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  • Writer's pictureJon Mitchell

It's time to get serious about greenways


The family minivan

There's nothing like the relentless whooshing of 4,000 pound steel contraptions passing on my left as I make my way down South Estes in the morning, wearing a chartreuse helmet and red strobe light, hoping none of the drivers happen to be texting or spilling coffee on their laps. Those were my thoughts as I rode my e-bike last Saturday to the Kings Mill-Morgan Creek candidate forum, one of two I attended that day. In between, I chauffeured my kids to a soccer game at Rainbow fields. All said, I logged 24.2 miles that day on my e-bike going back and forth from my house off North Estes Drive.


My family and I moved to Chapel Hill eight years ago from Washington, DC, where I bike commuted year-round. That experience helped me get used to biking on city streets. And yet, having put over 800 miles on my e-bike since this spring, I admit that biking around Chapel Hill, with its more primitive bike infrastructure and higher average car speeds, feels more dangerous.


I'm running for Chapel Hill Town Council to implement the Town's new development framework, called Complete Community. A key component of the framework is an "everywhere-to-everywhere" greenway system. As the most recent past chair of the Chapel Hill Planning Commission, and one whose primary mode of transportation is a bike, I want to explain why Chapel Hill should rapidly expand its greenway network, why e-bikes are a game changer, and what steps the Town is taking and should consider.


What's a greenway?


Greenways are mixed-use cycling and pedestrian paths independent from roads. They are not mere "bike lanes," which most people are reluctant to use. The most well-known greenways in Chapel Hill are probably the Bolin Creek and Booker Creek trails. Often greenways wind along waterways or utility easements. They can also run parallel to roads, like the new greenway under construction along North Estes.


Why e-bikes matter

Loaded up with a full cart of groceries (at Harris Teeter)

Some Chapel Hill residents are skeptical that normal people will ever use a bike for transportation in a town with hilly topography and hot summers. Let me introduce you to a new invention: the e-bike. It allows you to climb MLK Boulevard from the Root Cellar to the YMCA at 20 miles per hour while gently peddling or, if you prefer, simply depressing your thumb on the throttle. Worried about sweating? Moving at e-biking pace feels like having a giant fan blowing directly in your face.


In a rush? Normal "class 2" e-bikes go 20 miles per hour. That's 5 miles in 15 minutes. Most of my trips within Chapel Hill are roughly the same duration by car or e-bike. When I can take an existing greenway, I often get where I'm going quicker than if I had driven.


Think you're too old? Don't tell that to all the 80-year-olds biking around the Netherlands.


By the way, you can buy a perfectly serviceable e-bike for $800, or about $1,400 and up for a cargo model that hauls two young kids or a week's groceries.


Rationale for greenways in Chapel Hill


Let's put aside the obvious benefits like public health (physical and mental) and reducing carbon emissions. Let's talk instead about how we're going to move people around as the Town grows. Massive road widenings all over Town? No thank you. Many of us moved to a leafy college town for a reason. Buses? Yes, quality bus service is critical to Chapel Hill's transportation system, and we must continue to improve it. But most of our remaining developable land is not directly on a major transit corridor. We still need to solve the "last mile" problem – that is, getting people from their doorsteps to their preferred bus stops – and bike infrastructure does that. Many people also prefer biking and will get where they're going faster that way.

Yard sign delivery vehicle (on the new N. Estes greenway)

Even if you can't imagine yourself biking, you benefit from the additional road capacity freed up when others bike. Davis, California, another college town roughly the size of Chapel Hill but with much better bike infrastructure, recently hit 20 percent bike mode share. That's a lot of trips taken off the road. Considering the likely traffic impacts on Chapel Hill of rapid growth taking place in Chatham County and elsewhere in the region, we're going to want that additional capacity – and the option to just hop on a bike.


Also, consider young people. When my kids are in high school, I want them to be able to travel freely to activities and to see their friends. But I don't want them pedaling next to traffic. Currently my kids ride a CHCCS school bus for about an hour each day. I could bike them back and forth to school in half that time if there were a safe route, which there is not. In a sense, our school bus driver shortage is also a greenway shortage. Let's fix that while also giving parents and caregivers back the hour a day they spend in school car lines.


During my campaign, I've heard a lot about the need for more parks. Greenways will play an important role in the Town's overall parks strategy. Otherwise known as linear parks, greenways often wind through forested, natural areas and can include on-site amenities like play structures and pavilions. They can also connect more traditional parks, just as the Bolin Creek Trail connects Community Center Park to Umstead Park, and provide better access to these parks from existing neighborhoods.


Residents are also concerned about skyrocketing housing costs and how the Town can retain economic diversity. The average U.S. household, including low- and middle-income households alike, spends 15-20 percent of pre-tax income on transportation. If we're serious about housing our local workforce, we need to lower the cost of living, not just the cost of housing. Greenways are among the most financially efficient and scalable ways to accomplish that.


Finally, I'll tell you the main reason I ride an e-bike: it's much more fun than driving. If you only have one e-bike in the family, fighting ensues. Better get two.


Challenges


Time to talk practicalities. Until our greenway network hits critical mass, we'll continue to see insignificant levels of bike mode share. People don't want to (and shouldn't have to) bike next to cars, and they won't make biking a habit if they can only reach one or two destinations safely. Our current greenway system is mainly a recreational amenity. At the rate we've been building greenways, we're decades away from having a system like Davis'. We can't wait that long.


The Town Council has promised greenway-oriented development. This only works when the greenways generally precede the development. The longer we wait, the harder it gets to find suitable routes for greenways and to adjust our development patterns to those routes.


The Town's current greenway network comprises 17.6 miles. To reach critical mass, we probably need to at least double that. Based on the cost per mile of recent greenway projects in Chapel Hill, doing so could cost less than we're spending on the new downtown parking deck, but it will still cost a lot of money.


Solutions

An image from a December 7, 2022 presentation to the Town Council on the Complete Community strategy

During the community discussions that shaped the Complete Community framework, the notion of an everywhere-to-everywhere greenway network engendered broad enthusiasm, as well as universal skepticism that the Town can produce the political will and, ultimately, the funding to actually deliver on this vision. I was among the skeptics. Now I'm working to make the Town's greenway vision real.


You may have heard that the Town recently received a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to conduct initial planning and feasibility analysis for an additional 25 miles of greenways. The magnitude and timing of future construction funding from the federal government remains unclear. Nevertheless, this planning grant seems like a good sign.


In the meantime, the Town continues to make incremental progress on various greenway projects around Town, such as the North Estes Drive greenway. (Recent progress on that project, which is in my neighborhood, has been painfully slow. I'd like to see an analysis of lessons learned.) Most residents don't realize that the Town has already obtained most of the funding needed to connect that project all the way to Carrboro. The Town has also received partial funding to connect the Fordham Boulevard side path from the Rainbow soccer fields all the way to Wegmans, and to extend the Morgan Creek Trail.


How can we fund and build bike infrastructure faster? Putting aside the million-dollar grant mentioned above, the Town's general approach is to self-fund greenway design (the new budget allocates $500,000 per year for this) and wait for outside grants to build them opportunistically. In my view, the Town probably needs to spend more of its own money on greenways over the next decade. Otherwise, we can't be confident we'll deliver on this component of the Complete Community vision in time to meaningfully shape the Town's future development. Doing so will involve temporary financial trade-offs among competing priorities. I say "temporary" because once we cover the fixed cost of initial greenway construction, ongoing maintenance costs are relatively low, and incremental costs per user are essentially zero.


Can we make new development pay for it? Unfortunately no, at least not directly. The Town currently requires developers to build greenways along their frontages, but anything further would be an illegal "impact fee" in North Carolina. The costs of public infrastructure must be shared broadly. That said, greenways tend to increase surrounding property values, which will grow property tax revenues over time.


We should also explore ways to decrease design and construction costs per mile. For example, Asheville is currently building unpaved, natural surface trails as a means of expanding its greenway network more quickly at a small fraction of the cost of paving. The trails can be paved over time as funding becomes available.


We can use a similar rough-and-ready approach to quickly add more protected bike lanes, using cheap materials like flexible bollards and prefabricated concrete barriers to demarcate bike lanes now, and then upgrading them over time.


Finally, we should find out how much more cheaply we can design and build Town-funded greenways, without attempting to comply with the onerous requirements pertaining to federal grants. My civil engineering contacts tell me that hiring one firm to design a greenway and another to build it probably results in over-engineered plans and inflated costs. They suggest obtaining proposals from firms that can produce a basic design in-house and then build it, figuring out certain details as they go.


Time to get serious


In a divisive election, let's find something to rally around. Greenways benefit us in many ways. They improve public health, reduce carbon emissions, free up road capacity, benefit our kids, provide parks, make the Town more inclusive, and make living in Chapel Hill more fun. As home to the state's flagship public university, innovation in this area plays to our strengths. It will also set an example for other towns that want to grow responsibly and in a way that preserves a distinctive sense of place.


Now is the time to get serious about the execution-level details that will determine our success. Instead of the relentless whooshing of passing cars, let's listen to the whooshing of trees in the breeze as we pass each other on the greenway.

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