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Group seeks safer streets in Watts-Hillandale and Old West Durham

On a recent, chilly Saturday, roughly 40 Durham residents, all of them bundled against the cold in sweaters and hats, gathered at Oval Park for a group discussion on how to make Old West Durham and Watts-Hillandale streets safer for all means of transport. 

The discussion was organized by Bike Durham, a nonprofit whose mission is to “empower all people to walk, bike and ride transit more often.” Durham is growing fast, adding 4,436 residents for a total population of 283,506 residents in 2020, according to that year’s census. And with all that growth, citizens want to make sure streets are safe for all. Bike Durham has begun holding community meetings to generate input from residents on transportation safety to take to city hall.

Cycling is not Bike Durham’s sole priority, despite its name. The organization, which was named Advocacy Organization of the Year in March by the League of American Bicyclists, seeks to make local streets safer for cyclists, drivers and pedestrians.  

Several instances of pedestrians being hit by drivers have occurred in Durham since last summer. Statewide, more than 2,000 collisions involving pedestrians and motor vehicles take place each year, according to the N.C. Department of Transportation.  

Bike Durham’s goals include promoting healthier, more active lifestyles by supporting bike-friendly and pedestrian-friendly paths and streets. They also include giving drivers enough space to navigate without putting pedestrians and bikers in harm’s way. The organization carries out this mission through meetings with city officials, joint ventures with the city government and public events.

“We’re all on the same page that we’d like to improve conditions, not just for pedestrians, cyclists but also for visually and mobility impaired [residents],” Bike Durham advisor Nikola Milenkovic said after Saturday’s meeting.

The group, a mix of full-time employees and volunteers, began in Durham in 2012 with a goal of bringing proposals from residents to the city government. Bike Durham has worked with residents in the Burch Avenue neighborhood, and has since launched a project in the Old West Durham and Watts-Hillandale neighborhoods. 

The Oval Park gathering marked that project’s initial phase, with a group discussion in which residents voiced their concerns regarding streets, walkways and related issues. 

The chilly temperatures didn’t stop residents from showing up. Some families joined, with kids running and biking in the park while adults listened in on the conversation.

Ali Shoenfelt, an 18-year Durham resident and Bike Durham’s coordinator for the neighborhood project, said she was encouraged by the community engagement.

“It’s cold this morning, [it’s] Saturday,” she said.“I didn’t know how many people with kids would be here because I know there’s often soccer games or other obligations. But I thought the turnout was really good.” 

The meeting included short presentations from the Watts-Hillandale Neighborhood Association and Bike Durham on ways to make the neighborhoods’ streets safer. 

Neighborhood association representatives discussed potential transportation changes, such as repaving curb extensions and widening bike lanes. Shoenfelt and Milenkovic of Bike Durham described some of the most successful initiatives from Bike Durham’s Burch Avenue project last year, including repainting crosswalks and adding traffic armadillos, plastic dividers that separate bike lanes and driving lanes. After the presentations, residents spoke their minds. 

Arleigh Greenwald, who attended the meeting, moved to Northwest Durham from California with her young family last summer. 

Greenwald, a product marketing manager with Tern Bicycles, mentioned the need for expanding sidewalks and bike lanes, and for making sidewalks more spacious. By the end of the morning, she felt encouraged by the dialogue.

“It feels like there’s a consensus of people wanting to be able to safely bike and walk, but they’re confused as to how they can still do it and enjoy their neighborhood as drivers,” Greenwald said after the meeting.

Bike Durham representatives praised the discussion. 

“It was really nice to see the level of detail people provided in their input,” Milenkovic said. “We have a much greater sense of what the issues are. And we have some ideas on what to do moving forward, how to build off of these insights and continuing this engagement.”

The group plans a series of neighborhood “walk audits” starting this coming Saturday, April 30. “Walk audits” are focussed, on-site conversations that zero in on particular traffic concerns within a certain neighborhood. 

Bike Durham will then develop a ranking of the two neighborhoods’ most pressing transportation issues. Ultimately, the group plans to provide a report to the city. 

“The report we can provide [to the city] will be much more comprehensive,”  Milenkovic said. “We’re just not looking to solve problems on one street to have them move to an adjacent street, but rather address everything within our scope.”

Above: Watts-Hillandale resident Ali Shoenfelt. Photo by Kulsoom Rizavi — The 9th Street Journal