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‘Reckless Roxboro’ may get a revamp — if locals can persuade DOT

Chris Perelstein was working in the living room of his Roxboro Street apartment in early November when a cacophony of noises — squealing tires, a honking horn, and a loud boom — forced him outside.

A van barrelling the wrong way had hit an apartment building further down his block. By the time Perelstein arrived on the scene, the van had already run over a tree and destroyed a brick wall by the apartment. Perelstein watched as the car headed south towards downtown, still driving in the wrong direction.

“They were gunning it — full throttle,” Perelstein said. “I think they panicked when they saw oncoming traffic.”

While the incident was scary, it wasn’t surprising. Since moving to Durham from Raleigh about a year ago, Perelstein has witnessed five crashes outside his own door. 

In July, Perelstein set up a speed detection camera on his rooftop aimed at Roxboro below. And in December, the system began automatically tweeting to an X (formerly Twitter) account known as @Reckless Roxboro when a car drives over 62 mph. He’s since seen people driving up to 101 mph on his 35 mph road and has measured 33,250 speeders going 15 mph above the limit — over the threshold for legal recklessness – during daylight hours.

While the account has generated attention, Perelstein hopes it might catch the eye of the N.C. Department of Transportation, which owns Roxboro Street. And there’s the rub. While Perelstein and others want big changes to Roxboro Street, the NCDOT, which owns the street, has the final say. 

Chris Perelstein’s rooftop camera captures speeding cars on Roxboro Street. Photo by Abigail Bromberger — The 9th Street Journal

Perelstein is not the only Durhamite advocating for changes to his street and neighboring Mangum Street. On March 12, over 200 people came to a public meeting to discuss the scheduled repavement of Roxboro and Mangum. The repavement follows a recommendation from a 2020 city study to convert the one-way stretch of Roxboro from the I-85 interchange to Lakewood Ave. to a two-way. 

Members of Safe Streets Durham, an organization run by Bike Durham and neighborhood volunteers, are asking for a complete redesign of the street with pedestrians and bikers in mind, including conversion to a two-way street.

“We got involved as we were hearing from neighbors from along the corridor that were expressing interest in safe streets and wanting to make sure that this opportunity wouldn’t pass by,” Bike Durham Director John Tallmadge said.

Two-way streets tend to reduce vehicle speeds due to visual friction, according to Tallmadge. Seeing oncoming traffic in the other direction sends a signal to drivers to slow down. Tallmadge envisions a potential Roxboro Street where bikers feel more comfortable riding due to decreased speeds.

Sixty-five years ago, Roxboro and Mangum — which connect traffic from NC 147, to downtown Durham, to I-85 — used to be two-way. In 1959, the streets were converted to one-way in an effort to increase traffic flow in and out of downtown during rush-hour periods.

The call for a return to two-way traffic on Roxboro and Mangum has united families with children, avid bikers and local entrepreneurs who say that walkability is good for business. 

Carl Rist, a City Council member who serves on the city’s Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Commission and the Durham Chapel-Hill Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization, acts as a liaison between community members and the city for the repavement project.

“I think there’s an impatience,” Rist said of the project. “‘Why is it taking so long?’”

The 2022 opening of the East End connector — which links the Durham Freeway and U.S. 70 — redirected traffic that used Roxboro and Mangum by about 20%, according to the repavement project’s website. This makes it an optimal time for redesigning two residential streets that aren’t designed for the high speeds seen today, says city Department of Transportation Director Sean Egan.

Roxboro and Mangum are among many state-owned Durham streets, along with Gregson and Duke. The city’s oldest and most heavily trafficked streets tend to be state-owned, Egan explained.

“We also tend to see the highest number of fatalities and serious injuries on those state-owned surface streets,” Egan said.

John Sandor, the NCDOT district engineer for Durham County, says the state will consider a number of things before converting Roxboro and Mangum to two-way.

“How many cars use this road every day? You’re creating congestion, which is going to make it very challenging to handle that same amount of cars. Where are those cars going to go?” Sandor said.

“Are they going to use smaller streets? Are they going to go through neighborhoods now? Are they going to upset neighbors? There’s a lot of things that have to be considered to really understand the ramifications of a decision like that.”

NCDOT will look to the city to address these potential issues before they move forward with the project. Sandor also wants to avoid making a decision based on resident wishes alone, given the important role Roxboro and Mangum play in many people’s commutes.

“We have a bigger responsibility than just those citizens that live down in that corridor.”

He also questions the assumption that a two-way street design will prove safer for pedestrians and vehicles.

“Has it been done successfully? I think you’ll see a mixed bag of results. It’s not a magic pill that’s going to go in there and fix all these things for these people. It actually changes the road completely. Whereas if I’m a pedestrian on a one-way street, all I have to do is look one way, right?”

Currently, the Roxboro and Mangum street redesign project is in its engagement phase, with community members encouraged to attend open houses and meetings to give input. The city’s Department of Transportation has contracted with a traffic engineering firm that is analyzing the potential traffic patterns of a two-way street.

Community input is requested at upcoming pop-up events, including the Central Park Earth Day Festival on April 21 and the Bimbé Cultural Arts Festival on May 18. Durham residents can also leave comments on the project’s public survey or the interactive map until May 20.

If NCDOT approves it, the project will move forward to construction starting in 2026 and continuing through 2027. While the repavement itself is under the jurisdiction of the state, the city would be responsible for any traffic lights or other materials needed for the two-way conversion.

Roxboro and Mangum will serve as a trial run for Duke and Gregson, another pair of one-way streets with a serious crash history, according to Egan.

Meanwhile, the scheduled repavement of Roxboro and Mangum will likely move forward by this summer, Sandor said. If a decision about the two-way street design has not been reached, the streets might temporarily be repaved using the current one-way design, he said.

During his time as @RecklessRoxboro, Perelstein hasn’t seen a person hit yet.

“But it just feels like a matter of time, if we keep doing nothing about these conditions.”

Above: Chris Perelstein surveys Roxboro Street from the rooftop of his apartment building. Photo by Abigail Bromberger — The 9th Street Journal