In 2017, the NC Department of Transportation (NCDOT) began Project U-3308. More commonly known as the Highway 55 (Alston Avenue) expansion project, NCDOT deemed the project necessary to “reduce congestion and improve safety” along the corridor of Highway 55, connecting Highway 70 and the Durham Freeway. The plan also included sidewalks on both sides of the roadway and wide outside lanes to accommodate bicycles. The road expansion was completed in 2021. However, nearly five years and millions of dollars later, congestion is no better than before, nor is pedestrian and bicycle travel safer.
Though unfortunate, the tale of Project U-3308 is not uncommon, as globally, municipalities strive to keep pace with rapidly changing cities. Too often, though, the plans approved impede progress. The Highway 55 expansion project hurts Durham citizens rather than aiding congestion due to myriad issues, from failing to innovate outdated road planning, neglecting the reality of climate change, and disregarding social cohesion. Cities will continue to grow, and upgraded travel infrastructure will be needed. But in its present state, the Highway 55 expansion project set Durham farther away from being prepared for the future urban experts predict. To ensure North Carolina’s future includes sustainable urban growth and development, an integrated and green redesign of Highway 55’s Alston Avenue corridor and the entire NCDOT planning process is needed and must be a top priority for citizens and political leaders.
Failure to innovate urban road planning
America’s car-centric society has shaped urban design and form for decades. Urban sprawl and ardent individualism mean there are nearly 284 million cars on the road in the United States. Up until three decades ago, it was thought road expansion was the only viable solution for efficient travel. But the mega-hybrid roads in the United States, including Highway 55, pair high-speed traffic with residential intersections and numerous traffic lights, creating traffic congestion that cannot be remedied by more lanes. Frameworks like the Dutch sustainable road safety, which advocates for slower speeds and smaller lanes near residential areas, demonstrate that adding lanes along the Alston Avenue corridor was a callous decision.
Failure to recognize how road expansion exacerbates climate change and pollution
In addition to road expansion increasing congestion, it also increases the emission of greenhouse gasses that are known to cause respiratory illness. Road expansion also increases stormwater runoff, polluting water systems and increasing the urban heat island effect. In a world already experiencing more intense storms and drier weather, road development without environmental considerations is likely to lead to sewage overflows, localized flooding, and abnormally hot weather, all of which have the potential to cause public health emergencies for ill-prepared communities.
If NCDOT had properly accounted for climate change, its highway design would have included significant funding for infrastructure including bioswales, street trees, and more land for parks to mitigate air pollution, reduce heat islands, and manage stormwater runoff. Perhaps more importantly, forethought regarding the effects of climate change would have meant considering alternate forms of transportation altogether. Transportation alternatives include fully protected bidirectional bike lanes, light rail, and updated bus infrastructure. Even without the introduction of costly projects like light rail and bus right-of-ways, the U-3308 project may have been more successful at easing congestion with thoughtful integrated urban canopy planning and technology rather than more vehicle lanes.
Failure to account for historical institutional harm directed at East Durham
The development of urban roads also decreases social cohesion as roads widen and become more challenging to cross. The expansion of Highway 55 originally cut through the East Durham neighborhood. East Durham was once a burgeoning upper-middle-class neighborhood supported by Durham’s textile industry. Yet, like many affluent neighborhoods, 1950s practices of blockbusting, neighborhood grading, and predatory lending left East Durham devoid of political capital and open to environmental degradation, reeling from generations of neglect and, frankly, racism. The Highway 55 expansion project exacerbated these historical harms by avoiding environmental justice rather than embracing it. Instead of adding green space and greenway overpass bridges to connect Durham residents, Highway 55 continues to bisect a minority community while doing nothing to quell the air pollution exposure of nearby residents. The Highway 55 expansion ignored urban ecology’s best practices of collaborative thinking and resilient infrastructure, and was counterproductive to climate justice, public health, and neighborhood solidarity goals. For a community that has already experienced neglect for nearly 70 years, the expansion will likely only exacerbate disinvestment as large expansive roads are unideal for communities to who strive to congregate.
What to do
I suspect many Durham natives have spent countless miles on Highway 55. It truly is the main artery of Durham, as it takes drivers to Highway 70, the Durham Freeway, Highway 85, and Interstate 40. The illustrious NC Central University borders Highway 55, and the Union Insurance building and numerous recreation centers are blocks away in either direction. Should one of the oldest roads in Durham that connects numerous neighborhoods and is dotted with history not be more than asphalt to “ease congestion”? A sustainable redesign of Highway 55 is a necessity. Durham’s environmentalists, activists, and planners must reevaluate what Highway 55 represents to Durham and more broadly North Carolina. Project U-3308 suffered from a lack of integrated and complex thinking needed to build a sustainable city and tackle the challenges facing many urban cores. Highway 55 can ill afford to remain shackled to antiquated ideas of urban expansion. Rather than putting Durham further from reaching its goals of decarbonization, Highway 55 can be an example of sustainable urban design meant to adapt to the trends of urbanization while creating healthy and connected citizens.
Gabriel I. Gadsden is a second-year PhD student at Yale School of the Environment and a Durham native.
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