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Car Free in Carrboro

Living without a car in small town NC

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Chapel Hill

Over the culvert and through the woods, to Eastgate Shopping we go

My land use and environmental policy class met this morning at the Starbucks in the Eastgate shopping center in Chapel Hill. We met with a DCRP alum who gave us some insight into the development that’s happening in the area, their new form-based code, and context for the repeated flooding they’ve experienced. Part of the reason for the flooding (although as our speaker pointed out, a lot of it has to do with what’s happening upstream) is that the entire shopping center is built on top of Booker Creek. We spent a few minutes looking at the huge culvert where the creek runs underneath the parking lot.

My biggest takeaway was that although single-family residential development has floodplain restrictions (e.g., new residential development can’t go in a greenfield that’s a floodplain), commercial development has no such restriction. While the owners of Eastgate couldn’t necessarily build in the same manner today because of the new form-based code and other stormwater management regulations for protecting the Booker Creek watershed, they wouldn’t be prohibited from developing in the area solely based on its potential (and history) of flooding.

Trip: Carrboro to Eastgate
Total trip time: 40 minutes (15 walking, 15 waiting, 10 riding)
Total trip distance: 3.4 miles
Mode: Bus
Line: CL
Frequency: Approx. once per hour
Cost: $0
Level of crowding: Nearly empty
Trip quality: 5 stars
+ for directness, on-time performance, speed, and price

Trip: Eastgate to UNC Campus
Total trip time: 13 minutes (4 walking, 1 waiting, 8 riding)
Total trip distance: 3 miles
Mode: Bus
Line: D
Frequency: Every 20 minutes
Cost: $0
Level of crowding: Moderate
Trip quality: 5 stars
+ for convenience, on-time performance, frequency, speed, and price

The featured image is not of Eastgate Shopping Center. Although this is maybe what my subconscious sees when I think about going there.

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Guest Post: Getting Pulled Over on a Bicycle

I’m proud to introduce this guest post by my classmate Nate Seeskin. Nate, thanks for writing up your experience and sharing it with the blog!


I never thought I’d see the day: a cop pulled me over while I was on my bicycle. It was around 1:30 PM on a sunny Tuesday, August 30th of this year. Ironically, I had just left a group meeting for my Pedestrian and Bicycle Transportation Planning class (Katy is in this class with me). I was biking on Cameron Avenue toward Columbia Street on UNC’s campus, heading home for an afternoon’s rest.

For anyone who doesn’t know this stretch of Cameron Avenue well, let’s just say that biking, driving, and walking on it is incredibly frustrating; during the morning and afternoon, students zig-zag across the street left and right as they head to classes, sometimes on the designated crosswalks and sometimes not. Cars and bicycles weave around each other make limited-visibility turns on tiny side streets. The intersection at Columbia and Cameron also has a “scramble” signal that allows pedestrians to cross the whole intersection diagonally to make their way onto campus, which can be a new and confusing experience for drivers and cyclists alike.

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Image: Maps.UNC.edu

So how did I get pulled over? I was biking westward on the on-campus stretch of Cameron when two cars in front of me stopped for pedestrians in a crosswalk. Being somewhat impatient and seeing that many more pedestrians would cross before the cars could begin to move, I decided to pass these cars on the left and go through the crosswalk. All of a sudden I heard it: the blast of a cop’s siren. I pulled over to find that on a motorcycle was a Chapel Hill Police officer, not UNC Public Safety, ready to berate me. DRAT! After taking my ID, the cop luckily decided not to ticket me, framing this as an educational opportunity (which I learned the day before is one of the 5 E’s of bicycle planning: Engineering, Education, Encouragement, Enforcement, and Evaluation. Many add Equity as the 6th “E”). The officer reminded me that when I’m on the road, I must follow the rules of all other vehicles and that any violation would receive the same penalty as an automobile.

At the time, my heart was racing, but after the incident  I tried to find some humor in it. How often are we cyclists and pedestrians legally penalized for breaking street rules? That being said, I think there are some valuable reflections. First, I want to acknowledge that yes, I did commit a street violation and the cop was right in pulling me over. That being said, my breaking the law at that moment fits into a much greater picture of street behavior on UNC’s campus, in Chapel Hill, and all throughout North Carolina and the US at large. Roads in Chapel Hill and throughout the Research Triangle are generally not bike-friendly and are designed for the uninhibited movement of cars (surprised? If you read CarfreeinCarrboro regularly, probably not). When I shared this story with my classmates in my graduate program, numerous individuals expressed how stressful biking on Cameron Avenue can be.

I try my best to follow all street rules, especially when riding my bicycle. I usually stop at traffic lights, use hand signals to communicate with pedestrians, drivers, and other cyclists, and always wear my helmet. Not only does it ensure my and everybody else’s safety, but it builds goodwill toward other users of the road. That being said, I have broken rules and made mistakes like all other road users do.

Many of you reading this post who do not bike routinely might still think “Gosh bikers break the rules all the time and are the worst”. If you think that, I urge you to continue reflecting about our roles on the road. In order to ensure our safety, as pedestrians, drivers, public transit users, and cyclists, we must all come to see each other as equals on the road with needs that are different from one another. What those needs are can lead into another blog post if not many more. For now, I’ll just say this: in a world with better infrastructure for all users of the road, I, as a cyclist should not have to instinctively resort to moving past two stopped cars. We need designated places on the road. I wouldn’t have been pulled over if there was a less frustrating area to bike through.

Little Boxes on a Hillside: A Review of New Urbanism

Originally posted on Carolina Angles on October 17, 2016. Authored by Mia Candy.

As a design and development practice, New Urbanism (NU) emerged in response to widespread suburban sprawl across the United States. The movement seeks to create vibrant, healthy, and sustainable communities through human-scale urban design. NU’s fundamental tenants include walkability, connectivity, mixed uses, architectural diversity, green infrastructure, and increased density. But its rise in popularity since the 1980’s has not been without controversy. Critics of NU have argued that the approach does little to alleviate our pervasive reliance on cars, and that the faux architectural diversity feels contrived, even creepy.

southernvillagemap
Land Use map of Southern Village, a New Urban neighborhood in Chapel Hill, NC. Credit: Chapel Hill Planning, 2005.

I spend a good deal of time debating the merits of NU, but have never really considered it as an option for myself. I don’t own a car, and despite their best efforts, New Urbanists have yet to convince me that these developments are sufficiently walkable, bikeable, and accessible via transit. But life is strange, and two months ago I found myself moving into a New Urbanist apartment, on a New Urbanist street, in a New Urbanist neighborhood. Because I am a plannerd, I decided to use this as a research opportunity. I have spent the last couple of months conducting a series of (qualitative) (spontaneous) tests in order to evaluate my assumptions about NU, and to get a feel for the lived experience of the thing.

Test # 1: Get Milk (Amenities)

main-street-usa
Weaver Street Co-Op Market located at the village center. Photo Credit: Mia Candy.

My litmus test for the convenience of a place is how easily I can purchase milk at moment’s notice. A local grocery or convenience store is an indicator more generally of the level of commercial activity in a neighborhood. NU communities are designed with mixed use as a core principal, and my neighborhood boasts a grocery store that sells milk until 10pm every day. The grocery store is an expensive, organic co-op. It is walkable from my apartment complex, but not for the larger houses on the periphery of the neighborhood. Overall, the retail and restaurants in this development are not particularly affordable or accessible by foot. I give it a milk score of 3 out of 5.

Test # 2: Get Around (Transit and Access)

Wild Flowers.JPG
Driveway. Photo Credit: Mia Candy.

I don’t own a car. I am reliant on public transit, my semi-trustworthy 1970’s Panasonic road bike, and really generous friends/chauffeurs. I was curious to establish whether owning a car is a prerequisite for living in this particular NU community. The short answer is, unfortunately, yes. There are two regular and reliable (free!) bus lines that access downtown, and for the serious enthusiast, it is possible to commute by bike. Within the neighborhood, connectivity is generally good, with minimal suburban dead-ends, and a network of lovely bike/ped trails. But the bicycle, pedestrian and transit networks ultimately fall short. Buses don’t run on evenings and weekends. Bike lanes traverse large highways and gnarly intersections, and end abruptly. There are no sidewalks outside my apartment, just an expanse of parking lot. I give this NU development a getting around score of 2 out of 5.

Test # 3: Get Lost (Connectivity and Orientation)

Walking Trail.JPG
Walking trail. Photo Create: Mia Candy.

A key signifier of a good place is that it allows you to get lost, without ever truly being lost. Wandering aimlessly through a neighborhood is one of the small pleasures in life, and a great way to get to know a new environment. But to wander aimlessly requires streets, sidewalks, and trails that are interconnected. The endless cul de sacs1 that characterize traditional suburban subdivisions do not make for pleasant wandering. It is well known that good urban form, whether planned or organic, requires a system of paths, districts, edges, nodes, and landmarks. Or, in non-planner jargon, things in the physical environment that help us navigate the world and develop a strong memory of a place in our minds. It is these mental mapping tools that allow us to wander, and orient ourselves, in equal measure.

So I set out to get lost in my new neighborhood. I found myself able to wander for an hour through the streets, discovering convenient shortcuts and trails, all the while, aware of my general position in relation to the town square. The chapel at the center of the development serves as a convenient landmark–situated on a hill, its spire is always peeking through the trees. Despite one or two frustrating dead ends, I was pleasantly surprised by the level of connectivity. Until I emerged onto a highway and had to turn back. I give this development awanderers score of 3 out of 5.

Test # 4: Get Locked Out (Community)

This is not a test I recommend trying on purpose. But when I accidentally locked myself out of my apartment, it turned out be a useful exercise on the importance of community. Standing on a balcony, barefoot, and in my pajamas at 7:00am on a Wednesday morning, it occurred to me that I needed to be rescued. Luckily, my balcony faces the bike/ped trail that is densely populated by runners, dog walkers, and parents with strollers, pretty much throughout the day. What I needed in that moment was not only someone I could call out to for help, but a group of strangers willing to arrange a ladder, lend me their cell phones, and offer me something to drink while I waited for a locksmith. I needed community, and New Urbanism provided. I give this neighborhood ahelpful neighbor score of 5 out of 5.

Final Thoughts

What has surprised me most while living here is the level of diversity I have found in streets, and parks, and houses. I am certain that when the community was built 20 years ago, the faux architecture appeared creepy and contrived. But two decades of real, lived experience in the place has given it an almost natural feel. I discovered homes, weathered over time, paint chipping, and gardens overgrown with wildflowers. It felt – and I have no doubt that the homeowners associated would disagree with me on this – real, and lived in, and only a little bit like pleasantville.

us-mail
Mailbox outside one of the homes in Southern Village. Photo Credit: Mia Candy.

Footnotes

1The actual plural for ‘cul de sac’ is ‘culs de sac.’

Featured Image: Row houses in Southern Village. Photo Credit: Mia Candy.

About the Author: Mia Candy is a recent graduate of UNC’s planning program, and an editor emeritus here at Angles. She grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, where she first developed an interest in urbanism and the complexities of urban development in emerging cities. Mia is a placemaking consultant, and a planner at Renaissance Planning Group. Her lifelong dream is to write a children’s book.

Try Transit 2016

Remember, September is Try Transit Month! With the recent gas shortage causing long waits at the pump, it’s a good time to try taking transit around the Triangle area. Or, switch to an active mode such as biking or walking, at least for a portion of your trip (which extends the life of your current tank of gas, too). Check out gotriangle.org/trytransit or ask me how!

GoTriangle

trySeptember is Try Transit Month! We want you to get reacquainted with your city, your community, and your commute when you get out of your car and onto a bus.

Planning a trip can be intimidating, and we are here to help! The infographic below is your first step to getting on the bus. Follow us on social media to be the first to get resources all month long! Facebook | Twitter | Instagram 

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Happy Park(ing) Day!

Today is International Park(ing) Day! This is a day celebrated around the world by converting on-street parking spaces to mini, temporary “parklets.”

It’s a form of tactical urbanism and is intended to show communities that their public space can be greater than just a storage spot for cars. Particularly in cities where on-street parking is common, Park(ing) Day openly challenges the idea that cars should be stored in the public right of way. Park(ing) Day asks, “What else could these spaces be for?” “How else could this public street resource be used for our community?” “What are the costs to having our streets lined with empty cars, instead of filled with people?”

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Park(ing) Day 2016, Chapel Hill

This event also contributes to the growing awareness of the [negative] impact of driving on our communities, health, economy, and mobility. If people didn’t have to drive (and thus, didn’t have to park), what could those spaces be for? And if we minimize the available parking (and thus the induced demand for driving), what other benefits might we see from increased pedestrian or cyclist activity? The research suggests (thanks, people at Bike East Bay for aggregating these studies!) that walking and biking have greater economic returns than driving – as one measure, people who walk or bike to downtowns spend more and stay longer than people who drive.

Today’s local Park(ing) Day event is being held until 8:00pm on E. Franklin St., close to the intersection with Columbia Road across from UNC’s campus (approx. in front of 109 E. Franklin St.). I stopped by there earlier and was so excited to meet some of the undergraduate masterminds behind the parklet and to hang in the space. One thing I realized is that parking spaces are huge – this particular parklet takes up 2 parking spaces, and there’s a whole picnic table, sets of couches, minigolf, some other chairs, and a chessboard game in there now. You could comfortably fit about 20 people, and that’s incredible compared to two empty cars just sitting there normally. Check it out for yourself! Stop by, say hello, and enjoy the space. Update: If you missed Park(ing) Day in Chapel Hill or want to learn more about how it got set up, check out the Carolina Planning Journal’s Angles blog post on the subject.

If you’re not in the Carrboro/Chapel Hill area, use this map below to find the park nearest you.

Further thoughts on this topic: beyond the scope of this particular post, I’d like to have a conversation about whether money-making is really the best way to drive the decision-making around the use of our public space for parklets vs. for parking. When you think about it from a social welfare or health benefits point of view, there are clear arguments in favor of parklets and not parking. But in a capitalist system the best way to convince people that something is “good” for them or that it “should” be done is to show them that it will make them more money. So that’s how we end up with studies showing increased sales from walkers & cyclists instead of drivers. Businesses do generally end up supportive of Park(ing) Day, as shown in DC’s Georgetown neighborhood, for example. Three local businesses are sponsoring parklets in front of their establishments.

 

Opportunity to provide input on Chapel Hill’s Mobility and Connectivity Plan

Chapel Hill is currently developing a Mobility and Connectivity Plan which should be completed in 2017. According to their website:

Do you walk, bike, run and wheel around Chapel Hill? The Town of Chapel Hill wants your input in developing a Mobility and Connectivity Plan that will recommend connections to significant destinations, close gaps in walkability, and encourage healthier and more active behavior in residents and visitors. The study will be an overall network exercise, looking at bicycle, pedestrian, and greenway connectivity.

There are plenty of opportunities to provide your input on what the priorities for the plan should be:

  • Take their short survey.
  • Join me tonight, Tuesday September 6th, for a drop-in public input session between 4pm and 7pm (you can drop in any time and stay as long as you like) at the Chapel Hill Public Library Meeting Room A.
  • Add your comments to the interactive wiki map.

Hope to see some of you tonight at the input session!

Why am I waiting so long at lights?

I love walking around Carrboro and Chapel Hill. Two weeks in, and the people are pleasant, the weather is starting to be less overbearing, and there are sidewalks aplenty with lots to look at and explore. I’ve been walking the 20-25 minutes to class every day and have no regrets so far.

But.

Already my pedestrian experience is stymied by a few things. I don’t want this blog to turn into a list of grievances (and it won’t – there is too much to love about being car-free here!), but as a car-free person and advocate, I do think it’s important to point out areas for concern that others may not recognize.

  • Long crosswalk wait times. Yesterday morning I waited what was at least 60 seconds (according to when I first looked at my running watch, so it easily could have been 90+ seconds) to cross at a 4-way intersection in Carrboro. I need to do more research into what the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) has to say about signal timing, but that seems far too long to me. This intersection is in an extremely walkable area with many restaurants, bus stops, coffee shops, grocery stores, the public library, and shops.
  • Lack of crosswalks in key directions. Another intersection that I regularly walk through is shaped like an “X” rather than a “+”. One of the “X” arms doesn’t have a crosswalk at all, so if I need to get to the other side of that street legally, I need to use 3 crosswalks and wait through 3 lighting cycles (see above super-long crosswalk wait times) to do so.
  • Beg buttons (pedestrian crossing buttons). For a comprehensive, layperson-speak overview of beg buttons, here’s a Gizmodo article. In a town as small as Carrboro that champions being bike-friendly and walk-friendly, they are unnecessary. Cars on E. Main St. should already be hyper-aware that there are pedestrians about. There are enough pedestrians (my opinion only – here’s where a study of pedestrian volumes would help, but I don’t have one to cite) to justify a timed signal. Beg buttons just don’t make sense to me, and they are all over Chapel Hill and Carrboro. To sum up how I feel about them, I’ll quote Rachel Quednau over at Strong Towns:

“I know that the beg button may not seem like a big deal, but it is yet another way that cities send a message to pedestrians: You are not normal. You don’t belong here. You need to push a button just to walk somewhere while we have built our transportation system to prioritize the free movement of cars.”

I’m hopeful –actually, certain– that over the next two years I’ll learn some radical approaches to improving pedestrian safety, access, and physical experience, and I look forward to sharing them here! In the meantime, you can find me waiting at the lights 🙂

Around Town: “Walk Chapel Hill” Signs

As I was leaving an event this afternoon, I noticed a “Walk Chapel Hill” sign on the sidewalk. While the information on the sign was helpful in terms of finding my way around to various landmarks (e.g., that the ArtsCenter is an 8 minute walk), it really communicated three things:

Walk Chapel Hill Sign 1

  1. The town of Chapel Hill recognizes that there are many walkers on its streets.
  2. The town places importance on the comfort, safety, and mobility of those walkers.
  3. The town is designed (and hopefully will continue to be designed and improved) with walkability in mind. Among other things that means pedestrian-sized and pedestrian-oriented street infrastructure and development density.

 

Thanks to the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership for the great signage!

There are no national standards for pedestrian wayfinding (the technical term for signs that help people walking to find their way), but there are many best practices and firms that specialize in helping cities and towns do this well. I can’t find who may have helped the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership with these. If you’d like to learn more, Alta Planning gives a nice overview on their site and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments has also written about the concept.

Walk Chapel Hill Sign 2

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