Update: Dale McKeel has written BCR to inform us that this section of Washington Street is under contract for a sidewalk addition. A sidewalk will be added outside the current curb on the west side of Washington St. Unfortunately, this sidewalk will not address the excessive width of Washington Street, a factor that discourages pedestrian activity. Also, because this sidewalk will be on one side of the street, residents on the east side of Washington will be forced to cross the street to travel on the side walk and then cross again to head to Club Boulevard Elementary. The sidewalk should be in placed by May 2011.
Today marks the celebration of International Walk to School Day, a day in which local governments encourage school children to walk or ride to school. The movement is a public health intervention that has several aims, the first and most obvious being the re-introduction of physical activity into the lives of children.
It may not seem like much, but a simple half-mile walk twice a day may be the only exercise that most children will get in a day. With childhood obesity rates rising with each passing year, walking to school could be an effective way to get children some form of daily exercise.
Not to mention other ancillary effects, such as the community cohesion that will come from walking and talking with your neighbors five days a week.
It does not appear that Durham Public Schools is participating in today's event at a district level, but three schools do have events registered on the Walk to School Day website. One notable example is Club Boulevard Elementary, which is having all bused students dropped off two blocks from the school so that they can finish their commute by foot.
The goal of the walk-to-school campaign is a good one, so I decided to see just how easy it is for some Durham families to walk to school.
Barry Ragin introduced me to two moms who walk about a half mile to Club Boulevard Elementary each morning, and we decided to tag along and observe the trip. The walk is a quick and seemingly easy one, at least by looking at a map. The walk, which is of the length targeted by walk to school campaigns, consists of a few blocks up Washington St, and then a few blocks over on Club.
The first thing that becomes apparent is that Washington St is an intimidating road. Despite the fact that it is a local street, as it makes no direct connections to any freeway, it has lanes wider than those you find on any interstate.
With a total width of at least fifty feet, Washington could see the addition of striped parking spots and bike lanes in both directions and still meet the minimum criteria of an interstate highway. These wide lanes encourage speeding and other reckless behavior like passing in the same lane.
Despite the wide lanes on Washington, there are no sidewalks present. This forces the foot-powered school bus to use a small, muddy path lined with trash and poison ivy. Usually the trash consists of fast food packaging, but at times parents are forced to field questions about discarded prophylactics and other items that are difficult to explain to a elementary-aged child.
Other obstacles make it a tight squeeze and necessitate a reminder to the kids to stay out of the road. These tight maneuvers must take place next to a road traveled by cars with an average speed of at least 35 miles per hour, although some passing cars were clearly going faster than reasonable.
Then, of course, come the obstacles that I wouldn't realize. After seeing how difficult it is to get a jogging stroller up the curb, I can only imagine the impossible challenge that obstacles like these pose to those with limited mobility. If you're stuck using a walker or simply have a bad hip, this walk will never happen.
Other barriers don't have a tenable solution, such as the noisy walk under I-85. Note that the pre-schooler is being carried by his mom-- he was not a fan of the noise.
Another reason for the carry could have been the general unease caused by the sight of a homeless encampment. I don't really want to broach the subject of homelessness and its causes and solutions today, but it is worth noting that this bridge is only a mile away from Durham Rescue Mission's Good Samaritan Inn.
The ultimate indicator of how pedestrian unfriendly the Club Boulevard Elementary walk zone is was the bike rack in front of the school. We arrived right on time for classes, at a point when many other families had already arrived. Only two bicycles were present in the bike rack in front of the school.
The main challenge posed by this walk is Washington St. The street is simply too wide to be a local road, and there is no excuse for a lack of sidewalk when, with 25 foot wide lanes, space exists in the current right-of-way. Washington connects downtown with Club Boulevard and beyond, and it makes sense for this street to be a bike and pedestrian thoroughfare for those heading to and from the Central Park district.
One would think that the road is the pedestrian route of choice over Mangum or Roxboro due to the presence of two-way traffic and one lane in each direction. The wide lanes, however, encourage speeding. It's easy to forget that you're on a local road when you have more space than when you drive on I-40.
Washington is in serious need of traffic calming and pedestrian facilities. Unfortunately, so are many other roads in Durham. Plans to improve pedestrian access on Washington are perennially delayed, with summer-time announcements that the project is 'just a year away' something you could likely calibrate your calendar with. A recent focus on asphalt conditions is warranted given the deteriorating nature of many city streets, but it does leave many Durhamites to question the city's priorities when it comes to pedestrian traffic.