Thursday, September 16, 2010

Why Durham is a Bike Friendly Community

Just this week, my fair city of Durham, NC was named a bronze-level Bicycle Friendly Community by the League of American Bicyclists. This award recognizes a lot of good work by a lot of good people in Durham to make the city more bike friendly.

As expected, there has been some chatter on local online fora questioning the choice of Durham as a "Bicycle Friendly Community." Friendliness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, after all.

Like many cities, Durham is saddled with legacy infrastructure that is often less bike friendly than one would like. I imagine the degree to which one travels on that older infrastructure definitely colors one's view of how "bike friendly" Durham is. And, in some cases, challenges in biking some of the legacy infrastructure are further hindered by the current road configuration.

But, to butcher an old adage, "Portland wasn't built in a day." Durham has made great strides in the last several years and is very actively becoming more and more bicycle (and pedestrian) friendly all the time. To those folks who may not see why the League honored Durham as it did, I urge you to consider the following aspects of Durham that make me think Durham is bike friendly, many of which may have been considered by the League in making their determination.

I should begin my comments by noting that I served on Durham's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission for the last three years. I have recently resigned my commission, but am still active as an associate member working on two of the Commission's committees, the Development Review Committee and the Communications Committee. I have been an active bike commuter for 9 years traveling by bike to and through Durham even before moving here 6 years ago. My comments here, while obviously influenced by my time with BPAC, are my own and not those of the commission.
  • The low-hanging fruit in this conversation, the American Tobacco Trail, is a wonderful resource. In addition to the fact that its a separated facility that actually goes somewhere (as opposed to purely recreational), the bike lanes on MLK and Cornwallis help extend its value for those people who are most comfortable riding in them. This provides a great connection among the Downtown, mid-south Durham, south Durham and RTP regions. Additionally, while technically a park, the city has extended its "hours of operation" from dawn-to-dusk as most parks are to 5a-10p to support the ATT's transportational use. And the transportational (and recreational) use of the ATT will expand when Phase E is completed and the bridge over I-40 is in place next year.

  • The City and County elected officials have consistently shown their support of improving the environment for bicyclists and pedestrians through funding the comprehensive bicycle and pedestrian plans, adopting those plans when they were complete and defending those plans in the face of ideas that are presented to them that are contrary to the plans.

  • Durham has a dedicated Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator.

  • The City and County have created the Durham Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission to advise them on bicycle and pedestrian issues. BPAC has grown into a very active group that is heavily involved in both the granular day-to-day details of improving the bicycle and pedestrian environment as well as the longer-range strategic plans for doing so.

  • The Durham Unified Development Ordinance includes many bicycle and pedestrian requirements for new development projects. And BPAC is involved in the development review process ensuring that development projects comply with these ordinances, and also providing recommendations for projects on how they can improve their bicycle and pedestrian support. Also, BPAC has a voting seat on the Development Review Board with Planning, Transportation, Stormwater, Engineering, NCDOT and other bodies.

    Consider that again for a moment - Durham has citizen bicycle/pedestrian advocates reviewing development site plans to enforce ordinances and *voting* to approve or deny development requests.

  • Durham is actually turning out to be a bit of a thought-leader in some areas of bicycle concerns. When seeking recommendations on defining bicycle parking requirements by site use from members of the Assoc of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals, I was surprised to have received a number of emails from around the country from APBP members asking me to let them know the metrics that Durham uses. BPAC completed its guidance to the city and county on improvements to the bicycle parking requirements, and those requirements were adopted by both the city and county governments this summer.

    Durham is also a relatively early adopter of shared use markings (sharrows). And Durham is in the midst of reconfiguring some city streets to make them more bike-friendly by changing them from 4-lane roads to 2 lanes of road, a center turn lane and bike lanes (road diets).

  • City and County Transportation and Planning staffs are well-informed on bicycle issues, concerns and goals and are supportive of meeting those goals. Additionally, they participate in continuing education opportunities to keep up-to-date on best practices.

  • Many (most?) of the demand-actuated traffic signals in Durham are tuned to recognize bikes.

  • Durham has a really great Bike Co-op.

  • Durham held its first ciclovia this past May.

  • Durham has an active Bike-to-Work week outreach program, and BPAC also participates in other local events such as Earth Day (bike valet), the Eno River Festival and this weekend's Centerfest.
Everyone's view of "bike-friendliness" may differ. Durham streets certainly don't have the same appearance as platinum-level Portland or Davis, and I think the League's award appropriately reflects that. Our bronze award isn't a goal in and of itself, its just recognition of the current status of Durham's continual improvements. As BPAC chair Alan Dippy noted in the city's press release, "the Bronze level designation will serve as an important benchmark from which we can build on the momentum of these efforts and create a truly bike-friendly Durham."

So, ride on, Durham, and keep lovin' yourself, k?

(If you'd like to get involved as a volunteer with BPAC, you can apply for my recently vacated position, or join one of the committees as an associate member. You can contact BPAC through the BikeWalkDurham website.)

1 comment:

WayneClark said...

Durham definitely deserves to be on the LAB bronze list. I have lived in the Triangle for 15 years. I seem to be riding more and more around Durham these days (!) and enjoy the varied experiences of cycling there. With only a few exceptions, I have found Durham to be very bicycle friendly.

I live in Cary and, while I don't want this thread to turn into the regional sport of Cary bashing, I have never thought that Cary deserved its long-standing LAB bronze status. The town government works hard on bike advocacy but that message never got through to the community. Fortunately, Cary cyclists have persevered in spite of its citizenry and our numbers are growing.

One other positive thing about Durham that should be pointed out is that it is an older city. Like many of the midwestern cities where I have cycled, the population density in the core of city is much more amenable to cycling.

Durham has a lot going for it and I expect great things to come from the cycling community there.