The city of Durham used to rely on a simple approach to identify the roads that needed the most repairs: a technician driving around the city looking out the window.
Now the city has a newfangled approach: high-tech data collection vehicles with software that can paint a detailed map of the bumpiest roads.
Officials showed off the new vans at City Hall on Tuesday and said they would lead to better decisions about which roads to repair and resurface. The black and white vans, accented with yellow and red stripes, belong to Roadway Asset Services (RAS), a company hired by the Public Works Department to find problematic roads.
“The vans have got newer, brighter cameras that are going to give us better vision,” said RAS President Scot Gordon. “It’s more of an automated system. It’s more repeatable, it’s more reliable, and it takes away some of the personal subjectivity.”
For the next four months, the RAS vans will cruise around neighborhoods collecting data and images for an online database.
The vans might seem odd prowling through residential streets with a submarine-like antenna, cameras mounted on the front and the back, and multiple “CAUTION” decals. But Gordon said people will hardly notice them.
“The vans basically get out every day and they flow with traffic. They’re not stopping traffic. They’re not closing any roads. People aren’t even going to know they’re there,” he said.
The vans are scheduled to cover 40 to 50 miles of roads each day, collecting three types of data. An antenna camera will take a panoramic shot of a street with sidewalks, gutters, and street signs included. The back cameras will point straight down at the pavement and photograph cracking or weathering. The front cameras are the “profilers” that will record the smoothness of the road.
After all 1,497 lane miles of city roads have undergone a “pavement evaluation,” RAS analysts will look at the data and give each street a condition rating from 0-100. Once city officials have these numbers sometime next spring, the Public Works Department will use them to figure out the most cost-effective approach for maintenance. The project is being financed by the city’s annual pavement budget of $7 million.
Clint Blackburn, who runs the city’s pavement management program, says officials will likely opt for a preservation model that focuses on routine, preventative maintenance for all roads rather than the more expensive “worst first approach” that would fix the most problematic roads, but do little in the way of overall maintenance.
“We want to keep our good roads in good shape and then slowly work on those other problematic roads as we have money,” Blackburn said.
Durham residents say they’re tired of bumpy roads. The annual Durham City and County Resident Survey showed that 45% of Durhamites were dissatisfied with road maintenance. They ranked it in the top three issues that should receive the most attention from city leaders in the coming years.
Blackburn said the city’s goal is always to keep residents happy, but they might not see results right away.
“In the long term, we get a lot of great results and that’s going to protect us from wear over time, but at first, it’s kind of a shock to residents because it’s hard to see the change immediately.”
The city tries to educate Durhamites about this work through neighborhood meetings, but COVID-19 has made that difficult in the past year. According to Blackburn, hardly anyone attends the virtual meetings.
“Sometimes we get zero people. It’s hard to get the message out,” he said.
The city last assessed the roads in 2018 when the Public Works Department hired a contractor with similar data collection vehicles to RAS. (The results of that study can be found online in an interactive map in which roads are colored according to their condition rating. The average rating was 69 and slightly more than 25% of streets are highlighted orange, symbolizing poor condition.)
This year’s analysis should get even more accurate figures because of its use of AI algorithms rather than human analysts, officials said. They are part of a pilot program that will assign condition ratings automatically. Before, analysts had to consult a 98 page manual to identify and mark problems in the roads, now all they have to do is press a button.
Photo above: Durham has contracted with Roadway Asset Services to use its high-tech vans to assess city streets. The vans are equipped with cameras on the front, back and on an antenna. Photo by Nicole Kagan – The 9th Street Journal
The stoplight is red and the “OVERHEIGHT MUST TURN” sign flashes urgently as a semi-truck waits at the intersection. The driver has a moment to consider turning before impact with the railroad bridge above Gregson Street. Instead they keep going and approach the bridge at a crawl, hesitate, then charge on. Wrong move.
The crash on Nov. 13, 2020, was just one of more than 160 recorded in this very spot, the scars etched onto the bridge’s protective beam. The beam is the real foe, unmoving and unforgiving. Its scratches are an inventory of human error, of man versus metal (man losing).
The bridge at the Norfolk Southern–Gregson Street Underpass is known to the world as the Can Opener for the merciless way the beam peels the tops off of unsuspecting trucks. To watch it (160+ times!) is like seeing a giant hand pull the tab on a can of sardines and seeing the metal curve to unveil the prize within.
Since 2008, the Can Opener has developed a cult following well beyond Durham. The website 11foot8.com and its YouTube channel, operated by Jurgen Henn, an IT Manager for the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development, have shared videos of the crashes from cameras Henn set up at his office in nearby Brightleaf Square, and, later, in a shop kitty-corner to the bridge.
Henn, who has worked in Brightleaf Square since 2002, got the idea to start recording the videos after a couple of years of hearing trucks smashing into the beam. His YouTube channel had a slow start but now has 164,000 followers. A typical video will get more than 1 million views.
To understand the Can Opener, I watched every video. As I sat in cafes around Durham, I watched hours of scrapes, smashes and crashes, catalogued the human error, the reliability of steel, and the fragility of sheet metal and fiberglass. I laughed and gasped and winced. People stared.
This is what I learned, spiced with some quotes from police reports that give you a flavor of the action.
VEHICLE 1 WAS IN THE RIGHT LANE OF TRAFFIC TRAVELING SOUTH ON GREGSON ST WHEN IT COLLIDED WITH THE OVERHEAD BRIDGE GUARD JUST SOUTH OF W PEABODY ST
Drivers cause the crashes, but in the videos, you don’t see the people very much. They exist in the periphery: innocent bystanders shielding themselves from debris or drivers who jump out of the trucks and throw their hats in frustration. The trucks become animated and the people are minimized to supporting characters.
From what I could tell watching all the videos as well as reading accident reports and news coverage, very few injuries have been reported, and no one has died in the crashes. The majority of the harm seems to be to the drivers’ pride.
While each crash is its own special snowflake, I identified three main types of encounters: the Curious Cat, the Bullet, and the Barbershop Shave.
The Curious Cat takes a hesitant approach; like a troublemaking feline, the driver suspects something is amiss but can’t stop themselves from exploring. Their foot barely touching the gas, they ease toward the bridge. (Perhaps they believe if they are quiet enough, the Can Opener won’t notice the oversize trailer!) Then they hear the unmistakable bang and metallic scrape from above as the beam peels away their roof. Because they’ve gone slowly, some are able to shift into reverse and delicately extract themselves; others need to be rescued.
The Bullet is the most exciting of the Can Opener crashes. The driver approaches with velocity, seemingly unaware of the trap that lies ahead. The impact causes a whiplash, like a dog jerked back by their leash—the cabs sometimes lifted into the air by the impact of the beam. The top layer of aluminum is sometimes guillotined to varying degrees, usually triggering Newton’s first law (objects in motion stay in motion), ensnared where it is crumpled by the equal and opposite force of the wrinkled metal.
And then there is the Barbershop Shave. These trucks almost clear the height requirement, and usually make it most of the way through without much damage—but they leave with a kiss from the bridge. Debris rains down like rice at a wedding, marking union.
DRIVER 1 SAID THAT HIS TRUCK IS MEASURED AT 12’4”; SIGNAGE FOR THE OVERPASS INDICATED THE CLEARANCE IS 12’4”
The North Carolina Department of Transportation has futilely tried to stop the crashes over the years. When I spoke with them, they made it clear that there’s only so much they can do, as the bridge is technically the property of the North Carolina Railroad Company.
“You know from our standpoint, we’ve done everything we can do to help the situation,” said Marty Homan, a spokesman at the NCDOT.
In 2013, new signs indicating the height of the bridge were installed, in addition to a static overhead caution “OVERHEIGHT MUST TURN” black and yellow sign, to make the clearance warnings more visible. Two hours later, there was a crash.
In 2016, traffic lights were added to the overhead warning that forces drivers to stop, stare at the now height-activated electronic “OVERHEIGHT MUST TURN” sign, and ponder their options before they crash into the beam. That day, the camera recorded some successes from the new setup. Two months later, an Excel Moving and Storage truck crashed into the beam.
In 2019, the North Carolina Railroad Company threw the NCDOT a bone—it raised the overpass 8 inches to 12-foot-4-inches. The project was not to prevent damage to trucks, but to level the tracks above. Crews lifted the bridge on hydraulic jacks, re-graded the tracks, and placed shims on the old foundation to add height. They also took the opportunity to spruce up the paint job.
And to accent the bridge’s fresh, unjaded, bright yellow protective beam (installed to replace the one tormented by years of violence) the NCDOT positioned new height warning signs. Still, the bridge is more than a foot below standard overpass height.
“You know, there are multiple signs, there are literally flashing lights that tell you, you’re about to strike the bridge. We can’t really do anything about it,” says Homan, “Because again … it’s not our bridge.”
Three weeks after the 2019 renovation, an Idealease box truck hit the beam and lost a piece of its roof.
DRIVER 1 STATED HE WAS NEW TO THE AREA, WAS DISTRACTED BY THE GPS/NAVIGATION UNIT, DID NOT SEE EITHER OF THE OVER HEIGHT SIGNS OF THE ROAD, DID NOT SEE THE LED AND FLASHING SIGN HE WAS OVER HEIGHT, AND CRASHED INTO THE IRON RAIL PROTECTING ACTUAL RAILROAD BRIDGE
Drivers on Gregson heading toward the underpass are inundated by warnings of their impending doom, but some still crash into the bridge.
How can that be?
The problem is not unique to the Can Opener. Traffic sign experts and traffic engineers from across the globe are baffled and intrigued by this question of road sign efficacy.
“Criteria for the Design and Evaluation of Traffic Sign Symbols,” a 1988 study published by Robert Dewar, explores various aspects about why signs work and don’t work. Dewar’s careful analysis found “understandability” and “conspicuity” to be the most valuable aspects of effective signaling. The report leaves a reader thinking that a combo like, “OVERHEIGHT MUST TURN,” surrounded by flashing lights, and accented with clearly noted height requirements, might persuade drivers not to crash into a railroad bridge. But apparently not.
Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman writes that the signs aren’t flawed, we just have too many of them. Monderman believes that drivers have become numb to the forests of signs on many roads. They just tune them out.
For clarity, look no farther than “Driver’s Cognitive Workload and Driving Performance under Traffic Sign Information Exposure in Complex Environments: A Case Study of the Highways in China” (a paper whose title seems to be a “cognitive workload” itself). It, too, makes the point that drivers are overloaded with stimuli and can’t process all the signs they see.
Indeed, I noticed that many of the Can Opener’s victims are Penske or other rental trucks. That suggests the drivers might be unfamiliar with their trucks, unaware of their clearance and don’t realize they need to be on the lookout for overheight signs.
Henn, resident 11’8” (now +8”) expert, has some different ideas.
“I think people are just distracted. They don’t expect it, sneaks up on them a little bit,” he said in an interview with The 9th Street Journal. “And the location is a little tricky because it’s a two lane, one-way road between two relatively tall buildings. So the approach is really narrow.”
On top of that, drivers are often speeding on this road. The speed limit is 25 mph; an impact at that speed would not cause Bullet level damage.
“If you haven’t been paying attention to the signs, you won’t catch the bridge, and by that time you’re on it,” he said.
VEHICLE #1 COLLIDED WITH A LOW BRIDGE PROTECTION PILLAR, DAMAGING THE TOP OF THE BOX TRUCK. THE PILLAR PROTECTS THE RAILROAD BRIDGE THAT CROSSES OVER N GREGSON ST.
To watch over 160 of these collision videos is to understand the modern limits of onomatopoeia. Somewhere around video 30, “shhhhhhrhastpt,” “craaasttshp,” and “sRTkkkst” all start to tire of their intrigue.
Watching them is to realize, too, how few verbs there really are to describe the length, magnitude, and velocity of a large truck unknowingly stopped by a steel beam. “Collide”, used often in the police reports of the incidents, seems to forget that the tops of these trucks are flayed effortlessly. “Smash” ignores the delicate niche of the truck’s cab gliding under the bridge, only to be harangued back by the bar’s unsympathetic disposition. “Hit” is useless. I looked up synonyms for “decapitate.”
I tried to be precise in my descriptions but found the terms of local trucking were a bit baffling. In the case of the box truck, stout or extended, the structure tends to be made up of dry freight aluminum sheeting within a heavy duty metal frame or Fiberglass Reinforced Plywood, according to a US Truck Body brochure. Both styles are adorned with an aluminum “Zephyr” front nose and corner castings. This seems to be the piece that sustains the Can Opener’s initial blow.
But the beam is not discriminating in its victims, and box varieties are not the only overpass underpassers with battlescars to show. Many campers will find themselves sweating in the summer months, as their RV’s AC units get plucked off by the beam. One trailer carrying a stable’s worth of hay lost two bales from the top of the pile to the team, and trailers alike often find themselves stacked too high for the bridge’s liking.
The worst crashes look horrible. The top is guillotined with a swift but abrasive punch. In some cases, the roofing is rolled off with precision, like those fancy ice cream places that take a scoop and turn it into a tube. Depending, then, on the extent of the damage to the top, the sides begin to give. If the beam intersects at the right angle, the sides sometimes mangle from the get-go, and the whole truck box suffers a rupture.
Every now and then, a driver is able to escape. When November’s 18-wheeler victim moved forward after its sneak approach, its cab bounced under the beam with a snap and pop. Thinking quickly, the driver dropped the air suspension and backed out to avoid further damage. After careful extraction, his box attachment escaped unscathed.
The Can Opener was left hungry.
THE VEHICLE WAS RETRIEVED BY ONE OF ITS COMPANIES REPRESENTATIVES AND CONTINUED IN MOTION.
Photo montage at top: Six of the 162 videos we watched from 11foot8.com. Copyright Jürgen Henn – 11foot8.com
When some streetlights around North Carolina began mysteriously turning purple this month, residents turned to Reddit for answers. They wondered whether the colored lights were a tribute to Prince, a nod to women’s history month, or the sign of an alien invasion.
As it turned out, the purple tint was nothing more than some bad light bulbs.
The streetlights, which are maintained by the power company Duke Energy, changed color due to a manufacturing error with the LED bulbs. It caused their white coating to fade with time, revealing a base purple color underneath.
“Other utilities across the nation using the same stock of lights are experiencing similar issues,” said Duke Energy spokesperson Jeff Brooks. “We are working with the vendor to better understand the issue, and they are taking steps to ensure it does not happen again.”
Consider yourself lucky if you’ve seen one. Of more than 360,000 LED streetlights in the Carolinas maintained by Duke Energy, only 1.4% of them contain faulty bulbs.
Still, residents are noticing.
When Shawn Rocco, a multimedia producer at Duke Health, found a cluster of the purple lights near Sherwood Githens Middle School, his first thought was that purple may have been one of the school’s colors.
Rocco was inspired to document the lights in a video set to Jimmy Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”. It wasn’t until he posted the video on Reddit and users commented that he came to understand the real reason behind the mysterious tint. It wasn’t what he expected.
“I’m not an electrical engineer … but I would think they would have tested these before they shipped them,” he said.
According to Duke Energy, the defect is limited to one batch of lights that was manufactured in 2018. The bulbs are only now proving to be defective as the white laminate begins to wear off.
Though Rocco speculated that some drivers could be distracted by the purple hue, Duke Energy maintains that with the lights still working, there is no safety concern. Regardless, field crews aim to replace all of the defective bulbs. The problem is, the company doesn’t necessarily know the location of each affected streetlight.
“We’re working to replace them as soon as we identify their location. So we do appreciate the public reporting these lights when they see them, even as we are looking for them ourselves,” Brooks said.
Residents can inform Duke Energy of the purple haze – or any defective streetlight – by filling out an online streetlight repair report or by calling the customer service center at 1-800-777-9898.
Some may be hesitant to take action.
Several Redditors seem to prefer the purple hue. As one poetically put it: “the color … blends in better with the hues of the night sky.”
Photo above: The streetlight on Broad Street near West Knox Street has turned purple. Duke Energy says a small percentage of streetlights have bad bulbs that make them take on the purple haze. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama | The 9th Street Journal.
In 2020, a turbulent year of disease and conversations of racial equity and police violence, residents of Durham were most unhappy with the city streets.
In the annual survey of city residents, road maintenance had the highest rating of dissatisfaction (45% were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied), higher than the public schools (34%) and police protection, which scored remarkably well, with 53% satisfied or very satisfied.
Residents also chose city streets third to receive the “Most Emphasis from City and County Leaders over the Next Two Years,” behind police protection and public schools.
The city conducts the survey to get feedback on its services as well as those offered by the county and Durham Public Schools. The city’s news release about the survey was quite cheery (“Durham Satisfaction Survey Shows Residents Pleased with Employee Service During COVID-19 Pandemic”), but we decided to focus on the persistent grumpiness about the roads.
“We get this every year,” Mayor Steve Schewel said about the road complaints. “It always amazes me.”
Schewel noted that the roads that receive the most complaints aren’t ones that the city maintains.
He said key streets in Durham such as Hillsborough Road, Cameron Boulevard, and Fayetteville Street aren’t managed or maintained by the city itself. They are actually state-owned and maintained.
One problem is money. He said that state maintenance relies on the state gas tax, but it can’t keep up with the changing fleet on the roads.
“People have been driving less, driving hybrid vehicles, and driving more fuel efficient cars,” said Schewel, whose wife drives a Prius. “So gas tax collections have really gone down. The state has been strapped for cash for road maintenance.”
City residents, probably unaware of nuances of road ownership and budgeting, just want better streets. When asked which government service should receive the more funding, 47% of survey recipients said street maintenance.
Schewel said it’s a constant challenge to balance the needs with available revenue. “Part of it is that we need to continue to spend local money on street paving,” he said, “but the state also needs to do its job on thoroughfares which they tend to own.”
But don’t be surprised if next year’s survey is very similar. Said Schewel, “We are never quite where we want to be on street paving.”
In photo above: Drivers have to dodge large potholes on Erwin Road between Cameron Boulevard and Morreene Road. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama | The 9th Street Journal
The white plastic tables in the basement of Refiner’s Fire Community Church remain mostly empty on this Wednesday night, giving the Durham Transportation Department open house the feel of a high school prom. Soft jazz from the congregation’s nearby choir practice wafts in and plays into the flirtatious energy. Durham is dancing with change: potentially re-striping lanes along East Main Street, from Elizabeth to Alston.
Spectrum News shows up for the occasion, which gives the room a sense of importance. A videographer captures the action at the sign-in table as people start to trickle in.
Across the room, to the subtle melody of a hidden chorus, people discuss where the painted lines should go on Main Street. The Transportation Department has set up two folding tables with mirroring displays of the proposed projects. They show a birds-eye view of the road with the potential changes. One option provides parking on the north side and a buffer to protect cyclists in the westbound bike lane. The other offers parking on the south side and protects eastbound bikers.
Durhamites in business casual stand around them, looking puzzled and clicking their city-issued pens contemplatively. At one table, a few landlords and developers from the area chat up transportation representative Ellen Beckmann about unmarked loading zones. At the other, cycling safety carries the conversation.
Bike Durham board member James Nishimuta is here to represent the cause. He decided to get involved after moving here from San Francisco and noticing the “lack of bike infrastructure.”
Bike Durham is advocating protective measures, such as four-foot lanes with protective buffers on both sides. But Nishimuta, helmet in hand, says the group is often frustrated with the city’s tired response, “That’s not what we do.”
The distant vocals start to fade as the meeting comes to a close. The project blueprints, pristine and promising at the start of the evening, have been marked up. Red pens lay strewn across the table, exhausted from the night and all the mansplaining. Beckmann says that the evening was a success, but the department has plans for further outreach. This is only the beginning.
In photo above, open house attendees appear engaged as Transportation Department representatives explain where paint will dry. | Photo by Carmela Gualiano, The 9th Street Journal
On a mission to improve transportation downtown, Durham officials are experimenting with an emerging method to trace where and how people move.
They are buying location data harvested from smartphones and navigation devices.
Many owners of those devices are likely unaware that their movements create such data or that it is collected and sold to help a city eager to unclog its downtown.
In November 2018 the city announced Move Durham, a study to analyze today’s transportation downtown, forecast future needs and suggest how to keep people moving with vehicles, public transit, bikes and on foot.
Move Durham, funded with $400,000 in multiple grants, is contracting with StreetLight Data of California to buy data originating with GPS systems and potentially hundreds of smartphone apps, including weather, dating and exercise software.
StreetLight Data offers cities a quick way to monitor movement. The California company buys location data originating from smartphone apps and in-car navigation devices to track travel patterns, giving cities and developers the opportunity to see up-to-date, highly specific travel information.
As of July 2018, Streetlight Data reported that it collects and processes location records from more than 65 million adults in the U.S. and Canada. It can show where people start and end trips and how fast they moved — a good indication of whether they walked, biked or drove.
That’s especially useful in a city that is rapidly changing, said Ellen Beckmann, a Durham senior transportation planner who leads the Move Durham project. Durham adds 11 new residents every day, main roads get jammed downtown, accidents are more common and residents are complaining.
“Having information like this that’s quicker and more up-to-date is very useful,” Beckmann said.
A Duke privacy expert expressed some concern about the data collection process used by the location-data industry.
Apps and GPS systems don’t make it obvious that they both collect and sell the location data they capture, said Jolynn Dellinger, a senior lecturing fellow at Duke Law School who specializes in data privacy issues.
Most users “don’t know how much a phone can collect on them,” she said. And there are currently no laws governing what private companies like StreetLight can do with the location data after they purchase it, Dellinger added.
Alta Planning and Design — a transportation firm that specializes in streamlining city travel— favored hiring StreetLight Data. After winning a public contract to collect and analyze data for the city, Alta staff realized that using traditional traffic counters would take too long and was inefficient, according to Jennifer Baldwin, a senior planning associate with Alta.
For $30,000, the city will have access to StreetLight’s services for six months. During this time, the city will have access to data from almost seven years ago and as recent as weeks ago, Baldwin said.
While those working on the project initially were concerned about privacy issues with such data, Baldwin said she was reassured that individuals’ privacy would be secured by StreetLight’s data protection policies. To safeguard personal information, StreetLight Data purchases anonymized records, which replaces names with random strings of digits.
On StreetLight Data’s website, the company does note that it can associate a “likely home location” to a device, even linking “income distribution” and other demographic factors to a person’s phone.
That said, data provided to Durham will not include a view of individual homes, said Kaleb Osagie, a StreetLight sales representative. If a user wants to see data from a zone with only one house, “the platform will let you know that this project is too specific,” Osagie said.
StreetLight buys location data from separate companies, Cuebiq and INRIX. Cuebiq purchases location data from smartphone apps, and INRIX gets that same information from GPS devices like Google Maps or Garmin, according to StreetLight Data’s website.
Durham needs a transportation study due to recent growth downtown, says Move Durham’s website. That includes more than $1.2 billion of investment since 2000.
That resulting building boom has made parking tougher and more expensive, which may make park-and-ride lots and bus transit service potentially more attractive. At the same time, central Durham residents are asking for more walking routes, room for bicycles and less traffic through residential areas.
In Phase 1, Move Durham circulated surveys and staged community meetings to hear what problems people were experiencing as they move around downtown.
The project has only just begun to use StreetLight data, Baldwin said. The data will become more helpful during Phase 2 of the Move Durham project, where analysts will narrow their focus to problem routes that the public helped identify.
That’s when Durham will get into the “nitty gritty” of the data, she said.
GoTriangle is inviting members of the community to comment on proposed changes to the plan for a light rail system that it plans to begin constructing in 2020.
According to GoTriangle officials, the changes reflect a Federal Transit Administration review and public feedback suggesting frustration with certain aspects of the the light rail’s initial design.
The system will run through Durham and Orange Counties’ with the goal of connecting Durham and Chapel Hill and providing “about 24,000 trips a day to residents and commuters connecting to jobs, education and healthcare.” In August, the Durham County Board of Commissioners voted to fill a $57.6 million state funding gap for the project, a decision that brought about criticism from many who believe it to be a bad use of taxpayer dollars.
The preliminary design plans presented publicly by GoTriangle in April also earned pushback from the public. In July, a local urban design group named Durham Area Designers penned a letter to the company’s board “critiquing both station aesthetics and the transparency of the process.”
Now, GoTriangle has presented its plans and proposed changes in a detailed “online meeting” that allows users to add comments to any section. The site will be open for feedback until Nov. 30, and there will also be a public meeting held on Nov. 19 in which people can go inspect the designs in person and offer their critique. Two other public meetings took place earlier this month.
The new changes are “meant to keep project costs in line, provide better pedestrian and bike access, and get the most benefit from future station-area development.” Some of them would affect the entire system, such as the incorporation of smaller station platforms that serves two train cars rather than three.
Other adjustments address problem spots at specific stations caused by parking lots and rail segments, such as the switch to a single-track bridge across New Hope Creek.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”