Efforts underway to improve Durham walkability through new pedestrian infrastructure, human-oriented design

Durham is imagining a brighter — or at least higher-visibility — future for pedestrians.

Safe facility planning, national collaboration and equitable community engagement are shaping Durham’s many transportation safety projects, according to Sean Egan, Durham’s director of transportation. These projects are in response to a “troubling rise in fatalities and serious injuries for bicyclists and pedestrians.”

For Egan, a measure of a great city is how easy it is to get around without owning a car. His priority is the safety of “residents, pedestrians, transit riders [and] bicyclists” and the “folks who walk and bike and roll through our city.”

New projects

Durham joined the National Association of City Transportation Officials in early 2020 and takes guidance from their examples of high-quality pedestrian infrastructure. 

“We’ve joined this network of city transportation officials to make sure that we can take advantage of the knowledge and the examples that our peer cities have undertaken,” Egan said.

One key project is high-visibility crosswalks, which draw the attention of motorists.

Last year, these crosswalks were implemented on Erwin Road near Duke University Hospital, an area with high numbers of pedestrians. High visibility crosswalks include “zebra” designs which “improve yielding behavior."

The city is also implementing “leading pedestrian intervals” at various intersections. 

When vehicles and pedestrians get a green light at the same time, turning vehicles will often “jump out” and block the crosswalk. A leading interval gives pedestrians a five-second head start to cross. The city is also trying to ensure that crossing times accommodate differences in the time it takes people to cross roadways.

The Durham Rail Trail, a planned 1.8-mile trail on the west side of downtown extending to Avondale Drive, looks to expand Durham’s trail network. Egan said that the trail used a planning process that was inclusive of the “needs that were voiced by residents, particularly residents from communities typically excluded from the decision-making process.” 

During the process, Durham developed its Equitable Community Engagement Blueprint, in which the city gathers input from residents about “where they are, whether that’s at a grocery store or at Durham Station.”

Buffered bike lanes and “traffic-calming” are included in Durham’s goal of getting to “zero fatalities and zero serious injuries” on its transportation network. This goal was affirmed in 2017 as part of Durham’s Vision Zero initiative. 

Vision Zero recognizes several traffic-calming techniques, which intend to “create safe and attractive streets” and “reduce the need for police enforcement.” Egan mentioned traffic-calming projects in places such as the Holloway Street and Fayetteville Street corridors, which aim to lower vehicle speeds to decrease the likelihood of fatalities when a pedestrian is hit by a vehicle.

Egan also stressed the importance of setting aside funding for pedestrian network improvements with a focus on underserved communities. Residents also voiced an interest in curb ramps for people who use mobility devices such as wheelchairs and safe pathways to bus-stops, according to Egan. 

“We’ve heard a great deal from residents about their interest in walkability in our city,” he said. “What we found is that … many of our traditionally underserved areas do not have a connected sidewalk network in the way that some of the more advantaged areas of our city do.” 

Duke student thoughts

Junior Mikey Schwartz, who instructed the house course Urban Studies 101, Breaking the Duke Bubble, sees many benefits to walkability, naming mental health, aesthetics and affordability as just a few.

“When you build [cities] for a car, everything is at a much larger scale,” Schwartz said. “But when you build for humans, you can condense everything in.” 

Schwartz views this scale as environmentally sustainable and better for connections as “social animals.” He also points to zoning and other transportation reforms as promising solutions.

As a biker, junior Addie Geitner advocates a separation between bike lanes and parking areas to prevent “dooring,” which is when bikers are struck by the opened doors of parked vehicles. She also has concerns about narrow roads such as “one-way pairs.”

“Durham has managed to do that on every single side of downtown, which I never quite understand,” Geitner said.

Geitner believes that the reason many people love their college experience is because it’s their first time living in a walkable community.

“I think Durham is the best part of Duke,” Geitner said, adding that she’d like to spend more time downtown. Geitner noted that the more “generally accessible” the city is, the more fun she could have with her friends.


Michael Austin profile
Michael Austin | Managing Editor

Michael Austin is a Trinity sophomore and managing editor of The Chronicle's 120th volume.

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