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.