Durham ranks low in national pedestrian walkability. Here’s why and what it could take to improve it

Durham and other North Carolina cities are known for being unwalkable. But just how bad are they? 

Out of 130 United States and Canadian cities with a population greater than 200,000, Durham and other cities, such as Fayetteville, Winston-Salem, Charlotte and Greensboro, rank near the bottom in terms of walkability. 

Fayetteville is the second-least walkable city on the list, while Durham slots in at No. 11. 

Walkability ratings are determined by Walk Score, a website that looks to quantify the “walkability” of an address, by analyzing the time to walk to nearby amenities and the overall safety of these routes based on population density, block length and intersection density. Scores are between zero and 100, and the national average walk score of a city is 49. Durham sits at a score of 30, while Fayetteville is ranked at 21.4. 

A pedestrian in Durham is involved in a car crash every 3 days. Durham also has low bikeability and public transit scores of 38 and 28, respectively. 

But these ratings can sometimes be overly-pessimistic and misleading, as they include “whole cities” and not just “urban centers,” according to Annabel Wharton, William B. Hamilton professor of art and art history, and a scholar of architectural history. 

“So those communities that have suburbs that are unwalkable give the whole place an ‘average’ [but] if you look at Durham — the urban center of Durham, that is downtown Durham — it's extraordinarily walkable,” said Wharton, who has lived in Durham for 40 years.

Walkability at Duke

On Duke’s campus, some students say they aren’t concerned about walkability on the whole, but they’ve identified one pesky spot — the route between 300 Swift and East Campus.

Several students expressed concern with the route from Swift Apartments to East Campus, which requires walking across the highway’s entrance and exit without a crosswalk. According to Wharton, the disconnect between the two parts of Durham is a result of historical segregation, with Route 147 originally placed in its current location in order to separate the Durham Black community from the white downtown.

Junior Andrew McCallum expressed largely positive feelings towards the walkability of Durham, noting that one of the things that “sold [him]” on Duke was “how great the running is around here.” 

But “by Swift is probably the worst place I have to run,” McCallum added. “Honestly, if you just painted lines, just like, ‘Hey, people do cross here,’ it'd go a long way.”

Junior Natalie Lewis echoed McCallum’s positive feelings about walking internally on Duke’s campus, noting that the inconsistency of the Swift bus pushes her to often walk to West Campus from Swift.

“I feel safe walking to West Campus since it's past the [Rubenstein Arts Center] and other campus buildings, so it's actually a very pleasant walk,” Lewis said. 

Junior Jocelyn Chin, a member of Duke Club Running, pointed out that while she enjoys Durham’s neighborhoods and historic districts, “sometimes the sidewalks just randomly end.” 

Chin recalled a time when members of DCR needed to cross a highway exit without a light for pedestrians, when “one [runner] just crossed, and the car just moved, and it was so close.”

But adding something as simple as a crosswalk to Swift may be complicated due to potential state ownership of Swift Avenue, according to Tim Johnson, professor of the practice of energy and the environment, at the Nicholas School of the Environment. Measures to make Swift Avenue more pedestrian-friendly may involve the State Department of Transportation, requiring a significant amount of time, according to Johnson. 

“Something as simple as painting stripes on the road often will involve an engineering study or cost study,” said Johnson. “… Especially at the state level where they have a relatively small staff that's responsible for a large area, it can be slow.”

Durham’s future in walkability

The process to make Durham more walkable would likely be a long and expensive process. Durham’s current zoning is a mixed land-use model, thus separating residential, institutional and business locales. 

Better connecting these areas to make the city more walkable would require creating more bike lanes, crosswalks, sidewalks and greenery, as well as investments to construct affordable housing close to downtowns, city planner Jeff Speck told Vox. Speck has written a book on walkable cities. Other forms of urban design, like providing easy access to green spaces, can also play significant roles. 

“For people to want to walk, it has to be appealing to walk,” Johnson said.

Currently, there are efforts to make the city more walkable, especially the satellite areas of Durham that are farther from urban spaces. Some people are unsure of how large of a role, if any, the University should play. 

There have been concerns about the University’s engagement in the Durham community, such as its involvement in the Raleigh-Durham light rail project. In 2018, the University suddenly decided against its support of a 17.7-mile light rail project after over two decades of planning and over $130 million in investments of public money.

“I feel like the easiest way Durham can improve, and the most radically all at once, is divesting  from Duke’s market power,” said junior Carmen Chavez, president of Our Urban Futures, Duke’s urban studies club. “Whenever Duke gets involved, I feel like even if it’s with the best intentions … their interests come about.”

Others believe that the University should invest resources to improve Durham’s walkability, considering how large of a role the University has already played in the current arrangement of Durham, and how much students would benefit. 

Wharton, for example, believes that a collaboration between Duke and the city of Durham to create more bridges over Route 147, similar to the one seen coming back from RDU Airport, would be very beneficial to both parties. 

McCallum believes that efforts to increase Durham’s walkability would allow for students to become more involved in the Durham community.

“Often, people can't navigate [to places throughout Durham],” McCallum said. “I think that ... just goes a long way to show that students don't necessarily have a sense of the Durham community at all. And it'd be cool if that would change.”


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