Chapel Hill’s neighborhoods are not connected. There are many cul-de-sacs, stub streets (meaning cars can’t turn around), and dead ends. Many of these streets were designed decades ago.

You can see the aftermath of these decisions as we all experience the ongoing multi modal improvements of Estes. There’s no good detour, because the neighborhoods on either side of Estes were designed to be disconnected.

The town of Chapel Hill is poised to improve this, at least for future developments. The town has launched a new project called the Connected Roads Plan and has outlined that they plan “to make roadway connections primarily as part of new development; we do not anticipate the Town constructing new road connections outside of redevelopment projects. (Emphasis ours.)

You would think they told people that they’re planning to require future developments to have large mysterious obelisks installed outside of every 5th house. There have been several public input sessions regarding this proposal where the consultant and town staff have been interrupted, shouted at, and piled on by a small group of people we begrudgingly write about on a regular basis.

But thinking about how we can better connect our neighborhoods in the future is really important.

I serve on the Planning Commision, and am interested in connected streets — they make it easier for kids to get to school and easier for our emergency response vehicles to get to houses. They also reduce the time for delivery drivers to drop off packages, which helps reduce their time in our neighborhoods.

Amazon, FedEx and UPS use sophisticated software to route their vehicles using the shortest trips possible. On isolated street networks , they need to drive all the way in and then all the way out, back on to main, arterial streets to head into the next neighborhoods. This adds trips, adds danger and further adds extra traffic on main streets that are burdened already by everyone else navigating in the same fashion.

What the plan is not

I have seen some incorrect feedback from residents, who have maybe not read the plan or have misunderstood it.  This is not a wholesale plan to address the existing street network.

It also saddens me the fear-based narrative being used to voice opposition to what is a very logical and best practice approach to future street network design. Connected streets do not create ‘crime corridors’ and people who frame it that way need to take a look back to how Chapel Hill and other towns deliberately closed out entire neighborhoods. It is quite frankly ugly, and dissapointing to see these arguments surface in modern day Chapel Hill.

Public safety

I have already mentioned the benefits for common day delivery services, rational routes for school buses and public safety.

Let’s explore the public safety aspect a little further.

In so-called ‘lollipop neighborhoods’ – developments having only one street in and out – there can be blocked streets from weather events that either totally prevent, or delay firefighters and EMTs from reaching neighborhoods.

tree-down-in-neighborhood
A downed tree can prevent emergency rescue vehicles from getting in and out of a neighborhood if there’s only one entrance

downed-tree-after-storm

Sometimes, residents push for partial solutions, such as bollards and other obstructions. However, the fire marshall, whose job is to ensure the town’s emergency vehicles can reach every home in town as quickly as possible, always advocates for complete connections. Some of the town’s fire apparatus are large vehicles, and bollards increase time to a fire or incident – firefighters have to jump off the vehicles to remove them, which can cost precious minutes to save lives.

Traffic can play a role also. Let’s explore a classic example: The Chapel Hill Public Library.  As the crow flies, Fire Station 3 is about a mile from the library. There are two possible routes vehicles can take. One is an incomplete, bollard-covered route, but is actually a superior route. As vehicles would have to make a couple of left turns and never have to navigate East Franklin and Estes Drive.  Anyone who has driven through this part of town at 5PM knows the challenges the emergency vehicles would have if they needed to reach the library.

This route avoids Franklin Street
This route takes longer.

Further, residents of Coker Hills, who want to visit the library would take a much more direct route, and also avoid E Franklin.  It is truly ridiculous that anybody would believe this connection would be used as a shortcut. Who would drive to the library, through the parking lot, down Library Drive, just to reach a destination?

Fear is a powerful tool.  And it is a tiresome and lazy tactic to play the fear card to battle these changes, which will make future Chapel Hill safer and easier to access.

In the last municipal election cycle, we helped increase turnout by over 20 percent. We're all volunteers who care deeply about Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and we're working to make Chapel Hill and Carrboro more vibrant, accessible, fun, and sustainable.  Please consider a small donation to help us keep our digital lights on, host events, and hire students to do data deep-dives.

John Rees lives in Chapel Hill. His day job is an enterprise architect for a big IT company. He was, until very recently, a member of the Chapel Hill Planning Commission and former chair. He serves on...