Don’t let the lovely, tree-lined streets of downtown fool you: this town is not friendly to people walking or biking.
Between 2007-2013, there were 148 pedestrian and 94 bicyclist accidents in Chapel Hill.
The accident statistics can be linked to the lack of safe spaces for walkers and bikers. With 165.3 miles of roads, Chapel Hill should have 330.6 miles of sidewalks — enough for both sides of every street. But the town has just 45.6 miles of sidewalks, only 14 percent of what should be there for pedestrians.
Chapel Hill’s average Walk Score rates at 36 out of 100. It doesn’t take a UNC-Chapel Hill professor to tell you that’s a failing grade. We’re doing better than Raleigh (30) and Durham (29), but not by much. And the failing grade isn’t just about safety. When streets are safe and invite people to walk, they see nearby property values rise.
Many people, especially students, assume Chapel Hill is walkable because of how small its campus and downtown are. But the town spans 21 square miles, most of which is hostile to pedestrians. Roads are ill-connected without proper lighting, crosswalks or safe sidewalks.
But now, we have a chance to do something about it.
In 2017, Chapel Hill launched “Charting Our Future," a land use initiative, to explore local development by 2049. The town hired planning consultants to draft the Future Land Use Management (FLUM) plan, maps and goals to shape future real estate, transportation and greenery.
At the Town Council meeting on Oct. 2, the project manager presented an update, highlighting some of the public feedback they’ve gathered. She gave voice to the complaints of certain residents about the zoning of one neighborhood. But our community’s main feedback was ignored.
A recent open house on the FLUM featured a poster titled “What We’ve Heard.” The first listed point of community agreement was “The importance of great streetscapes: attractive, walkable streets that promote a livable community.”
Walkable streets. The priority of residents should be the priority of the town. Let’s make sure Town Council gets that feedback, too.
The FLUM doesn’t emphasize pedestrian mobility as much as it should. It swarms with other lingo: “displacement mitigation strategies,” “activated street frontages,” “site-specific terrain,” “mixed-use nodes.” Mobility seems like a buried goal, not the primary one.
Let’s not overlook the basics. We need walkable streets.
Sidewalks are the first step, but walkability is about a lot more. A truly walkable area is also well-lit. It has crosswalks. It has curbs and trees and landscaping that protect walkers. And it prioritizes bike safety. In 2017, the town noted that as many as one in four cyclists were pedaling on sidewalks to avoid road traffic. Without proper bike lanes, even sidewalks lose their walker-friendliness.
Walkable towns are healthier towns, for both people and nature. When governments make it easier, safer and more attractive for residents to choose to walk instead of drive, they also promote public health and environmental sustainability.
Improving walkability makes the local economy happy and healthy, too. Joe Cortright’s 2009 study found that for every one-point increase in a town’s Walk Score, real estate values rise by $500 to $3,000. Since 2014, new developments in the city have been required to build sidewalks. Chapel Hill can’t afford to ignore walkability in other parts of town. It’s an investment that pays for itself.
Real estate zoning, tree cover policies and the other complex proposals are important, but they shouldn’t be the priority. We need to put first things first and focus on walkability. The streets we already have need sidewalks, streetlights and crosswalks. Let’s get back to basics.
Valerie Lundeen, UNC 2020
Economics and public policy double major with a minor in journalism
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