Under my wheels
3 FEB 2010 • by Bob Geary, rjgeary (at) mac (dot) com
When the idea of remaking Hillsborough Street first surfaced in Raleigh a decade ago, bicycle travel was considered—briefly. At a time before bicycles were much of a presence on downtown Raleigh streets, the quickly reached consensus was that slowing the vehicular traffic to improve the street for pedestrians would also result in more cyclists—without the need for designated bike lanes.
By the time work began last year on the first phase of the project, however, a growing band of cyclists was lobbying to overturn that consensus and get bike lanes added to the plan. Last week, the cycling community won a major victory when a City Council committee voted 3-0 to back its position. The three, Councilors Russ Stephenson, John Odom and Bonner Gaylord, are a cross section of the council’s Democratic, Republican and independent members, respectively. Their recommendation was expected to be endorsed by the full council Tuesday.
The council’s decision won’t be final. Because Hillsborough Street is a state road (N.C. 54), the N.C. Department of Transportation could veto it on grounds that the original plan is safer—which was DOT’s position in the past, according to city staffers.
The only portion of Hillsborough Street in question is the stretch in front of N.C. State University between Oberlin Road, site of the new roundabouts, and Gardner Street, which is opposite the main D.H. Hill Library.
Bike lanes are already included in future plans for the remainder of the street from downtown to the state fairgrounds, according to Eric Lamb, Raleigh’s transportation services manager.
Still, the issue of whether bike lanes should be front-and-center in the first phase of the project holds symbolic as well as practical importance for cyclists, who view Hillsborough Street in front of NCSU as ground zero in their push to make bicycle transportation a viable alternative in downtown Raleigh.
Bike lanes are a question that divides bicycling advocates themselves. While most in Raleigh seem to favor them, a few have argued for shared lanes and “sharrows”—road markings with a bicycle image topped by directional arrows—to remind drivers that bicyclists have equal rights to the road.
The city’s newly created Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission is firmly in the first camp. Commission member Steve Waters, a transportation planner and a bicyclist, says bike lanes “make a stronger statement that the city supports and encourages bicycling for transportation.”
Experienced cyclists may be comfortable riding (“sharing”) in traffic, Waters says, but most people aren’t—making bike lanes the way to go if the objective is to build bicycle ridership and reduce car traffic and emissions downtown.
Lamb supports the bike lanes, yet he thinks the issue is a bit overblown. A bike rider as well, he says bicycles have come a long way in city planning since the original Hillsborough Street scheme, when they seemed to be an afterthought. Raleigh adopted a far-reaching plan for bicycle and pedestrian transportation in 2008, he notes, and fully incorporated it into the 2009 comprehensive plan, giving it teeth. It calls for creating 330 miles of bike lanes across the city using a combination of road widening and, where widths are sufficient, restriping.
“That would put us on a par with Portland, Ore.,” Lamb says, invoking a place that cyclists revere. Whether the Hillsborough Street plan is changed “is not a referendum on bike lanes in Raleigh.”
Maybe not, says Will Alphin, a designer-builder who rode his bike to the council’s public works committee meeting and spoke while wearing his helmet. While 330 miles sounds good, Alphin notes, the actual number of bicycle-lane miles in Raleigh today is about four. And funding for more of them—a $6 million plan for 25 projects over five years–has been delayed because of the city’s budget straits.
Alphin showed slides of Tempe, Ariz.—home of Arizona State University—where an extensive network of bike lanes is supported by bike-storage buildings with lockers and showers for cyclists. He was in Portland last year, he added. “They have a great cycling culture there.” … [Hillsborough Street] is Raleigh’s chance to make a real commitment to commuter cyclists.”
Alphin, an NCSU graduate and one of Raleigh’s brightest design professionals, appeared to clinch his argument with the public works committee when he showed how the two approaches for Hillsborough Street would work. Because of the construction, he said, it wasn’t possible to depict them on Hillsborough Street itself. So they used Fayetteville Street as the model.
The Hillsborough Street plans call for on-street parking on both sides of the road, a 7-foot raised center median and a pair of 16-foot-wide travel lanes, one in each direction going east and west.
Alphin and his allies want the 16-foot lanes split into a 10-foot lane for cars, a 4-foot lane for bikes and 2 feet between the bike lane and the parking spaces to avoid “dooring” accidents (opening a car door and whacking a bicyclist).
So, armed with white electrical tape on an early weekend morning, they “striped” Fayetteville Street to show the difference.
Presented with a single 16-foot lane, Alphin argued, motorists will position themselves in the middle of it and go faster than the posted 25 m.p.h. speed limit, forcing even experienced cyclists to the far right and into “dooring” territory.
With a 10-foot travel lane and a clearly marked bike lane on the right, motorists will stay close to the center median and slow down, a much safer solution for bicycles.
Because the width of Hillsborough Street varies between Oberlin and Gardner, and because “bump-outs” are planned at several intersections for safer pedestrian crossings, Lamb says, if bike lanes are added they may narrow at points or even disappear, calling for a mix of striping and some sharrows. An exact design won’t be developed until DOT approves and the City Council finds the estimated $40,000—probably from unspent project funds—that the changes will require.
No changes will be made until the project, due to be finished in late summer, is wrapping up, Councilor Stephenson emphasized.
Nina Szlosberg-Landis, who chaired the Hillsborough Street Partnership at the outset and remains one of its leaders, says when the project was developed the whole idea was to “calm” the traffic and make the street more appealing to walkers and bicyclists. The prevailing view at the time, she says, was that cars and bikes would move together at about the same speed. Now, Szlosberg-Landis says, most partnership members, including a majority of the business owners, “have no strong feelings” about bike lanes. She favors them. And as a member of the state Board of Transportation, she told the advocates, “let me know what I can do to help.”
“Views evolve,” she added, “and we need to be flexible and responsive to [the] concerns.”