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Durham tries to break up the love affair between commuters and their cars

In front of the entrance to Duke University Hospital on Erwin Road, Lynn Brandon stood with her daughter late one afternoon, waiting for the bus after a long day of work at the hospital. Brandon has a car, but chooses to ride the bus for one simple reason: “Convenience.” She doesn’t have to worry about parking, and the No. 11 bus takes her straight home.

Darius Brown, another Durhamite waiting at the stop, was using the bus that day because his car was in the shop. “Otherwise, I’d never take the bus for any reason,” he said.

Durham transit officials would love to lure more riders like Brandon and Brown. According to results from the 2017 GoDurham passenger survey, 63 percent of GoDurham riders do not have vehicles in their household. By increasing the number of riders who could use their own cars, the city’s transit agency reduces the number of cars that need parking and other services.

“Of course we want to respect the people who are already riding our buses, but we also want ridership to be more diverse,” said Anne Phillips, who handles the city’s Transportation Demand Management program. “The cost of land in Durham is going up, and it’s more expensive to make parking lots and infrastructure for cars.”

One strategy: working with employers to provide incentives to employees to ride the bus more by offering benefits such as a discounted GoPass and educating people on how the GoDurham system operates throughout the city.

“We want commuters to not depend on their car, especially those who work downtown,” she said.

What’s the deal with Seattle?

It’s difficult to separate commuters and their cars, said Steven Polein,director of urban mobility research at the University of South Florida’s Center for Urban Transportation. In fact, car ownership has gone up in recent years and use of public transit has declined.

“Cars have become very affordable with interest rates, so a lot of transit people are leaving it and we’ve seen a pretty significant decline pretty much all across the country with very few exceptions,” he said. “Auto availability is at its highest level, and if people have a vehicle they’re dramatically less likely to use public transportation.”

Survey results show that 68 percent of bus riders use GoDurham to get to work, and 75 percent make less than $24,999 a year.

Polein said improvements to transit systems don’t necessarily get more people to ride. “Transit is doing what it can to stay in the game. A number of systems are making efforts to speed up bus service, increase frequency, or lower the number of stops, making them more attractive,” he said. “But the reality is, unless you have intense development (that drives up the cost of parking and congestion), it’s a challenging competition.”

Ride-share apps like Uber and Lyft have also captured the ridership of a “non-trivial share of folks” who would otherwise have used public transit, according to Polein. Environmental factors can play a factor as well: Some cities like Washington have systems with severe maintenance issues, while San Francisco has chronic problems with homelessness and unsanitary conditions that deter people from using the buses.

One city that has beaten the odds is Seattle, which enjoyed such an incredible jump in bus ridership between 2010 and 2014 that, according to CityLab, “at its peak in 2015 around 78,000 people, or about one in five Seattle workers, rode the bus to work.”

Seattle has an urban environment that’s perfect to encourage bus ridership, with very congested roads and not enough parking in many of its central downtown areas. The city also “implemented substantial increases in bus service as they planned long-term investments in light rail lines,” according to StreetsBlog USA. The Seattle Department of Transportation funded repairs for traffic-heavy routes and inefficient bus stops that had been causing problems.

Seattle voters showed they were willing to pitch in. In 2014, voters approved a measure that increased the sales tax and implemented a vehicle license fee in order to raise about $45 million annually for transit.


Providing more incentives

GoDurham wants more employers to provide workers with incentives to ride the bus.

Duke University is the largest GoPass provider in Durham. It offers a GoPass card to all its students for free, and “eligible faculty and staff” can buy one for $25. The card “is a free transit pass offered to employees and tenants by the employer… Tenants and employees ride for free for one year on all transit routes in the Triangle with any agency.” Other Durham employers that provide GoPasses include American Underground, Suntrust, the ad agency McKinney, and the City of Durham.

GoTriangle hosts the Golder Modes Awards each year in order to “recognize companies, organizations and people who best use their resources to influence Triangle employees and university students to pursue smart commuting options.”

Last year, one of the winners was Christi Turner, Facilities Operations Program Facilitator at Red Hat, a software development company, in downtown Raleigh. Red Hat provides GoPasses to its employees, as well as a bike-share program, and it also organizes R line events that encourage coworkers to get comfortable with riding the bus.

Another winner was the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, which got recognized for its “efforts toward improving air quality and reducing congestion in the Triangle region” using a tremendously successful bike share program that encouraged employees to take breaks and bike around the neighborhood.

But Polein is skeptical whether benefits like these actually encourage more people to ride. “Customers generally require a very high-quality level of service,” he said. “They want it to be speedy, safe, modern, convenient, and flexible, and even then, it may not be enough.”

Photo by Katie Nelson

City wins $1 million Bloomberg grant to encourage alternatives to driving

Durham’s efforts to encourage commuters to find alternatives to their cars have won the city $1 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies.

The Durham Mayors Challenge Team has been working on a pilot program since the city was selected as one of 35 finalists in the U.S. Mayors Challenge in February. The program worked with 1,586 downtown employees to encourage “new modes and routes for downtown commuters and introducing health, money and time benefits of not driving a car.”

The project included a planning tool that provided commuters with personalized routes and, mapped options for stops, time comparisons, and benefits. The employees who used the tool were 12 percent more likely to use alternative transportation over driving alone.

The city also used a GoDurham bus lottery, which turned riding the bus into a friendly competition. Commuters who played the game reported using alternative transport 19 percent more, and “reported a higher level of happiness and lower levels of stress” throughout the pilot.

Funding for this “test and learn” phase, which lasted 6 months, came from Bloomberg Philanthropies, which provided each of the 35 finalists with $100,000 in grants as well as technical support.

Now, with the $1 million prize, Durham will begin implementing these programs in order to tackle its more significant mobility  problems: “The city’s parking capacity and budget for street-maintenance can’t keep pace with residents’ dependency on single-occupancy vehicles, negatively affecting more than 34,000 downtown employees.”

The city’s goal is to reduce the number of cars in downtown Durham by 5 percent, about 800 vehicles, to reduce the demand on parking and local roads.

Got wealth? You need it to be on the City Council

The Durham City Council is an elite group: attorney, attorney, Duke professor, pastor, “non-profit administrator,” consultant and a game developer.

The lofty jobs reflect a disparity between the city’s elected officials and their constituents. It also reflects the reality of the demands of serving on the Council.

Of the six members that spoke to the 9th Street Journal, four—Javiera Caballero, Jillian Johnson, Mark-Anthony Middleton and Charlie Reece—agreed that it is essentially a full-time job and it is difficult to serve unless you’re independently wealthy.

“It’s a full-time job—or it ought to be a full-time job, given the size of the city, its rate of its growth and the enormity of the operation,” Middleton said. “It’s billed as a part-time job, but if you’re going to do it justice, it’s not a part-time job.”

Mayor Steve Schewel and Council Member Vernetta Alston were more skeptical about that notion, but even they are open to changes to make the office more accessible.

“Should this be something where people are expected to do it full-time and make a living? To me, that’s definitely an open question,” Schewel told the 9th Street Journal.

Job has turned full-time

A spot on the City Council was supposed to be part-time—and pay accordingly. But with the burgeoning city approaching a population of 270,000, demands on the Council have grown, leading council members to say it’s really a full-time job.

“Historically, I don’t think our role was supposed to be conceived of as a full-time job. But Durham has grown exponentially. Our problems are bigger,” Caballero said. “I don’t know if there was intent when it was created that they only wanted a certain profile. But It has limited who is on Council.”

In addition to biweekly City Council meetings and weekday afternoon work sessions that can each last several hours, council members are expected to meet with constituents and represent the city at community events. They get “countless requests” for their time and each serve on five to seven Council committees, Middleton said.

They’re never off duty, either.

“You’re trying to put ice cream in your mouth and somebody’s asking you about property taxes,” Middleton said.

All that time adds up. And that prevents a large segment of Durham residents from being able to afford the time commitment.

It pays just over just over $21,000 annually—an obstacle for those without independent wealth. Even the mayor makes just $25,084.  

“Right now…you’re being excluded economically from the ability to represent the community, unless you have a certain amount of economic privilege—or you’ll run yourself ragged trying to work the Council job and have a full-time job,” Johnson said.

Reece was the general counsel for a pharmaceutical company and tried to make both the Council and his full-time legal job work. Over time, the Harvard graduate couldn’t swing it. Reece said he mostly knew what he signed up for when he decided to run for the job, but it ended up being somewhat more time-consuming than he had previously thought.

“At times the combined workload made it difficult to spend as much time with my family as I would have liked,” Reece said. “That’s not to say that anyone should feel sorry for me.”

City Council members are supposed to be able to keep their outside jobs. But that hasn’t happened for Reece and several other council members.

“The people of the city of Durham demand more than that from their Council members, and the job reflects that reality even though the pay does not,” Reece said. “Unless you’re independently wealthy, or retired, or have a spouse or partner who earns enough money to support your family, it’s very hard to make this work.”

Also a pastor and a radio show host, Middleton said he spends more than 40 hours per week on his City Council work. He doesn’t have a family or kids and loves politics, so he doesn’t mind.

Another barrier: meetings are often held during the day when many people are working.

“If we want….to say we’re a super progressive city—and in many ways we are—then all kinds of folks need to be able to serve,” Caballero said.  

The wealthy run government nationwide

Across the nation, elected offices tend to be dominated by the well-to-do.

This trend transcends Durham, as Nicholas Carnes, Creed C. Black associate professor of public policy and political science at Duke, said in his new book, “The Cash Ceiling: Why Only the Rich Run For Office—And What We Can Do About It.” If millionaires—just 3 percent of the population—had their own political party, they would hold a majority in all three branches of government, Carnes wrote.

“Working-class Americans—people employed in manual labor, service industry, or clerical jobs —almost never go on to hold political office in the United States,” Carnes wrote.

This prevents working-class perspectives from being heard, Carnes argued—ideas that are fundamentally different from those more well-to-do.

Eighty-one percent of state legislators that are business owners want to reduce government regulation in the private sector, while just 27 percent of workers in office agree, Carnes said in the book, citing three studies. Sixty-one percent of business owners in that office believe providing health care is not the government’s responsibility, while just seven percent of working-class workers believe the same.

“Government by the rich is often government for the rich,” Carnes said, “and government for the rich is often bad for everyone else.”

Can the job be done part-time?

Alston and Schewel say the City Council can be done part-time.

Schewel, a workaholic, said he worked 20 hours as a week as a Duke professor while on the Council—for which he worked 40 hours per week before becoming mayor. His new role as mayor can’t be done part-time, he said—he’s putting in 70 hours per week.

Alston said it’s difficult to do part-time, but not “impossible.”

“It’s a lot to carry, but if folks are committed and can create their own capacity to work, then it certainly can be done,” Alston said.

You don’t have to be independently wealthy to be on the Council, Schewel and Alston also agreed. On the City Council before the current group, five council members worked and one was retired, but not independently wealthy, Schewel said.  

“Most of the people worked and were not independently wealthy,” Schewel said.

But he acknowledged that it takes significant resources to run for City Council—not necessarily financial, though. Time and energy to campaign, education on “what it takes to do this” and having a network for fundraising are all crucial.

Education level can be more important than finances—the job requires certain sorts of skills, Alston argued.

“It’s a job that requires critical thinking skills and significant high-level time management skills,” Alston said.  

Six of seven council members are listed as having a college degree and four received or are in process of earning some kind of graduate degree.

Supporting a family can also be a complicating factor. Schewel said that since five council members have young children, that extra time needed to care for them has made it more difficult for many to work outside of the City Council.

“It’s really hard to raise young children, work significant hours at a job, and serve on the city council,” Schewel said. “It’s very hard to do them all.”

Time for a pay raise?

Council members tiptoed around the possibility of a pay increase. None mentioned it explicitly.

Middleton said he would only vote for an increase that would take effect after he was out of office.

“I have not heard anyone say that the idea of increasing the compensation of Durham City Council members is at the top (of) their policy agenda for the city of Durham,” Reece said. “After all, each one of us knew the salary when we filed to run for this job.”

However, all six council members the 9th Street Journal spoke with were open to raising council members’ pay.

“Everyone who sits on Council wouldn’t mind a pay raise,” Caballero said. “I don’t think any of us are going to ask for it.”

Reece is in favor of paying council members a living wage.  

“I believe that the people of this city expect that members of the Durham City Council will work full-time to represent their interests,” Reece said. “Our current salary does not match up with that expectation, and that’s bad for our city because it makes it very difficult for many folks to serve.”

Schewel is open to considering making the role full-time and paid a “living wage”—something many of his colleagues agreed with.

“Having the Council job be explicitly a full-time role and paid at the rate of a full-time job would allow folks who don’t have the economic privilege I have to be entirely focused on the Council work,” Johnson said.

Alston isn’t opposed to raising council members’ salary, but also wants candidates to be running for office for the right reasons—not to line their pockets. She said she would forgo a salary increase in order to have a hired staff worker, making a living wage and working for her.

Middleton would advocate for a pay raise—but one that would only take effect once he was out of office.

“In any other area, you realize that in order to get good people, you have to compensate,” Middleton said. “All my colleagues are champions of a living wage, but we don’t make a living wage.”

Scooters coming to Durham, but questions linger

A scooter swarm will soon be coming to Durham.

After weeks of deliberations, the City Council unanimously approved an ordinance to regulate the use of motorized scooters Monday night. At least 100 Bird scooters will hit the streets once the company receives permits—although there could be more.

“It always depend on the size of city,” said Servando Esparza, senior manager of government relations for Bird. “Our deployments and growth are based on demand.”

Residents can “realistically” expect to be able to ride scooters in 2019, transportation planner Bryan Poole told the Durham Herald-Sun.

Many questions still have to be worked out, though.

Esparza couldn’t give a definitive answer on whether Bird would be able to accept Faith ID’s—identification for undocumented, Spanish-speaking residents, provided by

El Centro Hispano, a local Hispanic advocacy and social services organization.

That frustrated council member Mark-Anthony Middleton, who said he had pushed Bird representatives for an answer to that question during the council’s work session Oct. 4.

“This council was very concerned the accessibility of the scooters, and ID was one of those factors that could curtail access. A lot of people don’t have driver’s licenses,” Middleton said.

Esparza also said that he couldn’t give an estimate on when he would be able to provide the council with an answer. The ordinance does not have a requirement that permittees accept certain forms of identification.

“We have to continue to push vendors to make scooters as accessible as possible,” said council member Charlie Reece.

Companies will be required to drop a “sufficient number” of scooters within “low and moderate income areas…as defined in the permit.” The city will also require companies to accept diverse payment types, including methods for those without smartphones or credit cards.

There also had been controversy about whether scooters would be defined as mopeds under North Carolina law, but that was not resolved by the new ordinance.

Scooters may be deemed mopeds, which would require them to have license plates, lights and rearview mirrors. Bird and Lime bikes do not have rearview mirrors or license plates, but they do have lights.

The ordinance was changed to define the scooters as “‘vehicles’ (without reference to mopeds).”

However, it still requires the companies to “comply with applicable local, state and federal laws, including state equipment and registration requirements.”

Senior City Attorney Fred Lamar says that it is up to the state, not the city,  to regulate vehicle use on the roadways.

“We have not heard anything definitively from the DMV,” Lamar said. “There are lawyers that don’t think it’s a moped.”

The ordinance requires that riders wear helmets.

But it’s not clear how much the police will actually enforce that provision or any other aspect of the law. The police department said in a statement that it will “address violations of the law that present an obvious and immediate risk to public safety.

Addressing violations may entail notice to the Transportation Department so that it may pursue civil penalties against the business owners/operators,” the statement read

However, since scooter riders aren’t required to carry a license, the police department is limited in the type of citations it could issue. The statement continued, “ … the Police Department does not anticipate being the primary agent for the regulation of these devices.”

Although Durham’s ordinance only requires that scooter drivers be 16 years old, Bird’s policies require drivers to be 18 years old. The ordinance leaves the decision for any age requirement above 16 up to the company, Poole said—a policy Bird does not plan on changing, Esparza said, noting that in most cities, the age requirement is 18.  

The new ordinance also attempts to address the piles of scooters that may be left behind—something painfully familiar to what the city saw with Lime and Spin bikes. Companies will be required to move their scooters before they are parked in the same spot for 72 hours.

The Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission noted in a Sept. 18 letter that the Transportation Department is planning to create designated parking spots for shared bikes and scooters.

The city will charge $1,000 for companies to apply for permits and will charge $100 per shared scooter that hits the streets. It also will charge $50 for electric-assisted bikes and $25 for bikes that aren’t blessed with electric assistance.

Analysis: Five lessons Durham can learn from other cities’ scooter mishaps

I was sitting a few rows away from Durham City Council member Charlie Reece when he recounted his trip to Raleigh to try out the Triangle’s newest transportation fad: It’s not light rail (sorry, Steve), but electric scooters.

He said the experience was “very instructive on both the promise and the peril of these devices,” and then urged the Council to postpone the vote on Durham’s scooter ordinance.

After covering scooters in Charlotte last summer, I couldn’t believe that Durham was joining the many cities stumped by the challenge of regulating scooters.

Companies such as Bird are releasing rental scooters in cities across the United States. Yet, it’s as if each city has to reinvent the wheel by passing its own scooter rules.

And the clock is ticking. Scooter companies have been known to deploy their fleets quickly before cities can enact regulations.

In Charlotte last spring, Lime was ordered to remove its scooters after their release. When Bird descended on Raleigh earlier this summer, lawmakers chose to let them operate while they scrambled to establish rules.

To avoid this Hitchcockian nightmare, Durham must now decide how to best navigate this seemingly lawless landscape. Based on my time writing about and occasionally riding Charlotte’s scooters, I have some suggestions for the city and Durham residents who are likely to see scooters on their streets and sidewalks very soon:

1. Are scooters street legal? 

Durham residents gave high marks to the first year of the dockless bike share program. But if there’s any indication that regulating bikes and scooters is getting hairier, it’s the name of the proposed ordinance: Shared Active Transportation.

The euphemism speaks to the complexity of regulating very different types of vehicles.

There’s also debate over whether or not scooters are a good fit for the city’s roads – and how they should be classified.

Under North Carolina law, electric scooters may be considered mopeds, which triggers certain requirements: The scooters must have lights, license plates, and rearview mirrors. Bird and Lime scooters have lights, but not license plates or rearview mirrors.

This makes it seem like either state law needs to change or the scooters need an upgrade.

Some believe the moped designation doesn’t apply to scooters. Shea Denning, professor of public law and government at UNC-Chapel Hill, wrote in a blog post that she doesn’t think the legislature or the Department of Transportation had stand-up scooters in mind when they created definitions for different types of vehicles, including mopeds.

In a statement, the Department of Transportation said, “It is unclear how state laws apply to electric scooters.” The statement also directs people to follow traffic laws and be aware of local ordinances.

Durham’s interpretation is that scooters fall into the moped category, according to Bryan Poole, a transportation planner with the city. So companies will need to show that they meet all of the moped requirements in the state law in order to receive a permit.

“Alternatively, the state law needs to change and/or the DMV needs to issue some type of interim guidance on how to classify electric scooters,” Poole said in an email.

2. Wear a helmet.

Whether they’re fleeing freezing office buildings or dressed up for a night on the town (which, in Charlotte, means brewery hopping), adults riding scooters is a common, though somewhat cringeworthy, sight.

But these two-wheelers aren’t like your beloved childhood Razor scooter; they accelerate quickly, topping out at 15 mph. And while it’s recommended that users wear helmets, few actually do.

Bird will mail a helmet to riders if people request one, but that doesn’t help you if your dinner reservation is in 20 minutes.

Durham’s proposed scooter ordinance does include specific direction on helmets: “Persons operating motorized scooters must be at least 16 years old and wear a helmet.”

If the ordinance passes, then it will be up to law enforcement to hold people accountable for wearing helmets.

California cities from Beverly Hills to San Diego have cracked down on scooter safety. Now, helmetless riders run the risk of getting a ticket and paying hundreds of dollars.

Instead, Durham could partner with local businesses to set out bins with helmets that riders can borrow. People who use and return the helmet could get a discount on their ride. (The idea is to improve safety without increasing ticketing, which often creates a financial burden for low-income members of the community who are intended to benefit from these transportation programs.)

3. Plan for parking.

The influx of dockless bikes turned Durham’s sidewalks into a jungle of discarded Lime and Spin bikes. Scooters may initially bring a similar surge, with people leaving them pretty much everywhere.

Luckily, as more people use the vehicles, they tend to disperse into neighborhoods, freeing up downtown. And Poole said he thinks people will adapt.

“We don’t think about all the cars parked in our downtown, but when we saw 100 bikes, it was all of a sudden a travesty,” Poole said.

However, there’s no question that if vehicles are discarded irresponsibly, they can create serious hazards, especially for people with disabilities.

With scooters coming, too, Durham is considering innovative ways to minimize parking problems. For instance, Poole proposed converting parking spaces for cars into areas designated for shared dockless bikes and scooters.

This could be a great solution. It’s also important to remember that scooters are charged overnight and then neatly parked the next morning, so they shouldn’t pile up.

4. Durham, don’t settle for less.

The scooter ordinance would hike fees for bike and scooter sharing to $100 per scooter, $50 per electric assist bike, and $25 per non-motorized bike.

Last year, the city only charged $10 per bike.

A Bird representative who spoke before the City Council complained that the fee is “one of the higher ones of all the cities we operate in.”

But, let’s face it, dockless bikes and scooters pose plenty of logistical challenges, and Durham should charge a fair price for the additional services it will need to provide. From city officials and police to attorneys and neighborhood improvement services, the bikes and scooters siphon time and resources away from other projects.

The revenue will help pay for administration as well as infrastructure for bikes and scooters, according to Poole.

The ordinance also streamlines data collection for the city. Last year, Durham had trouble obtaining data it requested from bike companies, making it difficult to enforce the requirement that 20 percent of bikes to be in certain census tracts at all times.

When Uber and Lyft debuted across the country, local governments were complacent about regulating the companies. One of the major consequences was that cities didn’t have access to data to help inform decisions about traffic and transportation infrastructure.

This data will help ensure that Durham isn’t in the dark, giving the city the tools to enforce equitable access to bikes and scooters.

5. Looking for a new side hustle?

Last summer, I wrote about people who make money from scooters while they sleep. They pick up scooters at the end of the day, charge them overnight, and return them the next morning.

And they make bank. Some earn $200 a night, for only a few hours of work.

The pay is good if you are able to charge many scooters a night, but as more people sign up to be chargers, the two-wheelers get harder to find.

(Photo by Elizabeth Rennie)

This story has been updated with new information based on a more recent version of the Shared Active Transportation ordinance that will be reviewed at the Durham City’s Council’s work session on October 4.

Durham City Council approves appointed Racial Equity Task Force

After expanding the group to increase diversity, the Durham City Council Monday unanimously approved the appointment of 17 city residents to its new Racial Equity Task Force.

The group will make recommendations to the council on how to make Durham a more “racially equitable” city, according to Mayor Steve Schewel.

“Systemic racism and racial inequality continue to permeate our American society and Durham is no exception,” Schewel told the 9th Street Journal. “We have to make every effort to change that.”

North Carolina Superior Court Judge Elaine O’Neal, interim dean of the North Carolina Central University School of Law, will chair the task force.

The group will likely investigate issues such as poverty, housing, policing and healthcare over its one-year term, Schewel said. Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson will serve as a non-voting advisor to the task force.

First announced by Schewel in February, the task force was originally supposed to have 12 members.

However, the council agreed to a group of 17 after council member Mark-Anthony Middleton objected to the lack of black men in the original group of 12.  Schewel said the council was planning to add two at-large black men to those elected, but they ultimately pushed that total up to four by expanding the task force to 17 members.

The Durham Herald-Sun reported that the task force consists of five black women, four black men, four white women, two white men and two Latina women.

Sixty citizens applied to an open call for applicants that closed in August, Schewel said. Members of the committee were requested to have completed racial equity training within the previous five years or become trained by two months after being appointed. The city offered subsidies for the training.

Councilmembers respond to NC Central shooting

On Monday, N.C. Central students protested the shooting of DeAndre Ballard, who was a 23-year old senior when he was shot in the parking lot of his off-campus apartment in September.

Ballard was shot by a security guard, whose company claims the killing was in self-defense.

Two members of the public voiced their concerns ahead of the vote on the racial equity task force, saying racial equity should include equity in policing. City Manager Thomas Bonfield emphasized that the shooting is still under investigation and that Durham police are still waiting on a number of lab tests.

“Please do not label silence as non-vigilance and non-concern,” Middleton added. “This investigation is ongoing and active.”

Freeman pushes contractors on diversity

Councilmember DeDreana Freeman continued Monday to question potential city contractors about their commitment to diversity.

After a five-year study commissioned in 2013 that found only 3 percent of contracts it awarded were to minority and women-owned firms, the city set goals for minority and women business participation. Freeman said she was concerned by the lack of diversity at Transforce Inc., which was approved to sell the city 11 replacement dump trucks for a price tag of nearly $1.7 million.

“Most of my experience was outside the United States, living and working in 49 countries, so I’m very well aware of what diversity can bring to a company,” said Matt Walsh, Transforce vice president of sales. “We are making strong efforts to gain that diversity.”

Walsh said Transforce has made “marked improvements” in diversity in the two years he has been with the company.

Freeman also asked for workforce diversity statistics from Freese and Nichols, Inc. for a $1.2 million engineering project and to accept a fencing donation for Durham Miracle Athletic Park from Miracle League of the Triangle, Inc. Bonfield pushed back on Freeman, saying that they traditionally had not required diversity statistics on those sorts of deals.

In spite of Freeman’s objections, The Council unanimously approved both contracts—including Freeman’s votes.

Freeman applauded Sharp Business Systems of North Carolina—which was awarded a nearly $500,000 contract for multi-functional devices—for its commitment to diversity.

Government alerts missed some residents at risk for flooding

Before Hurricane Florence, officials at the Durham City/County Emergency Management Agency had a simple goal: to alert people in low-lying areas when floodwaters were coming.   

The agency made hundreds of automated calls and sent scores of text messages that said, “Your business or residence has been identified as one that has previously flooded or may be at risk for flooding due to precipitation from Hurricane Florence. Please make evacuation plans for yourself and pets just in case the flood waters rise rapidly.”

But the messages failed to reach many people in the targeted areas.

After an inquiry from The 9th Street Journal, the agency acknowledged the calls and text messages didn’t reach as many people as officials hoped. They said many residents didn’t sign up for the Alert Durham service, had unlisted phone numbers or simply hung up when they received the automated calls.

Emergency Management Director Jim Groves said his department would work to improve the notification system.

“If we can’t reach the public or deliver the right message or get them to take the right protection action that we’re recommending, we’re not doing a very good job,” he said.

Drew Street before and after the flooding on Sept. 17.

The 9th Street Journal asked about the plan after hearing from residents of flood-prone areas that they weren’t notified.

That included two people who live on Drew Street in East Durham, Jamila Verbal and Kermit Smith. Neither had registered for Alert Durham, nor had they apparently been included in the database of publicly listed phone numbers provided by a vendor that the agency also uses to find residents.

Groves said it would work with its vendor, Everbridge, to upload a more “robust” set of resident data. The agency will also continue to advertise its Alert Durham service to get people to opt in on their own.

Groves said one limiting factor is that his department does not have access to the same database as 911 due to “regulation restrictions.”

“If we had access to the same database as 911, we’d be able to reach everyone,” Groves said.

Randy Beeman, emergency communications center director, said that the agency could not share its database due to confidentiality regulations. North Carolina law states that 911 database information is “confidential and not a public record” and can only be shared on a “call-by-call basis only for the purpose of handling emergency calls or for training.”

“It’s not a public record that can be shared or requested,” said Kimberly Rehberg, senior city attorney.

With the limited database, the county’s efforts failed to reach many residents. In one area identified as flood-prone for an alert sent Sept. 12, just eight people confirmed the message, while contact information for 39 was incorrect and 101 people hung up, Groves said.

“It’s really a tough, hard deal to get people prepared to receive emergency information and take information based on what that message says,” Groves said.

The area around Drew Street was flooded by the Sept. 17 torrential downpour. Water flowed like a river through neighboring Drew/Granby Park. A parked truck on Drew Street was nearly halfway submerged.

Drew Street resident Jamila Verbal, who leases one of the residences on the street, said she did not sign up for Alert Durham and was not listed in the database on Drew Street. Verbal was faced with flooding on Drew St. starting at 5 a.m. on Sept. 17.

“They should alert us, and they have a responsibility to fix it too, especially when we’ve got kids,” Verbal’s boyfriend, Tevin Wimbush, said.

Verbal and Wimbush said the residence is prone to flooding, even during normal storms.

“This ain’t nothing compared to what we’ve seen before,” Wimbush said.

Verbal’s neighbor on Drew Street, Kermit Smith, also said that he had not received any notification regarding flood risk. Smith was not listed at Drew Street in the database and said he did not sign up for Alert Durham.

Groves noted that it is more difficult to reach impoverished communities—which often are in flood hazard areas—with emergency messages because people often do not have the technology to receive such messages. Nearly 40 percent of residents on Drew Street and in closely surrounding areas live below the poverty line, with a median household income of $23,281, according to

Even when the messages do reach these communities, it can be more difficult to convince people to take protective action, Groves said.

“Sometimes, you might have a very strong personality that says no, we’re not going anywhere. That puts the family at risk,” Groves said.

Groves urged people to sign up for Alert Durham.

“That’s how we can make sure we can notify them if they need to evacuate, instead of relying on the Whitepages data,” Groves said.

Those who do not feel comfortable registering with address information can text their zip code to 888777 to register for Alert Durham notifications for their zip code, he said.

Cyclists worry that new Durham plan is just paint

The city of Durham is planning 10 miles of new bike lanes, but some cyclists are concerned the city is simply painting new lines and not providing them with enough protection.

“More bike lanes are going to incentivize new bikers, which is great, but many of them won’t be prepared for conflict zones,” said Landis Masnor, chair of Bike Durham, at a public meeting Saturday.

On posters at the meeting, Post-it notes were used to mark areas where cyclists want more protection.

Bike Durham is an advocacy group for affordable transportation and bicycle safety. The group sent several representatives to the meeting, which sought input on the proposed bike lanes.

“Our goal with this project is to fill out gaps in the network,” said Bryan Poole, a bicycle and pedestrian transportation planner for the city. “We’re expecting bike advocates to come, look at our plans and tell us their personal concerns.”

Many cyclists said painted lines aren’t enough and that they were worried about the lack of physical barriers such as plants or poles separating them from cars. But Chris Allen, an engineer with Alta Planning & Design, a city consultant, said the funding for this particular project is limited to painting bike lanes.

“We’re using peoples’ input to decide where to cut back on street parking, to allow for a buffered bike lane and more space for bikers,” he said. “But we’re limited to the width of existing lanes.”

Cyclists at the meeting kept pointing out areas where they wanted some kind of divider to separate them from cars.

Masnor pointed out one stretch of road on Stadium Drive just south of Kirkwood Drive that forces bikers from their own lane onto a “sharrow,” a marking on the street that signals bikers and cars can share the lane.

“So you get used to biking protected in your own lane, and then suddenly it’s gone and you’re sharing the road with cars,” he said. “It’s incredibly dangerous.”

Studies have found that sharrows don’t necessarily reduce crashes, despite still being a popular and affordable choice for cities looking to improve their infrastructure.

“More people are riding bikes in Durham. We need to be asking, is bad infrastructure going to cost people’s lives?” said David Bradway, a devoted cyclist and member of Bike Durham.

Bradway bikes daily from his home to Duke University’s campus with his daughter, and he is concerned about how well Duke and the city of Durham address bikers’ safety.

City officials say they are trying. Last year, the City Council adopted the Vision Zero Durham Resolution, a “commitment to eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries on Durham roadways.”

If you’re perplexed by the Durham alerts, reply YES to confirm

A storm is brewing, threatening disaster. Your phone buzzes with an urgent message from Alert Durham warning you of chaos that lies ahead. But it closes with an odd request:

“Reply with YES to confirm receipt.”

Seriously, Alert Durham? There’s no time to chat while preparing for an apparent apocalypse! Why does someone need to reply?

When you get a text message from Alert Durham, do you really need to reply?

The same thing happens with the email alert. “This is an important message from Alert Durham!” the message says. “Please click here to acknowledge receipt of this message.

Alert Durham is a service of the city-county emergency office that provides text messages, emails and phone calls that warn about dangers such as flash floods, tornadoes and severe thunderstorms.

But why is it so nosey? Why does Durham need to know if people received the message? And do they ever answer?

According to Jim Groves, director of Durham’s Emergency Management Center, “the vast majority of folks don’t respond.”

Groves explained that the purpose of these messages is so that the notification system knows not to contact your other devices once you’ve confirmed the receipt of one. So if you’ve signed up for Alert Durham texts, emails, and calls, the email and call will be blocked if you reply “Yes” to the text first.

And don’t worry if you’ve replied with wisecracks. Groves assured The 9th Street Journal that the only texts Alert Durham processes are ones with the word “Yes,” so if you’ve been sending in longing messages about how emotionally exhausted you are from the exchange, Alert Durham has not been listening.

Everbridge, the critical event managing platform that provides alert systems to Durham as well as several counties in the research triangle, has a vast network of call centers that make it reliable even throughout tough weather.

The company began operations in 2002, in the wake of 9/11, with the mission of notifying people of critical information throughout a disaster. Its alert system operates globally, and served a crucial role in emergency relief efforts throughout Hurricane Sandy and the Boston Marathon bombings.

Even though relatively few people click to confirm or text YES to reply, those that do avoid getting duplicate messages. And during the storms prompted by Florence last weekend, Groves said, “the system worked flawlessly.”

Florence power outage? You can still expect to have safe running water

Even if power is out, Durham residents can expect to have their water running throughout Hurricane Florence and its aftermath, Durham city manager Bo Ferguson said.

“If water is coming out of the tap, which it should be, it is safe,” Ferguson said at a press conference Tuesday on Durham’s response to the storm.

Ferguson said that Durham’s city water system is designed to operate during and after a storm, with backup power for water treatment facilities. The only problem Ferguson said that could arise would be a water main break, which can also happen outside of extreme weather. But there is no reason to believe there will be any abnormal effect on the water supply from the hurricane or a water main break.

Jim Groves, Durham Emergency Management Director and Fire Marshal, said messages would be sent Wednesday to those that need to leave their homes due to flood risk.

Flooded streets may be more of a problem. With 10 to 12 inches of rain expected, Jim Groves, Durham Emergency Management Director and Fire Marshal, has identified areas that previously flooded where people were forced to move out of their residences, roads were closed or vehicles were damaged. Starting Wednesday, messages will be sent to residents in those areas notifying them to leave and ensure their vehicles are safe.

Evacuation shelters for those who do not feel safe in their homes will open at the Bahama Ruritan Club at noon Wednesday and at Hillside High School Wednesday at 6 p.m., Groves said. He warned that once sustained winds hit 40 mph or greater or gusts at 58 mph, emergency responders may not be responding.

“Please be accountable for your own safety, the safety of your family, of your relatives, of your pets. Please do not depend on us for your safety,” Groves said, adding that responders may not be able to respond to calls.

Strong winds from Florence are expected to begin affecting the Carolinas Thursday, and the National Hurricane Center predicts that flooding is likely in the Carolinas and the mid-Atlantic states through early next week.

Earlier Tuesday, both Durham City and Durham County signed declarations of emergency, Groves said. The declarations allow both municipalities to collect state and federal funding and loosen regulations for shelters to allow more capacity, Groves said.