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Is It Time for Wilmington To "Take Back The Streets?"

Has Our Love Affair Ended?

As a nation that has had a love affair with the automobile going back a hundred years or so, it has been taken for granted that streets exist for autos. Even buses and trolleys have been an afterthought in most places. Is that about to change?

If you’ve been reading our blogs, you have seen discussions of the merits of electric shuttles, bikes and even scooters, pointing out how these are serious alternatives for us to consider. Of course, they need to be operated safely, if ridden on sidewalks, they are often a problem for riders and pedestrians alike, and streets are hazardous. How do we deal with these new realities?

We also note change driven by the alternative ride hailing companies Uber and Lyft, which have grown explosively with huge tradition-disrupting impact across the globe.

Lyft says they are pursuing a vision:

“A Future Where Cities are Built Around People, not Private Cars”

To underscore that vision, Lyft and Uber have both recently purchased electric scooter

companies and are rolling out second generation versions of electric scooters that are sturdier, have longer lasting batteries, better handling, improved brakes, bigger tires and broader foot platforms. These are no longer just for recreational uses. They will take us that “last mile” and more to the office or other destination.

Coping with our Urbanization

The Wilmington NC Region is increasingly urban and dense. We are reminded of this during daily driving in the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County. Leland is growing dramatically and knitting together its own urban core, and the communities in Pender County that have developed as Market Street/Route 17 extended are becoming increasingly urban as well. Let’s face it, we now have urban congestion and longer commutes. We need to rethink our transportation strategies.

A Call for Action

We have seen in recent bond Issues that voters want sidewalks, bike paths, parks and

recreational facilities as priorities. They expect urban planners to devise plans and elected officials to act upon such plans with input from all of us. There are tools to help us get engaged at the neighborhood level to make our streets part of the solution. It’s happening all across the country.

Wikipedia gives us Guidance:

“Complete Streets is a transportation policy and design approach that requires streets to be planned, designed, operated, and maintained to enable safe, convenient and comfortable travel and access for users of all ages and abilities regardless of their mode of transportation. Complete Streets allow for safe travel by those walking, cycling, driving automobiles, riding public transportation or delivering goods.”

There is a National Complete Streets Coalition (NCSC) to assist communities with model policies. A recent example is Providence Rhode Island’s “Great Streets Master Plan,” well worth a read for anyone wishing to lead a neighborhood or urban plan effort for us.

For example, the plan advocates means to make walking and biking safer, traffic calming, improvements and knitting together of Urban Trails that include protected lanes on streets for all personal or “micro-mobility” vehicle choices.

Dedicated street lane for two directional biking and personal mobility devices.

Giving Personal Mobility Devices a Lane

Painting bicycle symbols on pavement has proven not to be a safe bike lane strategy. Further, studies show bikers do not feel safe and many will not use them. The lane has got to be protected, so cars will not intrude. Yes, this takes a lane out of the road when many believe we need more lanes, not less. There is no one size fits all, but the reality in dealing with gridlock can’t be infinite increases in roadways, destroying homes and neighborhoods in urban areas.

So the challenge is to see if we can increase usage by many more bikes, scooters and the like if they have a lane of their own, and smart incentive policies to make public transportation more popular, along with AI based improved traffic flow improvements, improved intersections, lighting, signage and more.

Would Oleander Drive in the City be a Good Place to Start?

Redoing many streets simultaneously would be an ambitious undertaking when post-hurricane budgets have not been fully restored, and NCDOT has a lot of roads to address where elevation, storm-water management, sewer improvements and general repairs are necessary. But with a Complete Streets plan, implementation could proceed on a few priority streets.

Oleander would appear to be a good example. It is wide, heavily traveled, cuts through from UNCW to downtown Wooster and Dawson. A single lane could be allocated for use as two bike lanes (yes, it will be safer to ride on the “wrong side” of the street in a dedicated lane with barriers to assure it is for use by bikes and other personal mobility devices at speeds of no greater than 15-20 mph). Fixing frequent accident intersections and providing turn lanes with protection of personal mobility device users and pedestrians are always among the parts of Complete Streets improvement programs.

A Final Thought—We Need a few Leaders Taking an Interest—and the Lead!

We are years behind some areas of the country and can learn from the kinds of models and studies as identified above in doing our homework. Who will step forward to lead us?

Bill Graham

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