During my three-day visit to Durham, N.C., for the East Coast Greenway’s Southeast Greenways and Trails Summit, I learned plenty of new and inspiring information about bicycle and pedestrian trails and how to make safer and more successful spaces for people to travel without a motorized vehicle.
With all due respect to Durham, this is a no bull kind of story. Here are some thoughts and observations from the summit.
I’m jealous of the Triangle. I feel like North Carolina has an advantage over Virginia because the cities and towns are a part of counties, eliminating a layer of bureaucracy that we don’t have. The Triangle (Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill) appears to have more cooperation. The region adopted greenway plans in the mid-1970s have updated those plans several times. According to an impact study, their development of a greenway network has provided a tremendous boost to the overall health and quality of life for the region, including boosts to their economy through tourism and transportation improvements. Of course, a commitment to biking and walking has also benefited the environment by eliminating car trips and reducing the number of vehicles on the roads.
The counties in the Triangle have established many greenway connections along government-owned utility easements through ravines and creek/river/watershed routes. Their networks began as segmented recreational options within parks that have grown to transportation routes that connect work, residential, park, commercial, etc. I enjoyed seeing much of this for myself during “handlebar surveys,” including a guided tour of the town of Cary, N.C., and a botany/landscape planning tour along the American Tobacco Trail (ATT).
Through various presentations during the conference, I feel that Richmond may have a need to encourage a more aggressive approach to highway interchange crossings, mid-block crossings and pull-back crossings (away from an intersection) for bike/ped projects. After seeing the presentations, we traveled on a few of them along the ATT in Durham and Cary greenways. We used protected “bike corrals” with button signals to cross a few major roadways, including one on a hill on a busy roadway. I’d love to see more of those types of features added to trail and roadway crossings in the Richmond region.
I watched presentations on urban/greenway bike network development plans for Baltimore, Charlotte, Raleigh, and along segments of the East Coast Greenway, including Massachusetts, Philadelphia, Maryland, and Florida. A couple of presentations addressed “gap closure projects” in an effort to complete a trail/greenway network. Closing gaps will be an essential goal for Richmond. Often the most dangerous part of a trail is found in the harder to complete gaps, but they are the areas most in need of completion for safety of all users and for the viability of the trail network as a transportation option.
Another presentation stressed “sustainable safety.” Similar to a Vision Zero goal. It is a (Dutch) principle of design which makes roads and streets easy to use, self-explanatory and safe by default, preventing crashes from occurring. Not just addressing saving lives but keeping them safe through engineering changes and educational improvements for all roadway and trail users.
I took a Botany by Bicycle tour along the ATT. The guides helped explain how Durham has allowed advocates and volunteers to help remove invasive plant species (especially kudzu) along the former rail line to replace them with more native plants. Native plants and flowers provided a refuge for more insects and animals along the corridor, making it a more lively linear park. We learned that place and landscape matters.
The guides provided an example with the mimosa, an invasive tree that plants itself. It is more common along train lines and roadways. Typically an oak tree has 500 species of insects and animals that feed on it, while only a handful find nourishment with mimosa. It is a weed tree, taking the place of another more valuable tree. Not evil inherently, but not productive.