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.


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.

5 thoughts on “Riding a bike around I-85 in northwest Durham sucks”

  1. I don’t ride a bike, but you’re exactly right about the Hillendale problem. Not long ago a man riding a bike in area of Indian Trail and Hillandale was struck by a car and killed. He was well known and regarded in the local community. and they recently had a “ride of rememberance” to commemorate him. I believe there was a “ghost bike” at the location for some time, as well. Even driving I try to avoid that road, though its an essential connection for people who live in that area–as noted by the expansion into multiple lanes (for a short stretch) north of the freeway exchange.

  2. There was supposed to be a connection of greenway between the Ellerbee creek greenway in Watts Hospital Hillandale neighborhood with the Northpointe Development, where the creek is between Home Depot and Costco. There was a bunch of controversy with easements from the developers promised, but now those easements are in a floodplain so there can’t be a paved pathway, etc. etc. sillyness. I recall some update on this issue with the last year or two and I think since no one could decide what to do, it got tabled. As I recall, the connection was supposed to be via a tunnel/culvert underneath I-85. I don’t know if that tunnel is existing and sealed, or if building it would be an additional hurdle to overcome. Someone else can probably chime in with more details.

    For now, the best way to cross I-85 on bike is actually via the Washington St. overpass. From Brightleaf its a pretty easy route – up Duke St. to Trinity, then – you can hop on the greenway at Trinty Ave. by the old Duke Diet center across from the Duke Tower Condo/Hotel for a flat and relatively attractive stretch (although it is not super fast because it zig-zags over some bridges, I prefer that over the Duke St. hills) that pops you out right at the intersection with Club and Washington. Pretty good biking lanes, not too crazy traffic through Northgate Park area to go either east or west from there.

    1. Greg Garneau put up a photo tour of sorts demonstrating where a hypothetical West Ellerbe Creek trail might go:


      The tunnel you’re thinking of does actually already exist, but it doesn’t connect to anything yet. There’s a map that still shows the plan:


      There was also an article on the trail a few months back implying that the Council was to pick the issue back up and try to untangle the right of way stuff, but I never saw anything come out of this:


      As for Washington, I agree, that’s as good as it gets. That’s how I get up to the Museum of Life + Science and points thereabouts, although I’ve not made the east-west trek from Washington over to Hillandale through North Point yet.

      One reason I didn’t take it this time specifically was that I wanted to go how somebody might from Ninth St, West Campus, Walltown, or Watts Hillandale – the route I ended up taking was discussed on the BPAC list a month or so ago.

  3. I’ve never tried biking Hillandale to get across 85. Usually I take the Guess route which seems like the best option and is also the fastest when coming from the warehouse district. Although more often than not I take the bus that goes along Guess and then bike east/west once i get across. There’s a stop right where Guess intersects Fawn.

  4. Jeremy — There’s already an active project with the City to make Hillandale more bicycle-friendly. It was started before Seth’s death but was sadly too late to prevent it. (I happen to know one of the City engineers involved, and he was really torn up about that :(.) Here’s one of the press releases: http://durhamnc.gov/Pages/NNDetails.aspx?detailId=420 . That’s from over a year ago. I think the consultants have put together a plan now, but I’m not sure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *