BCR's Daily Fishwrap Report for October 8, 2009
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Residents to get first look next week at proposal to unravel Durham's one-way Downtown Loop

Downtown_loop_durham It's one of the most-maligned roads in Durham, the half-oval one-way racetrack that is the moat to the city center's castle

The loop is a three or more lane (usually) one way connector that was the grand plan of Durham's greatest minds a few decades ago, in an era when pedestrian malls, building modernization, and that old saw "urban renewal" were the hottest trends in modernizing our cities.

Well, it's the early 21st-century, and a lot about downtown has changed, from the rehabilitation of old tobacco and textile facilities into mixed-use offices, residences and restaurants, to the at-last revival of street-level dining and entertainment along Main St. and elsewhere in the city's core.

But that hoary old Loop keeps on truckin', the shells of roads like Great Jones and Ramseur still Frankensteined together to make a circuitous route around downtown, a corridor that serves to discourage pedestrian interaction and to cut downtown off from itself.

There's hope that this might change, though. And the first step: the unveiling of a consultant's two proposed plans for converting the roads of the Loop back into two-way streets.

Kimley-Horn -- a traffic and engineering firm that does a boatload of work with Durham and other cities, and in fact opened offices recently in the Rogers Alley development across from City Hall -- has been working on ideas of approaches to allow Durham to (to mangle an expression from Boston's Storrow Drive) reverse the curve, and possibly the curse, of the Downtown Loop.

The proposals -- which will be unveiled to the public next Thursday, Oct. 15 from 6-8pm in an open meeting at the committee room on the second floor of City Hall -- take into account the current and 2025 projected levels of traffic and recommend "functional roadway/pavement marking plans" to accommodate the return of two way traffic.

Comments from next week's workshop will find their way into a second workshop to be held at a future date.

Just where the funding would come from to perform the work is yet to be determined; placeholder items for future phases of downtown streetscape work have been embedded for a few years now in the Capital Improvement Program (CIP) list, though without a funding source identified.

But, hey, every journey begins with the first step. And that step starts next week, it seems.




I hope they checked out Michael Bacon's two way love series about ways to dismantle the loop.

Jeremy T

I gotta wonder what the heck they were thinking when they made this abomination originally. There must have been some sort of reason behind it, but what? Does anybody know what led them to do this?

I know that one-way roads laid out in a grid can reduce traffic delays by taking away the pain of left turn cycles, but that's not what we have here with the oval. To get from point A to point B on the loop you've either got to drive around the whole thing or possibly make a bunch of left turns on the two-way streets in the core.

I can't think of a situation where this actually helps anything, unless the goal is to more quickly route traffic *around* downtown and encourage people to avoid it entirely - in which case it's still mostly a failure, as the speed limit is low and there are still many lights at cross-streets.


Originally it was meant to help get folks out of the Ligget plants (now American Tobacco and West Village) back home bypassing downtown. Too bad the plants closed a couple of years after they looped the roads.

The loop needs to die. It totally cuts off our neighborhood from downtown and makes getting around a nightmare.


Yeah, apparently there was a time when there was terrible gridlock in downtown. Think back to a time before 147, etc. The major routes crossed in downtown and it was quite a bottleneck. I've noticed a bit of a traffic problem at Five Points. Because of the angles,it can be little confusing/intimidating for people making turns. As downtown gets busier, this could cause come gridlock situations. Hopefully, two-waying The Loop will help with this situation by increasing alternative routes.

Jeremy T

Interesting to hear the history of this design. I wonder why they had to modify the routes around town? Couldn't they have just used a normal grid of one-way roads to bypass downtown instead of splicing together the oval?

I'd think if congestion becomes an issue in the future they could convert many of the roads that run *through* downtown back to one-way. One-way roads aren't inherently bad, if they're laid out in a proper grid with a reasonable way to get where you're going with a minimum of extra lights and backtracking. Lots of larger cities use one-way roads successfully.


The problem with a grid system downtown is that we have two grid systems-- one on the plane of the railroad tracks (Main St/Roxboro etc) and one with cardinal directions (W Chapel Hill St, the entirety of the West End, etc).

Michael Bacon

I'm still wondering when someone's going to notice that at least three and possibly four projects which each range into the billions have been proposed for the railroad that goes through the middle of downtown, and wonder if maybe the city might want to think about how to handle that, and how it might impact things like undoing the loop.

Todd P

^ I have wondered that myself, Michael. Does any of the existing Loop or other city streets lie within the 200' wide RR ROW? Which low-clearance RR bridges (Chapel Hill St, Roxboro St?) near the loop might be replaced?

Joseph F

The two-waying of downtown streets has made the Loop a bit less of a problem for drivers. But as the pedestrian traffic increases, the strangulation caused by the Loop has become even more pronounced. We’ve made Downtown a wonderful place for pedestrians…you just can’t walk there form here.

Todd T

Or... since going one-way has been halfway to going neither-way and folks have already given up driving clockwise, perhaps they can also find a way to give up counter-clockwise too?

Whenever I think of the loop I visualize a wonderfully crazy idea I heard at a neighborhood meeting a few years back from a favorite local DPD officer. That was, what if we eliminated cars and the road from the loop entirely, replace it with trees and create a circular common green space accessible only to bike and ped?

He was mostly joking I'm sure, but I loved the image and it stuck in my brain. Now whenever I find myself biking on the loop I envision an allee of big big trees and a rolling carpet of daffodils and leucojum in spring. At present though it feels like biking on a NASCAR racetrack or a full-contact roller derby rink.

Honestly I have never considered this idea seriously, but I'd love to see the concept drawn up even if it's just for fun.


The concept of the Loop dates back to the late 1950s - a concept which included the demolition of all of the buildings immediately within the loop, to be replaced by parking lots. (Originally this included the current arts council building, the Carolina Theater, and the Armory.) Most of the streets interior to these parking lots were to be transformed into pedestrian mall(s).

One thing to remember is that downtown was not just congested from local traffic in the ~20 years preceding the conception of this plan; highway 70 went through the middle of downtown Durham - so much traffic heading east-west through the center of the state went through downtown Durham, at least until the bypass (now part of I-85) was completed in ~1953.

The loop was conceived as a method to revitalize downtown businesses by allowing easy vehicular access (easy=high capacity/flow) and copious parking. Downtown businesses were already losing business to the early shopping centers by the late 1950s.

The primary problem was the asphalt/building ratio after adding in the freeway and urban renewal. There was a massive capacity road network with few buildings to house businesses. A secondary problem was the quirky idea to essentially create a giant high-capacity roundabout around downtown. I can imagine that it looked rather innovative on paper, but in practice, people flocked downtown about as much as they have picnics in the middle of roundabouts.



The two proposals are already available online, in full high-resolution glory:


Seth Vidal

Just took at the new plans. I'll be sure to be there next week to bring up the issue of proper bicycling facilities. As it is it looks like no lanes, no paths, no separate facilities at all.

Seth Vidal

A few more comments: It looks like plan 2 does not change roxboro st from being one way and from being a giant divider in the middle of downtown. It looks like it is still 5 lanes wide (one way in plan 2 and 2 ways in plan 1) and no new islands or dividers.

It makes the library almost impossible to reach from the west side of downtown on foot.

If we want downtown to be alive I think we need to encourage as much pedestrian traffic as possible.

Bo H

Nothing special in either of those 2 plans: second version is slightly more humane at the intersection of Ramseur & Roxboro, as well as Roxboro & Morris, so hurrah for that. Would've liked to see a hint of creativity, maybe abandoning a portion of the circuitous connection b/t Roxboro & Mangum, or installing a landscaped roundabout at Mangum & Morris (or Roxboro & Morris) in lieu of streetlight. This is what you get when you ask for urban design from traffic engineers (not to disparage K-H, who are good at what they do), without the collaboration of those who are just as interested in moving people as cars.


Agreed with Seth on both points.

Also, it would be nice to see some more dramatic change on the west side of the loop, in either alternative. Have the old loop T into Morgan St. Use part of the old Bus station. That way Morgan St. east-bound can continue east. The pedestrian crossings following Morgan St. will be greatly reduced. Sell the old ROW for redevelopment along with the idiotic South Bank surrounded by its moat of parking (the second worst building in downtown).

Anyway, either alternative represents missed opportunities to dramatically improve the pedestrian experience along and across the current loop. I wish I could attend the meeting -- is there a way to submit official comments without attending?

Todd P

I like the 2-way conversion of Roxboro - anything that eases access downtown is good. But it does not really seem necessary to have 2 southbound lanes on that short stretch of Roxboro. One would be enough, and the space from the other lane could be converted to a bike lane to one side and a pedestrian island in the middle. This would make it easier to cross Roxboro and walk to the library.

Owen Evans

These plans are horrendous. They do NOTHING to reconnect the neighborhoods in and around downtown. You guys in Durham need to show up at this meeting and tell them they need to forget about traffic counts and projections, and remember about how this is supposed to stitch downtown back together.

In Raleigh, Kimley Horn tried to sell us some horrible plan for a "Bypass lane roundabout" at the intersection of Hillsborough and Morgan and the public sent them entirely back to the drawing board. Eventually they rethought things and came up with a single-lane roundabout as the final design. So it can be done.

What's the point of the EEC and the Alston widening anyway, if you're going to wind up with a shitty layout like this downtown regardless?

My suggestions are basically what Bull In Full had posted years back.

1. As previous posters have stated here, Both directions of Morgan should proceed straight through to Holloway.
2. Ditch the Morgan-Liberty connection entirely.
3. Make Liberty a two-way street east of Roxboro and connect it to Church Street on the west.
4. Morgan needs some stoplights between Mangum and Roxboro to break it up and give places for pedestrians to cross. Therefore Extend Chapel Hill and Cleveland across Morgan and put in stoplights.
5. Roxboro Street can stay one-way but should be no wider than Mangum: two to three lanes. Use the leftover width for parallel parking and extra wide sidewalks.
6. Get rid of all the high speed turning movements and traffic islands.


I wonder how the designers are going to handle the exit off of Ramseur onto Roxboro St. northbound? If you make Ramseur two-way, the left exit will have to be closed, and traffic wanting to go north on Roxboro will have to turn left under the railroad bridge. It could be a very tight turn for some big rigs.

If they are going to make Roxboro two-way adjacent to the loop, they'll have to put in some concrete barrier to separate the through traffic from the loop traffic. Otherwise, it will be a mess with four lanes where each lane is going an alternate direction.

Erik Landfried

It looks like there is now a draft study on the following site: http://www.durhamnc.gov/departments/works/2_way_traffic_study.cfm

I wish this had been available earlier, but better late than never.


Just so there's no surprise when it gets done, the proposals show that this is NOT a two-way loop all the way around downtown. At best, about 80% of the loop footprint will be two-way, because of the fact that Roxboro stays one-way, and no easy fix for the Ramseur/Roxboro connection.

In the first proposal, the Ramseur exit ramp stays one-way to Mangum, or is removed in the second proposal. There is no way to go all the way around on the existing loop footprint from the eastbound direction. In order to go around downtown from Corcoran to Main Street or Liberty Street, you have to get off the loop by taking a right at Corcoran, cross the railroad tracks, take a left onto Pettigrew, take a left under the Roxboro Street railroad bridge, then proceed up along Roxboro to Main or further up the loop. That's not a seamless transition.

These plans are poorly thought out, and by marketing this project as "making the loop two-way" is going to confuse and anger a lot of people after all the money is spent and assumptions are not met.

A better alternative to is to wait until a design comes forth that makes the loop two-way all the way around downtown. There are a lot of more imporatant road projects to consider, not to mention there's no funding for this loop change.

Kevin Davis

@GL: You're right about the challenge at the Ramseur/Roxboro intersection; that came up in tonight's meeting. However, under one of the proposals Roxboro actually would go two way; that Ramseur split (that currently carries loop traffic up to Rox) would handle south/west/clockwise traffic in the Loop's reverse direction.

It's one of the reason why there's some suggestion of extending the Loop further east to Dillard.

I'll have more on this in a post tomorrow.


I like the idea of extending the loop to Dillard, back around to Liberty (becoming two-way itself) to downtown, and making Roxboro two-way from the Markam Avenue split all the way down to Lakewood Avenue. Ramseur Street to Dillard would then be two-way extension of the loop, so that 100% of the loop would be two-way.

Trying to preserve the Ramseur access ramp as a two-way to Main would be a disaster, as I've said before, you would have four lanes, with each lane adjacent going in opposite directions (lane closest to the courthouse going south, the one beside going north, the one beside it on Roxboro going south, and finally the farthest lane going north).

The Ramseur ramp should be ONE lane, ONE way as an access to merge onto Ramseur Street westbound from the southbound lane on Roxboro and E Main. That would provide clearance for any large trucks and avoid head-on collisions. It would no longer be part of the loop and the difficulty of dealing with the railroad bridge would be moot.

Also, if it makes sense to two-way Roxboro, it makes perfect sense to two-way Mangum.

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