.

At the time of this writing, you’ve got about 40 hours left if you’d like to contribute. If you chip in $50 or more you can snag some physical rewards (starting with a keychain, with T-shirts at $100), but at any reward tier you get the satisfaction of knowing you contributed to a really crucial project to preserving Durham’s history.