In June 2019, while out running, I tripped while crossing an intersection. This didn’t happen only because I’m clumsy; the road I was crossing had been built around 2010 and never completed, so it was missing a final layer of asphalt. There’s a sharp cliff between the gutter pan and the street. It’s a tripping hazard, and I tripped.
It was a private road, so I reached out to the Town of Chapel Hill to get the owners to fix this clear hazard. Over the next several months we shared several emails, and as of October 2019 the owner was close to hiring someone to lay down the asphalt to finish the road.
COVID happened, and I didn’t pay close attention. I avoided this intersection on my running routes. I reached out in February of 2022 asking for an update because the road looked unchanged, but did not receive a response.
Last Wednesday, my wife went for a run and tripped at the same spot. After a trip to the emergency room to get treatment for her bloodied face and bruised shoulder and knee, I wrote a somewhat angry email to the town. This time I got a prompt response, perhaps because I used the term “emergency room,” or maybe because I copied the mayor.
The fact that a substandard intersection was not corrected, even though the property owner was legally required to fix it, exemplifies the town’s careless attitude towards bike and pedestrian safety. The town is making substantial investments in creating new, high-quality bicycle and pedestrian facilities, such as the new bike lanes on Estes Drive and on the Elliot Road Extension. That’s great. But where it continues to fall short is in keeping these facilities open and safe for use unless residents beg and plead, and sometimes not even then.
The town uses the SeeClickFix service for reporting non-emergency service requests. For some things, it works really well. If you report that a traffic signal is not working, or a pedestrian signal is malfunctioning, town staff will get out to fix it, often in a matter of minutes. If you see a dead animal, it will get scheduled for pickup. If there’s a pothole, staff will be out to fix it in a few days.
You’ll note that two of the examples above of issues that are addressed quickly, regarding traffic signals and potholes, involve the safety and convenience of cars. Malfunctioning traffic signals are an urgent concern, obviously, but most potholes aren’t really dangerous. Nevertheless, the town fills them in as soon as they can.
But if you’re pointing out an issue with a transportation link for anything other than cars, such as a sidewalk or a trail, or a crosswalk through an intersection, the sense of urgency is lacking.
Point out that a business left a cornhole set in the middle of a bicycle and pedestrian trail, and you may get a response that it’s on private property so the town can’t do anything. You then need to search the Orange County property records to find the legal deed that gives the town the right to remove hazards, which really the town should know about, and yet the response is “talk to the business.”
Complain that tree limbs are growing over and blocking a public sidewalk, and the town may ask you to contact the property owner and ask them to cut the trees. So you then need to point out that, actually, it’s the town’s responsibility to keep the sidewalk clear, and that the town can trim vegetation that extends over its property. (Eventually you may find someone who is responsive and helpful — if you’re reading this, hopefully you know who you are, and thanks!)
Complain that the posts protecting a bike lane have been repeatedly knocked down by cars and trucks? An organization that values bicyclists’ safety would respond by replacing the collapsible posts, which are clearly failing, with concrete bollards or something else sturdy that would protect bicyclists and couldn’t easily be knocked down. But the Chapel Hill answer is to just leave them down on the ground because the trucks are just going to keep knocking them over.
Signals not changing because your bike isn’t triggering the bike signal? You can go ahead and report it on SeeClickFix, get a message several days later stating that the report was resolved, and then go back to the same intersection to find that the bike trigger still doesn’t work. And then when you follow up, you’re told “they made the sensor more sensitive” without actually checking to see if if was actually working.
Make a request for a critical safety improvement at an intersection and ask a few weeks later if there’s any update? You may get the response “Not that I’ve heard.”
Cars parking in a bike lane? The advice is to call 911. And well, I think it’s best to leave 911 for things like robberies or muggings, not car-in-a-bike lane, but that’s what we’re told to do. Another option might be to help people realize they’re parking in a bike lane by adding “bike lane” markings and “no parking signs,” but it can take the town more than a year to install them after they have been requested.
We have established procedures for lane or sidewalk closures
If a utility company completely blocks a road, you’d bet that the town would jump into action. If a utility company completely blocks a bicycle or pedestrian path? Not quite.
But it’s interesting to note that the town has established procedures for lane or sidewalk closures. Theoretically, the applicant is required to give five days notice before closing a road lane or a sidewalk, yet sidewalks are routinely blocked without town officials having any knowledge of it. Not to mention that even if notice is given, sidewalks can be closed indefinitely. The town’s web page says in bold type “Lane closures are only allowed 9am – 4pm Monday-Friday.” Which means, apparently, sidewalks can be closed indefinitely.
Many times I’ve noticed sidewalks closed by utility companies without any sort of detour or advance notice. Each time I’ve reported it to SeeClickFix. Most times, someone goes to check it out hours later or even the next day, and the work is either done or, well, the sidewalk is all carved up so we just need to wait until the utility company is done. Either way, no detour is provided (even if it would be possible to do so!), so anyone trying to walk, and especially those in wheelchairs or pushing strollers, are out of luck.
There’s no doubt COVID and related challenges such as a tight job market and supply chain issues have made it tougher for town staff to be responsive. And there are some individual staff members who are very responsive and helpful within their own areas of responsibility. The general problems, however, go beyond infrastructure and involve basic communication, prioritization, and accountability.
Let’s just shut it down
This year, Duke Energy performed extensive maintenance work on its power lines around town. Each pole was checked and all connections examined, and vegetation was trimmed to reduce the risk of power outages.
As part of that effort, Duke Energy did work on the power lines that run next to the off-road trail connecting Cleland Road and Estes Drive Extension. This path is important because it’s the only safe way to get from the neighborhoods around Cleland, such as Glen Lennox, The Oaks, and Meadowmont, to the University Place area and Blue Hill if you’re not driving in a car.
The only safe detour around this path closure is a 3+ mile long journey. It’s one thing to go a couple of miles out of your way in a car, but it’s a different story when you’re walking, especially during the coldest, wettest time of the year.
Without warning, on February 9, the path was shut down for up to eight hours a day, and occasionally overnight. Based on response to my emails, the town had no idea this was happening. And of course, no one else had advance warning. Anyone trying to get between those areas on foot or on bike was out of luck. There was no detour posted, no advance notice, no other alternative. Two days later, I was told the town was looking into it.
Eventually, I was told the town had been in touch with Duke Energy, and that the utility company would be done with the work in about two weeks and that the path would be closed at times, without warning, between 9 am and 4:30 pm every day except Sunday.
For the next week, people attempting to use the path were the only ones who knew about the closures. No one seemed to know anything about the closure’s schedule. The town made no announcement, put up no signs, sent out no emails, posted nothing on Facebook or Twitter or other social media outlets. So I sent several emails on February 18.
Finally, later that day, the town passed along a message written by Duke Energy on its twitter feed and on Facebook but again made no mention of alternatives or detours. (Duke Energy had sent the town the text of the message three days earlier. Why did it take the town three days to copy and paste the message into a tweet? Who knows!) The town did add its own message, asking “Did you know the town has a bike map?” which doesn’t help when one of the key links on that map is shut, and provided a link to the Chapel Hill Transit website without identifying any actual routes that would work (narrator: there were no actual routes that would work).
The closures lasted longer than “a couple of weeks.” Six weeks later, the intermittent closures were still taking place, and except for two days of work, still wholly without warning. These closures often continued through the night, as Duke Energy used the path as parking for its equipment. Talk about treating people on foot or on bicycle as second-class citizens. Can you imagine a road being closed intermittently for weeks on end without any warning? And passive aggressively telling your citizens to take a bus instead?
Did the town try to find an alternative or better accommodations? Great question. I asked town staff, who never responded. I even suggested some. The Duke Energy representative with whom I communicated suggested the town didn’t try very hard.
Do I have to die to get this fixed?
Chapel Hill and the North Carolina Department of Transportation often work quite slowly. Back in 2019, some residents of the Bell Meadowmont apartments in Meadowmont asked for a safe way to get across NC 54 at Meadowmont Lane and Friday Center Drive, where there’s no crosswalk. There is a tunnel close by that passes under the road but it requires a bit of a detour and is not well lit at night. People often cross the nine-lane road to access the major local and regional bus stops, which many of the Bell Meadowmont apartment residents use to get to school or work.
In response to those emails, in October 2019, the town engineer reported that NCDOT had approved installation of a crosswalk in 2018 across NC 54, and it was scheduled for installation in the next 9 to 12 months.
COVID happened, causing a delay. But the project was still on the books, and in September 2021 the NCDOT engineer reported that the contract to complete the project had been awarded, that the contractor could do the work in 2021 or 2022, and that since it had not been done it would be completed between May 16 and August 5, 2022.
August 5 came and went without a crosswalk, and after making some inquiries, NCDOT reported it in mid-August would be completed by “late fall.”
Well, late fall is vague, so I checked back in in mid-November. I was told “Unfortunately, this work has been delayed and is currently being reviewed to place into a near future contract.” So a simple crosswalk planned in 2018 will not be built any sooner than five years after it was planned.
(This is not a complex project. There are five elements:
1) Building curb cuts at both intersections;
2) Adding a few feet of sidewalk;
3) Adding in new pedestrian call buttons;
4) Reconfiguring the traffic signals; and
5) Slapping down some paint.
You could probably get it done in a weekend. I could pop onto Amazon and get some paint shipped to your house, and we could do the work together. But it’s taking at least five years to get it done!)
Here’s the sad truth. If someone trying to cross the street got killed or seriously injured, the crosswalk would be prioritized. Nothing gets the town and NCDOT to jump into action like a death or serious injury. That’s literally one of the criteria NCDOT uses for determining whether safety improvements are needed.
If there were a death, word would get out that NCDOT has had plans for improvements sitting on a shelf for nearly five years, the mayor and council would apply pressure, and NCDOT would get a team out there to make the safety improvements.
That’s how too many of our safety improvements happen. Improvements along MLK Jr. Boulevard are implemented shortly after people are seriously injured or die. When a couple of young children were seriously injured along Estes Drive last December, the town and NCDOT leapt into action and immediately made plans to install several safety improvements (it helped that a private citizen ponied up the funds to pay for those improvements). So while it looks like we’ll need to wait until 2023 at the earliest to get that crosswalk finally installed at NC 54 at Meadowmont, if someone sacrificed themselves by walking into traffic, it would get installed much sooner.
I’m not volunteering.
In Chapel Hill, if you are trying to get from point A to point B, your best bet is to drive. The town’s going to work hard to make sure roads are not unexpectedly closed. If a lane is shut down for construction work, there will be flaggers to allow safe travel in each direction. And if there is a detour due to a water line break or some other emergency, you’re in a car which can travel fast enough that it won’t be too much of a delay.
But if you’re walking or on a bike, you have no idea what to expect. A key link might be blocked, and there may be no safe way around. If you report the problem, it may be fixed. It may not! It may be corrected quickly; it may be corrected weeks later. Will you be able to make the trip tomorrow, or the day after? Only the Magic Eight Ball knows.
Anyone who’s recently made their way along Ephesus Church Road near Legion Road has experienced this. Though the road has been impacted by the construction of an apartment building and a roundabout, it’s been open almost all the time (and there was plenty of advanced warning when it was closed).
When one side of the road is closed, there are flaggers to guide traffic safely in both directions. But for pedestrians it’s been a different story; the sidewalks have often been covered with mud or construction equipment, and there’s no safe way through. Residents reach out to the town, the contractors eventually clear the path, but on any given day you’ll never know if you can make it through.
The town wants people to make trips by walking or bicycling and is investing millions of dollars in new facilities, but if the system is not maintained and people aren’t confident that they can reach their destination safely on any given day, people are going to stay in their cars.
We need to maintain, not just invest
At the beginning I mentioned the intersection where my wife and I separately tripped, three and a half years apart. Turns out it’s worse than I thought. Shortly after my last email with town staff, the owners of the road deeded it to the town. Since 2019, the town has owned the road (but hasn’t taken down the “private” flag on the street sign.) It is entirely their responsibility to maintain. The previous owner is apparently out of the picture. And despite that, the town has taken no steps to fix this dangerous condition, even though they’re well aware and were reminded earlier this year.
If the town’s goal is to get people to walk and bike, it’s important to build safe facilities they can use. And it’s equally important to make sure that the facilities are well maintained, that they’re kept safe for use, that they remain open and accessible, and that if they need to be closed there is adequate warning, notice to affected persons, and reasonable alternatives provided.
To be fair, there are certainly times when town staff and NCDOT will leap into action. Several years ago, construction of the new medical education building on UNC’s campus led to the abrupt closure of a travel lane and bike lane, with little warning and no alternatives provided. Upon being alerted, NCDOT staff quickly jumped into action and required the contractor to immediately reopen the bike lane and reconfigure the work zone. It was a great response and excellent service and, sadly, is an exception.
The Town of Chapel Hill is doing a great job investing in new bicycle and pedestrian facilities. But when it comes to maintaining that investment, the town is falling short. And its residents are paying the price in increased auto dependency, higher risk of death, accelerated climate change, and, in some cases, emergency room bills.