The Triangle Bikeway Could Help Us Reimagine How We Commute, But Its Future Is

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If you’ve ever biked to work, you’re probably familiar with long commute times, fighting for your life amid speeding cars, and showing up to the office drenched in sweat. 

The proposed Triangle Bikeway would improve commuting by bike, making it a cheap, viable, sustainable, and downright enjoyable transit option. It’s unclear now, though, if the project will come to fruition or meet an untimely death, as did the canceled Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project. If the Bikeway is built, who will reap its benefits? That will likely depend on federal funding and the degree to which planners successfully address equity concerns.

Last month, the Triangle Bikeway team shared  a project update and recommended route for the 17-mile walking and biking path that would connect Raleigh, Cary, Morrisville, Research Triangle Park, Durham, and Chapel Hill. The Bikeway will also run through regional parks, pass by The Streets at Southpoint, and come close to Raleigh-Durham International Airport

Although the Triangle has good biking infrastructure, including buses with bike racks and greenways like the American Tobacco Trail, there are gaps in coverage. Most buses can hold only two bikes at a time, and existing bike paths are not always well connected to each other or key destinations.

These problems would be remedied by the Bikeway, says John Rees, president of the Bicycle Alliance of Chapel Hill and a member of the Triangle Bikeway Study working group.

“It would allow you to make trips through the Triangle that currently are not possible,” says Rees, who commuted from Chapel Hill to his job in RTP by bus and bike before the pandemic. “I felt so much better when I got to work than I would’ve if I had been sitting in a car and dealing with the stress of traffic. It’s very invigorating and it’s a good way to incorporate exercise.”

Since standard electric bikes reach speeds of up to 20 miles per hour, you could ride the entire Bikeway in around 50 minutes. The majority of commuters won’t have to ride the full 17 miles to reach their destination, meaning an e-bike may get you to work faster than driving in rush-hour traffic. And biking is significantly cheaper than driving, even if you have to buy an electric bike (see Quickbait).

For now, many details about the Bikeway remain unspecified. A recommended route has been proposed based on an initial survey, conducted last fall, that solicited more than 2,000 responses about desired destinations, commuting patterns, estimated frequency of use, and route preferences.

The study team is taking responses for a second survey until July 16, asking questions about frequency of use, reasons for travel, preferred access points, and where users would like to walk, as opposed to bike, along the pathway.  

There is currently no official projected user count, price tag, or established source of funding, says Iona Thomas, the Bikeway’s project manager from McAdams, a Durham-based civil engineering company providing consulting services for the project. Over two-thirds of the initial survey’s respondents said they would use the Bikeway at least once weekly. 

Looking forward

Building the Bikeway will help achieve the Triangle’s urban planning goals, like those established by local metropolitan planning organizations.

The Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro and NC Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organizations are working together to create their 2050 Metropolitan Transportation Plan (MTP), which will impact all transportation projects in the Triangle, including the Bikeway, for the next 30 years. 

DCHC and CAMPO released a bilingual online survey during the summer of 2020 to understand support for goals and objectives that would guide development of the MTP.  Feedback from approximately 1,200 respondents influenced the plan’s official Goals and Objectives, approved in September. 

Close to two-thirds of respondents ranked walking and biking and increasing transit services among their top five policies to prioritize. The MPO aligned its objectives with the survey responses by making one of its main goals to ensure that everyone has access to a diverse set of affordable transit modes, including bicycling and walking. 

But the survey didn’t reach a representative portion of the Triangle’s population. People of color account for almost half of those living in the survey area, but they comprised just under 15 percent of respondents. When results came in from the initial Bikeway survey, once again, only around 15 percent of respondents were people of color.

Officials involved with the Bikeway say they are aware of this problem and hope to remedy it during subsequent public feedback periods. There’s also still time to diversify public feedback on the 2050 MTP, since the MPOs are asking for responses regarding the project’s Deficiency and Needs Analysis.

Addressing equity

Rees says he’s concerned that bike share programs will not be accessible to everyone. 

“A lot of times we get all excited about technology, and people can use their phones and their watches or something like that to hop on a bike-share,” he says. “And obviously, not everyone has the money to have a modern smartphone or smartwatch.” 

Rees also worries that routes connecting people to the main Bikeway path will get axed as the project proceeds. It’s common for these “connectors” to hit snags due to unexpected circumstances that raise costs or previously planned development that delays or kills construction. 

If communities are heavily involved in the public feedback process, they can advocate against losing a connector. Pushing back becomes more difficult when you are unable to raise your concerns by accessing feedback surveys—if you lack Wi-Fi, a computer or smartphone, or transportation to public spaces that offer free internet access.

The online survey was specifically designed to reach out to people who might not traditionally participate in a study like this, says Dale McKeel, bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the City of Durham and the Bikeway’s DCHC project manager.  

The study team’s inclusion of demographic questions in its survey attempts to address equity by seeing whose voices have not been heard, McKeel says. Considering how the Bikeway will intersect with existing public transportation systems also balances equity questions.

While the study team doesn’t have ideas of ways to provide bikes for those who lack their own, McKeel mentions that some cities along the route have their own bike-share programs that people may be allowed to use on the Bikeway. There are also organizations like the Durham Bike Co-op that allow people to obtain bikes cheaply or for free after volunteering a certain number of hours.

Funding

The N.C. Department of Transportation allocates just a tenth of a percent of its almost $5 billion budget to cycling. N.C. DOT also can’t use state funds to support independent bicycle and pedestrian improvements if they aren’t lumped in with other projects. 

But federal programs could help cut the state’s red tape. About 200 environmental and transportation organizations are pressing President Joe Biden to use $10 billion from the proposed American Jobs Plan for a “Greenway Stimulus.” The program would complete hundreds of proposed greenways, or walking and biking trails. 

The proposed National and Regional Greenways Act, introduced in the U.S. House, would create a grant program within the U.S. Department of Transportation specifically for greenways projects. The Connecting America’s Active Transportation System Act (CAATS), introduced in the U.S. Senate, would create a $500 million annual fund for grants to connect pedestrian and cycling infrastructure. 

Community Project Requests have also been used to fund greenways. The Bikeway could also use a private-public partnership, McKeel says, or apply for a RAISE grant, worth up to $25 million—though the grants are highly competitive.

If the project is able to secure a large chunk of funding, some money could be used to address other gaps in the Triangle’s transit system, says McKeel. But his hands are tied at a certain point. 

“This is a project that has gotten a lot of attention, but we recognize there are a lot of needs in existing communities and other parts of Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro,” McKeel says. “Funding for this project will also be considered in…



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