On New Year’s Eve, a car crashed into two middle school girls as they were crossing the street on Estes Drive in Chapel Hill, seriously injuring them both. In January, a car door struck a cyclist, Nicholas Watson, on West Franklin Street; he passed away two weeks later.

According to Chapel Hill police, drivers hit 16 people in crosswalks in just over a year; six people walking or riding bikes were struck by cars between New Year’s Eve and February 1 alone. So it’s no wonder that the question of how to address the traffic safety crisis has become a top concern for Chapel Hill’s council members in recent weeks.

“We are literally talking about life and death when we talk about what we are doing with our streets and how we are making them safe for everybody and not just for cars,” Mayor Pro Tem Karen Stegman said during a council work session last month. “We’ve got to prioritize safety above everything else.”

Over the past month, the council and community members have met over Zoom to discuss infrastructure upgrades and policy changes to address road safety. At a February 9 meeting, Bergen Watterson, the town’s transportation planning manager, said that failure to reduce speed and inattention were among the top contributing circumstances to pedestrian and bike crashes, with crosswalks being the main problem area.

Carson Spinarski, a cyclist and decade-long employee at the Bicycle Chain in Chapel Hill, says he has had some bad experiences and close calls while biking around Chapel Hill, including encountering bike lanes hidden by cars or marked poorly, especially on side streets and at intersections, and cars pulling out in front of him unaware that they are crossing over a bike lane.

The biggest safety issues that need to be addressed, Spinarski says, are inadequate lane markings; the absence of separation between pedestrians, cyclists, and cars; and the lack of visibility, especially on Franklin Street.

“The most important thing is … letting people know what areas are designated as cycling lanes and then providing good separation between those cycling lanes and roadways,” says Spinarski, citing the accident that killed Watson.

“He was using that multi-use lane on Franklin Street and because that’s not marked as a bike lane and doesn’t have any separation from the parking, other than the temporary cones, the passenger of the car that opened the door didn’t know that they needed to be careful and be looking out for cyclists. It’s just confusing. People don’t know if that’s an extended sidewalk or bike lane.”

Watson’s death comes as NCDOT seeks public input on how to improve its bike route system. Comments can be submitted online at ncdot.altaplanning.cloud (the state’s “Bike Route System Public Input Map” portal) through March 14.

Input will be used to update NCDOT’s statewide bike and pedestrian plan known as WalkBikeNC, which was last updated in 2013.

“NCDOT is initiating another update to the route system, based on a more current review of existing and planned bicycle facilities throughout the state,“ according to the department. “The public is invited to help identify additional potential changes to the system, based on recent roadway projects, local planning, and local knowledge and understanding of the routes.”

The accidents that killed Watson and injured the middle school girls occurred on roadways owned and maintained by the NC Department of Transportation (NCDOT). That dynamic limits the extent that Chapel Hill can get involved and make specific safety changes, such as altering speed limits, installing vertical barriers, and increasing the visibility of crosswalks in a timely and effective manner.

While NCDOT maintains 44 percent of road miles in Chapel Hill, 78 percent of pedestrian crashes and 93 percent of bike crashes in 2020 occurred on NCDOT roads; 24 of the 38 accidents that involved either a biker or pedestrian last year were also on state-maintained roads, according to town officials.

“The NCDOT roads in Chapel Hill are the widest, fastest, and highest-volume roadways in town. They are also our primary corridors that provide the most direct routes to where people want and need to go,” Watterson said in an email to the INDY. “[These crashes] are probably a combination of the dangerous nature of the road and the need for people to walk and bike on these roadways to get where they’re going efficiently.”

Watterson says NCDOT often requires municipalities to provide a traffic impact analysis to prove safety improvements are needed.

“NCDOT places a lot of importance on the level of service for vehicles, meaning that they’re most concerned with moving vehicles quickly and efficiently,” says Watterson. “When the Town wants to make safety improvements, for example a lane reallocation, installing No Right on Red signs, or any type of traffic calming, we must hire a consultant to do a traffic impact analysis to prove that the proposed changes will not significantly negatively impact the flow of traffic.

“Our experience has been that NCDOT pushes back on any proposed changes that would cause Level of Service to drop too far, even if it would improve safety for vulnerable road users.”

Vision Zero

Despite these setbacks, at the February 9 meeting Watterson presented the various safety precautions that Chapel Hill can make and the programs that have recently been utilized.

These plans include the continuation of the Pedestrian Safety Action Plan and Vision Zero, a global safety strategy that Chapel Hill adopted in October 2021. Chapel Hill’s Vision Zero Commitment is to prioritize the safety of vulnerable road users over transportation decisions and eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2031, according to the town’s website.

The Vision Zero program aims to change the design of Chapel Hill’s community and roads by collecting data about collisions through an online dashboard in order to determine the most effective areas for safety improvements.

“Over the next year we are going to work to update our Pedestrian Safety Action Plan based on the improved data that we have and might be able to drill down a little bit closer for specific location and types of improvements,” Watterson said at the council meeting.

Next steps include coordinating with NCDOT on a speed safety study on Estes Drive, collaborating with the UNC Highway Safety Research Center for additional safety studies, and implementing curb-running bike lanes.

Chapel Hill has also had success making strategic, small-scale pedestrian improvements, such as installing rapid flashing beacons at crosswalks along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Franklin Street. But larger-scale improvements that would make a more significant safety impact are difficult for the town to fund.

“NCDOT will allow the Town to fund and install some safety improvements if approved,” Watterson said in an email. “However, addressing safety on roads like MLK, Franklin, Fordham, etc., takes more than small-scale one-off safety improvements that the Town has installed.”

In addition to these efforts, local law enforcement is cracking down on driving violations around crosswalks.

Chapel Hill police last month announced that the department had conducted 41 pedestrian safety operations recently, which resulted in drivers being ticketed for speeding, failing to yield at crosswalks, and committing other infractions that threaten pedestrians.

Police chief Chris Blue told the council last month that the best response to the challenges with bike and pedestrian safety are those that involve meaningful environmental and engineering changes and that “enforcement is only part of the holistic response to creating that safe system in our community.

“We have grown increasingly concerned that while we work on those longer term solutions, we continue to see disturbing driving behaviors in our community with sometimes deadly consequences.”

Blue said that enforcement efforts will continue for the foreseeable future with the hope that they can be scaled back when long-term remedies and engineering and environmental solutions are implemented.

Working with NCDOT

Charles Edwards, NCDOT’s Orange County district engineer, says his department has engineers and planners who work collaboratively with town staff to tackle transportation and safety issues, but changes require a process.

“If there is work to be done or changes to be made to the infrastructure that is on NCDOT streets, yes there are NCDOT standards and processes that have to be followed there,” Edwards says. “If work is to be undertaken by the town within a NCDOT road, it can be handled through an [administrative] encroachment agreement process that authorizes that work after the work has been reviewed and approved by NCDOT relative to appropriate engineering standards.”

John Sandor, NCDOT’s Durham County district engineer, says that while he can’t speak directly about Chapel Hill, he’s worked the municipal side for the city of Raleigh and that frustration stems from differing interests and responsibilities.

“It really comes down to, in a lot of cases, what our responsibilities are, and municipalities’ responsibilities are smaller in scale than what DOT’s are,” says Sandor about his experience with similar situations in Durham. “As long as everyone sort of understands everybody’s opinion or responsibility in the overall system, they can come to the table and work through the process.”

Sandor says that there are a variety of things that NCDOT has to look at, dissect, and discuss, and he believes having a detailed approach will help avoid situations like traffic buildup.

“[NCDOT] approaches things as very data driven and everything is random unless we can prove otherwise. I think that is a very practical approach because DOT can get political, and so we have to rely on that data and those metrics to really fall back on,” Sandor says. “If we kneejerk and react to every politician … we will have painted ourselves into a corner where we could never get out of, with traffic everywhere and people can’t get anywhere. It’s not a good look for NC to have that.”

Town moves forward

Chapel Hill council members recently voted to approve curb-running bike lanes, a decision that that needed to happen before NCDOT resurfaces and restripes West Franklin Street this summer. Curb-running bike lanes are considered an upgrade, as they separate cyclists from moving vehicles by positioning them between the curb and parked cars.

Several council members voiced concerns about potential conflicts between cyclists and vehicles at driveways and intersections, an issue that could be fixed by placing physical barriers between bikes and traffic to maintain safety. But NCDOT prefers to not have anything on the road that could come in contact with cars or affect traffic.

“You have to look at their mission, which is to get cars to move as fast through a situation as possible. When you have a barrier, there is a likelihood that a car could hit it. And they are concerned about pedestrians being out there and the barriers being hit and not stable enough to protect the pedestrians,” says Chapel Hill mayor Pam Hemminger about NCDOT’s reasoning.

The council has discussed the potential for Chapel Hill to apply to have the maintenance of Franklin Street transferred from NCDOT to the town. A transfer of maintenance could take between three months to a year but would supply Chapel Hill with more authority over safety changes.

Seven of the 38 pedestrian- or biker-involved car accidents last year occurred within the four-minute walk from University United Methodist Church on East Franklin Street to the intersection of North Columbia and Rosemary Streets.

“You have to submit a request and the council would have to vote on that request to NCDOT …. The town would then become responsible for all maintenance on the road,” Hemminger says.

Chapel Hill could be partially reimbursed through the state’s Powell Bill fund for future maintenance.

“We’re seeing other [North Carolina] towns … taking over their main street from DOT so that they could slow things down and really focus on the pedestrian and bike experience,” says Hemminger.

Chapel Hill plans to wait to submit an application until after NCDOT finishes repaving roads this summer, she says.

“We want to be able to put physical barriers in the roads, even in the middle of the crosswalks, to help pedestrians feel safer,” Hemminger says about the changes the town could make on Franklin Street if it took the street over from NCDOT.

Other potential changes include installing separators for bike lanes and replacing orange cone barriers with more attractive methods, such as planters.

“We’re not sure that we’re going to end up with a bike lane there, but for now we had to turn in a plan and we felt that was the safer of the two for everyone involved,” she says.

In addition to having more authority over bike lanes, Chapel Hill could also potentially bump out the curb at Columbia and Franklin Streets, something Hemminger has advocated for years.

“[It would] make the distance traveled for pedestrians shorter, and that is something that DOT has not allowed,” says Watterson, the town’s planning manager. “We have the opportunity to do that with physical barriers if we take the street back over and there are a couple other places we would bump out too again that slows cars down and gives pedestrians a shorter distance to cross the road.”

Watterson says Chapel Hill is only in the preliminary stages of exploring what transferring road maintenance from NCDOT would look like, and before taking over the road, the town should have a robust public engagement process to determine what the future vision for Franklin Street would be.

“Staff expects to share a public input plan with [council] later this spring and we hope to have more solid information related to the maintenance transfer process by then,” says Watterson.

For now, Chapel Hill wants to ensure pedestrian and cyclist safety, instigate changes that will focus on the most vulnerable road users, and be proactive about potential issues.

“We’ve got to do a better job. The number of incidents of pedestrians and bicyclists being hit across the county is on the rise and that’s the opposite direction we want to go,” says Hemminger. “We’re trying to figure out how to make it safer and network in our town, too, so people can ride to work and events and activities on their bikes or walk and feel completely safe.

“We have a team on staff that is reviewing every incident and is receiving recommendations that come from the public. We’re really taking these things seriously. We don’t want people to get hurt in our community.” 

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