Saturday, February 11, 2006

Bypass surgery

Giving directions to our house, I've been known to say, "It's one turn off the bypass." But I don't do that any more. I can't count on people knowing what the 15-501 bypass is. The more recently you came to town, the less sense it would make to you that Fordham Boulevard is, or ever was, a bypass, because what it does, in fact, is to bisect major parts of Chapel Hill.

In the postwar housing boom of the 1950s, when the houses in our neighborhood were going up, the neighborhood was not within the town. That was part of the attraction: it was a classic suburban "borderland" in the tradition of Olmsted's Riverside, not completely rural, but not urban either. Two families that we know of kept horses.

The bypass, back then, was a two-lane highway. In the late 1950s the interchange at the point where 15-501 splits off with Hwy. 54 was improved and widened, for which the DOT declared eminent domain on a corner of Eben Merritt's pasture. He got a consent judgment of $30,000 for his loss of access (an amount equal to the cost of a nice house in the neighborhood).

The widening to four lanes--six counting the left-turn lanes at Manning Drive--began in the 1980s. The neighborhood formed a voluntary association (today's Kings Mill-Morgan Creek Neighborhood Association), mainly in order to negotiate the details of the new right of way, etc. But one thing they didn't get was a decent pedestrian crosswalk. Since then the town has grown right across the "bypass" to include the houses on the other side of Morgan Creek, and, to the south of us, Southern Village. Combining the traffic from that growth with the traffic in and out of Chatham County, Fordham Boulevard is consistently rated one of the most congested roads in our jurisdiction, and it is only getting worse.

If you are in Chapel Hill, you know what I'm leading up to. The intersection of Manning Drive and the 15-501 "bypass" is where David Galinsky was killed on January 25. The driver was not at fault, but neither, I believe, was he. Even if you're in a car, the green light coming out of our neighborhood is so short you hardly make it out. When an intersection is as hostile as this one, it makes no sense to blame the pedestrian. Bad planning is to blame.

This week, the city of Pittsburgh was found by a jury to be 20 percent liable in the death of a pedestrian at a poorly designed intersection. In that case the driver was at fault, but the point is that the city was too. North Carolina is one of the few states that don't allow the blame to be split up this way, but again that misses the point: an intersection that invites pedestrian traffic but does not effectively handle it is a badly designed intersection.

On Monday night prior to the Council meeting, Jim Ward and I have called a news conference to highlight the issue of pedestrian/cyclist/jogger safety at major DOT-controlled intersections in Chapel Hill, and in particular on Fordham Boulevard at or near Manning Drive. Citizens are planning to petition us to press harder for a workable solution. To the Council's prior requests to improve this intersection, the DOT has responded with a classic Catch-22: there isn't enough pedestrian traffic to warrant it. We've got to work on changing the whole mindset from designing for cars first to designing for a transportation network that includes people.

Peter White, director of the North Carolina Botanical Garden--over here with us on the wrong side of the bypass--has prepared a statement that puts the issue nicely:

Too often in today’s world, roadways become isolating and unsafe barriers. In cities across America from Boston to Portland, Oregon, governments are seeking ways to overcome the isolation that roadways impose within a community and to build infrastructure that supports walking, biking and public transportation. These solutions are good for exercise and fresh air, good for reducing congestion, good for lessening pollution, and good for a sense of community. Above all they proclaim the message that we can design with people, as well as cars, in mind.

Fordham Boulevard at Manning isn't the only hostile intersection in town. The bus stops at the apartment complexes on MLK Boulevard require people to cross unsafely, as do several places on Franklin Street, to name a few. What the worst ones have in common is that they're controlled by the state Deparment of Transportation. We've got to get them to the table and come up with engineered solutions that we all can live with.

UPDATE: Thanks to Fiona at the Indy for picking up the cause.

No comments: