This piece was originally published on the Triangle Substack newsletter.
Driving a car on Franklin Street in downtown Chapel Hill can be a pain. But have you tried riding a bicycle? I do so frequently, and it’s a mediocre experience.
There are no bike lanes, so bicyclists have to ride in the road. (Right there, you’re eliminating more than 80% of people who’d be willing to bicycle.) You may try to stay on the side of the road to be a good citizen, but then you’re close to parked cars with doors ready to open into your path. You can ride in the middle of the lane, but then you’ll get impatient drivers tailgating you. The sidewalks are full of pedestrians, and anyhow it’s technically illegal to bike on some of the sidewalks downtown.
Fortunately, a big step forward may happen this summer. The Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership petitioned the Town to study whether bike lanes would work on West Franklin Street. With additional urging from local bike advocates, the Town hired an engineering firm to perform the analysis.
The results show that bikes and cars can thrive in separate lanes. West Franklin Street does not need four car lanes to handle downtown traffic, and removing the lanes allows plenty of room for cars, car parking, and bicycles. By cutting the number of travel lanes in half, it will makes it easier for people to cross the street on foot. The increased space between cars and sidewalks will make sidewalk dining more pleasant. And the plan will add dedicated loading zones to reduce conflict between traffic and businesses.
The difference is incredible. The wide expanse of pavement for cars would go away, replaced by space for cars and bicycles.
Just because it’s because it’s feasible doesn’t mean it will happen. Despite what the studies show, some will see this as a useless sop to bicyclists that will just make driving harder. Business owners may think it’ll discourage people from driving to their stores.
These challenges don’t hold up to scrutiny. Studies have shown that bike lanes that replace parking do not harm businesses. Often businesses overestimate how many of their customers arrive by driving when many are arriving by taking a bus, biking or walking. In fact, bike lanes encourage bicyclists to come and spend money. One study found that “customers who travel by bike to shop downtown spend as much money as their car-driving counterparts or more each month.”
The West Franklin bike lanes will also play a crucial role in expanding our community’s bike network. There’s been talk in Carrboro about extending this new bike lane, but it is already connected on low-speed neighborhood roads to a variety of key connections such as the Bolin Creek Trail which, once the new MLK Jr. Blvd. underpass opens, will connect all the way to Estes Drive.
Rosemary Street has bike lanes, but most of the places people want to go are on Franklin Street. Because Rosemary Street is pretty narrow, the bike lanes have caused problems for businesses because of the lack of any loading zones from Columbia Street west to the Carrboro border. Adding bike lanes on Franklin Street makes it possible to address those challenges without eliminating bike access through the center of town.
And you can’t beat the cost — free. We have this opportunity only because NCDOT is repaving West Franklin Street this summer, and the town needs to decide by April 1 whether it wants NCDOT to include these changes. Compare that to the tens of millions of dollars the Town is planning to spend on new parking decks downtown.
The town must decide by April 1 whether it wants NCDOT to include these changes. Town Council needs to hear from you. Let them know that you wholeheartedly support the project and look forward to using it. And reach out to the folks at Bicycle Alliance of Chapel Hill to see what else you can do to support this project and bicycling within Chapel Hill in general.
Because, how often does the town get a great new bike facility for free?