A coalition of local officials and community organizers are collaborating to get Durhamites moving in a safe, family-friendly environment.
Their initiative, introduced last year as a one-off event called Bull City Summer Streets, is expanding this year under the new moniker of Bull City Open Streets. This Sunday, and on three other occasions, organizers will close some Durham streets to automobile traffic so bicyclists and pedestrians can enjoy fresh air and exercise without safety concerns.
Robin Michler is a UNC-trained transportation planner who works as a transit education specialist for Clean Energy Durham. His predecessor, Jessalee Landfried, was a key planner of Summer Streets, which drew more than 1,000 people last May.
“The pilot event in 2010 was such a success that I wanted to try to help institutionalize the event in Durham ... to help make biking and walking part of the city’s consciousness,” Michler said.
The event is modeled after the weekly ciclovía that apparently originated in Bogotá. Each Sunday, the Colombian capital bars automobiles from more than 70 miles of streets, freeing the pavement for walkers, runners and bicyclists. Former Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa, a Duke graduate, helped promote pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly policies in the city.
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Landfried and a team of volunteers pulled together Summer Streets after meetings organized by Durham Congregations Associations Neighborhoods showed a community desire for a safer environment for walking and biking, said Mark Dessauer, who worked on Summer Streets last year and is continuing with Open Streets.
The community desire tied in nicely with Dessauer’s job as communications director for Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities, a program based at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health in Chapel Hill.
“Obviously, our streets are not safe,” Dessauer said, referring to research showing that Durham has the state’s highest rate of collisions involving automobiles and child pedestrians.
“We also have a very high obesity and diabetes rate. And one of the most important things that we [tell] communities is you gotta be active. So if you want kids to be active and they’re being hit on the street, what do you do? When will they ever learn how to ride a bike?”
Dale McKeel is the pedestrian and bicycle coordinator for both the city of Durham’s Transportation Department and the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization, which develops regional transportation strategies. After biking regularly in his teenage years and early 20s, he set aside his two-wheeler for about two decades.
But McKeel got back in the saddle after the American Tobacco Trail opened near his home. The planner “figured out how to get to places in a comfortable and relatively safe way. And it’s the same way with these kinds of [Open Streets] events. Folks get out and ride a bike on a closed street, figure out, ‘Hey, this is pretty fun, I can do this.’ And it may encourage them to ride more as just part of their everyday routine.”
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Children and adults alike will be able to learn or relearn bicycling between noon and 3 p.m. Sunday in the area around Durham Central Park. Portions of Washington, Morris, Hunt, Foster and West Geer streets will be closed to cars to allow folks to circulate in a counterclockwise fashion.
At activity stations scattered along the route, participants can enjoy music, bike safety instruction, and yoga, dance, fencing and martial arts demonstrations and classes. A stationary bike will be set up to allow people to make their own smoothies.
“It’ll be excellent people-watching,” said Mel Downey-Piper, an Open Streets organizer who coordinates the Partnership for a Healthy Durham for the county’s Public Health Department. “[And] basically, you don’t have to walk more than a block without finding some sort of activity to do.”
The Open Streets event will take place in conjunction with the city’s Earth Day Festival — which the Parks and Recreation Department pushed back from April 22 because that coincided with Easter weekend — so there will be plenty of activities, sights and sounds for visitors to take in.
The festival, which runs until 5 p.m., will feature a parade, art exhibitions, a green crafts market, local musicians and performers, and presentations on composting, gardening and local government environmental sustainability programs. The city is letting people shred confidential documents and drop off electronic waste for recycling at the corner of Foster Street and Seminary Avenue.
Would-be riders will need to bring their own bicycles. (Organizers hope to have some two-wheelers available to loan at future events.) People with bicycles that have been accumulating dust for a while be able to stop by a station to get a tune-up and some basic repairs. Another station will help children learn their proper helmet size; some youngsters will also be able to get free helmets.
Organizers are also providing valet bicycle parking at the corner of Foster and Hunt so participants can sample the different activities without walking their bikes everywhere.
And to help people travel to the event while keeping their carbon footprints to a minimum, all DATA buses will be fare-free on Sunday.
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The Open Streets event will be repeated in mid-June in North-East Central Durham around the Holton Career and Resource Center; in September in the Crest Street community north of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center; and in October one more time at Central Park.
“One issue we heard after doing it around the Farmers Market [at Central Park last year] is that many people who wanted to participate across the city don’t usually go there or had trouble getting there,” Dessauer said. “And so we took a cue from Portland [Oregon], which has been doing this for about four years now, in doing an open street in a central area and also going out to neighborhoods.”
“Downtown’s great, but it’s great to go where people are actually living and to actually explore and go out on the streets,” Downey-Piper said.
Durham is the first city in the state to host a ciclovía, according to organizers, who say that other municipalities have expressed interest in following the Bull City’s lead.
“I strongly feel,” Michler said, “that if Durham is able to sustain this event and make it part of a regular Sunday and weekend culture to go out and bike in the streets and close streets down that the impact will not be limited to just Durham but that it’ll really spur more awareness in other North Carolina cities.”