The intersection of Fordham Boulevard and Willow Drive is treacherous for pedestrians.
With three lanes of cars zooming down Fordham at more than 50 miles per hour, narrow sidewalks and limited crossing opportunities, it isn’t uncommon to see people jumping out of the way to avoid being hit by a car.
Dangerous crossings like Willow Drive are present all over Chapel Hill given the prioritization of vehicular travel. This is especially evident on state-owned roads like Fordham Boulevard as the North Carolina Department of Transportation has the power to set policy for travel along these roads.
State ownership also makes the bar for enacting safety changes — such as adding crosswalks, pedestrian flashing beacons or widening sidewalks on local roads — much higher. This is reactive policy-making, meaning something tragic has to happen for solutions to be implemented.
The Town has the opportunity to change this going forward. At this Wednesday’s Town Council meeting, council members will hear a presentation about enacting Vision Zero, a commitment to eliminating traffic fatalities and serious injuries.
Vision Zero is far from perfect, but it is a preventive step to push the Town toward more proactive safety measures on its streets. It formalizes the notion that pedestrian safety is more important than car travel. It also includes practical policies like working to slow car speeds and minimizing crossing distances for pedestrians.
Between 2015 and 2019, Chapel Hill had 71 pedestrian crashes at intersections, resulting in three deaths and five serious injuries, according to the most recent available crash data from the North Carolina Division of Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation. It took two pedestrian deaths at separate intersections for the Town to build safer crosswalks on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, which included flashing beacons and pedestrian islands.
It’s easy to look at the data as just numbers, but these are people with families and friends whose lives should have been spared through better street design and preventative policy.
Those numbers, as sad as they are, still don’t tell the whole story. Mere misses don't show up in the crash data, but they still show the lack of safety at an intersection.
This interpretation of crash data is also backward. If an intersection is dangerous and people are aware of the high possibility of harm, they are more likely to avoid that intersection. People, obviously, do not want to be hit by cars, so we shouldn’t force someone to be a martyr at every dangerous intersection in Chapel Hill just to make it safer.
Putting car travel over people doesn’t make our lives better. We know the best way to improve local economic development, quality of life and land conservation is through constructing safe and walkable streets.
Making sidewalks and crossings safer for pedestrians also makes streets more desirable for pedestrians. Creating the proper facilities for people to walk with ease means increases the number of pedestrians. Some may point to a place like Willow Drive and say it has low pedestrian foot traffic, so building better facilities is a waste, but this reasoning is backward.
People want to walk in places where they feel safe and comfortable— so building the sidewalk will lead to more foot traffic.
No street with car and pedestrian interactions will ever be 100 percent safe, but it should not take people getting hit to make a change.
Policies like Vision Zero help Chapel Hill look at problems more systematically, rather than depending on data that doesn’t show the full scope of the problem.
The Town and NCDOT need to implement proactive policies, like Vision Zero, to make our community the walkable place we claim it to be.
It should not take somebody getting killed on Willow Drive to make that vision a reality.
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