The Durham Belt Line is a visionary project that borrows ideas from successful linear parks like the High Line in New York City and multi-use trails like the BeltLine in Atlanta. What makes the Durham Belt Line innovative is that not only will it act as a green and public place for the exchange of ideas and culture, it will create a valuable transportation connection for Durham residents traveling on foot or by bike.
We always advocate for physical separation of motor vehicles and bicyclists on public streets because different users that travel at different speeds work best when they’re given their own dedicated space to travel, and vulnerable bicyclists can expect a level of safety that mere paint does not afford them. This very same principle applies between bicyclists and pedestrians and the preferred design of the Belt Line conforms to this ideal wherever possible. The trail gives bicyclists a great deal of space to bike without the need to navigate joggers and walkers and vice versa.
At its widest, the bi-directional cycle path will be 12 feet across giving slower bicyclists plenty of space to meander while faster bicyclists will have enough room to safely pass without needing to drift into the oncoming lane. The best part about six foot wide travel lanes for bicyclists is that they’re not only sufficient for momentarily passing one other but they’re the minimum recommended width for bicyclists to comfortably travel side by side. This is fantastic for social bicycling, an activity that people tend to associate with the isolated road warrior or commuter. Promoting social bicycling can also help to diversify the demographics of bicyclists in Durham because studies have revealed a preference by Black and Hispanic residents to bike with family and friends.
Unfortunately due to right-of-way constraints, the preferred cross section isn’t always possible. We ask that the designs at least be re-evaluated to find a way to maintain consistency so that users on all stretches of the park have an opportunity to experience the best possible designs. If we are to expand alternative and affordable transportation in Durham, we need to ensure consistency between all segments of the trail.
The Belt Line has a number of at-grade crossings that need to be designed with care. Roxboro St in particular is dangerous because it has been designed for speed and thus many drivers on the stretch of road where the Belt Line will cross have been measured traveling well above the speed limit on that road. At these speeds, a driver hitting a pedestrian or a cyclist with their car has a near-certain chance of killing them. The project already incorporates some best practices like a raised crosswalk at Main St and Morgan St but fails to do so at Roxboro St and other intersections where the consequences of a collision are deadlier. We’re glad that the designs have embraced these techniques but the Belt Line will be most effective if the experience of using it is consistent. We recommend that the designs incorporate all of the best practices at all of the crossings to maximize the protection of those using the trail, especially when the stark contrast between the safety of the trail and the danger of the roads is greatest.
Finally, the Belt Line does not exist in a bubble. People still need to be able to reach the perimeter of the park in a safe and accessible manner. Once completed, the park will increase the number of Durham households with access to green space by 52%. This is really important for the equity of Durham’s public spaces but that equity will be wasted without a means by which residents of each neighborhood can access the park. The designs acknowledge this and have plans to improve sidewalks and transit stops along the trail but more can always be done. Once a bicyclist exits the park, they need to feed into bike connections that can maintain a consistent and comparable level of safety and comfort. We ask that the project team work closely with the Department of Transportation to expedite any future planned connections and generate new bike and pedestrian projects that can ensure accessibility to the Belt Line beyond just residents’ geographic proximity.
We also need to understand that with increased public amenities come increased financial pressures for the communities surrounding the proposed trail. We believe that all people, regardless of socioeconomic standing, deserve access to affordable transportation options and public spaces that facilitate cultural enrichment. However there are economic realities that residents will face when their neighborhoods, long starved of these facilities, suddenly become infused with private investment. We can't allow the Belt Line to act as a catalyst for displacement and the city needs to focus their efforts on maintaining housing affordability. The Belt Line Master Plan should be amended with creative strategies like value capture to raise funds for affordable housing. Durham must ensure that all Durham residents can enjoy the benefits of the Belt Line.
You can read more about the plan on the official website but at the very least if you feel inspired by the plan and want it to be the best that it can possibly be, complete the online survey and let the city know that you’re strongly in favor of the project and be sure to reinforce these concerns that the team has already identified so solving them becomes a priority. To reiterate:
- The designs should re-evaluate the sections of the Belt Line that have been identified as too constrained to maintain the preferred cross section and instead be configured to maintain a consistently ideal experience for both bicyclists and pedestrians.
- Road crossings need to be designed to prioritize the safety of trail users by adhering to identified best practices and maintaining a consistent feel through the crossing.
- Connections to the trail should feed into and out of the Belt Line in a safe and comfortable manner to maximize the accessibility of the trail so it can be used by everyone.
- The Belt Line Master Plan should make commitments to keep housing affordable in all the neighborhoods surrounding the trail.