Getting Serious About Commuting

Commuters on bicycle in the city.

In late November, Todd Milam, a greenway planner with the City of Raleigh, was staring at a map. For five minutes, he alternated between periods of complete quiet and extended verbal delays, stretching “Well” or “Hmm” as though they were pieces of taffy. Finally, he broke the near-silent spell.

“We just don’t see a safe alternative,” he admitted. “If there were one, we’d certainly utilize and encourage people to take it.”

Milam was looking at a section of Raleigh’s extensive 114-mile greenway system—a point of pride for Raleigh’s parks department and a near-requisite mention when the city makes most any best-of list—where it cuts beneath Capital Boulevard and turns eastward to Atlantic Avenue, Wake Forest Road, and North Hills beyond. The greenway makes that maneuver on a long, elevated wooden bridge—officially, Bridge 106—that slowly slopes back toward asphalt as it snakes through woods from west to east.

Or at least it did: For the better part of the next year cyclists will have to find another way to get around that busy section of the city.

Early last year, the city closed the bridge for several weeks in order to work on nearby sewer lines, which, by design, often run alongside the recreational haven. Weeks after the bridge reopened, flash floods from a summer storm eroded the banks and bed of Crabtree Creek, damaging the footings that support the bridge. Pieces of the boardwalk pushed away from their support piers, making the bridge unstable and dangerous.

The city first thought it could simply repair those damaged sections, closing the section for mere weeks. Soon, however, an engineer determined the quick fixes wouldn’t suffice, due in part to additional damage inflicted by Hurricane Matthew in early October. They’d need to demolish a 70-foot section of the bridge and realign the entire thing. Weeks stretched suddenly into a year, as the repairs were now outside the scope of the city staff that maintains the greenways. The best current estimate, according to the city, is to “open by the fall of 2017.”

“The project is bigger than what we normally do in-house, so it will need permits and an outside contractor,” says David Hamilton, the manager of Raleigh’s greenway maintenance division. “That is what is taking so long.”

But the problem—which Milam confirmed after looking at the map one more time—is that there’s no easy way around the broken section, let alone no city-sanctioned route to guide riders, runners or walkers from Capital Boulevard to where the greenway returns to the road at Atlantic Avenue.

To make the move, you’ll need some gumption. First, you have to bike down a short but often harried section of Capital that passes over Crabtree Creek, turn right on Hodges Street, and negotiate uneven pavement through a busy industrial zone where drivers in work trucks seem surprised to see a cyclist. And then, you have the navigate across five lanes of Atlantic Avenue before returning to the greenway’s creekside sanctuary.

It’s an unsafe shortcut, but for Milam and his fellow greenway planners, it doesn’t actually exist. He balks at the notion of biking even that tiny span of Capital, which shoots cars into and out of downtown Raleigh like a pair of pinball flippers. It is, officially, a badly broken link in the city’s chain of greenways, a literal do-not-enter sign on one of the city’s most coveted pieces of infrastructure. In one of busiest sections of the city and one of the most vital for those who commute by bike, there’s no backup plan for a bridge with a history of troubles.

This lack of planned alternatives seems at odds for a region that is trying to manage congestion: In 2015, Wake County began pursuing plans to connect several hundred miles of divided greenway trails throughout the county, allowing for what commissioner Sig Hutchinson called “the ability to get on a greenway from almost any place they live and go almost anywhere they want to go.”

Then, last March, after a five-year debate, Raleigh City Council overwhelmingly approved a bike share program, which could launch as early as this fall and allow people to borrow and rent bikes for low rates. And in November, Wake County voters passed a half-cent sales tax bump to fund an ambitious $2.3 billion transit plan that will allow for better access to a more efficient and expansive public transportation system.

But Bridge 106, the only approved bike-avenue through a very crowded zone, suggests that those using alternate transportation—namely, bikes—don’t yet warrant the highway-like deference of dedicated detours and workarounds. At least one city official says there are plans in the works for a bike-lane bypass around the bridge, but there was no confirmation or timeline for that upgrade.

In the meantime, Joe Mecca, who lives in Knightdale and works at a Costal Federal Credit Union just off the greenway, likely won’t be commuting to work by bike anytime soon. For years, when the weather and daylight were compliant, he would drop onto the Neuse River Trail near his home, go through Anderson Point Park, and hit the Crabtree Creek section of the greenway, bound for downtown. But with Bridge 106 closed, he thinks it’s too risky of a ride.

“I’m disappointed to not have that section open,” he says. “The city has done a good job of communication about it, but we need to treat those sections as a high priority if we’re going to be serious about commuting.”

Grayson Haver Currin

Grayson Haver Currin is the former managing editor of the Independent Weekly and the former editor in chief of the Raleigh Agenda. He has written for Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The Village Voice, Spin, and Pitchfork. He is the Executive Director of the nonprofit Come Out & Show Them, lives in Oakwood, and runs too much.

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Grayson Haver Currin is the former managing editor of the Independent Weekly and the former editor in chief of the Raleigh Agenda. He has written for Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The Village Voice, Spin, and Pitchfork. He is the Executive Director of the nonprofit Come Out & Show Them, lives in Oakwood, and runs too much.