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Durham traffic pattern reconsidered

By Cole Caviston, Staff Writer


The Town of Durham has decided to revise the pilot program of the downtown traffic reconfiguration it has had in place since this past summer.   

On Aug. 17, Durham resident and UNH alumnus John Kavanagh was killed in a traffic accident while bicycling in the designated bike lane along Main Street in the downtown area. He struck the opening door of a parked car and was taken to Massachusetts General Hospital, where he died of his injuries the following day.

The car was parked legally in one of the Main Street parking spaces. Kavanagh was not wearing a helmet at the time of the accident.

The bike lane that Kavanagh was in was recently installed in June as part of a pilot program aimed at changing Main Street; a change that also allowed for the addition of 22 parking spaces.

The single-bike lane is one of many controversial aspects of the pilot program, including slower traffic in the downtown, diagonal parking spaces along Main Street and a yield sign at the intersection between Pettee Brook Lane and Main Street.

In a letter sent to the community on Sept. 4, Todd Selig, administrator for the Town of Durham, took full responsibility for approving the June implementation and described the steps taken by the town hall to evaluate how the details of the accident factored into Kavanagh’s death.

“Town Staff immediately commenced discussions regarding the known specifics of the accident at the time and assessed whether there was an inherent danger in the location that warranted immediate action or closure of the bicycle lane altogether,” Selig said in the letter, “It was determined that there was not.”

The intended goals of this program, according to Selig, were to ensure a slower and safer rate of vehicular speed along Main Street, increased safety for pedestrians at crosswalks and having designated biking lanes that would provide safety for bicyclists.

There is an ongoing police investigation looking into the accident. The findings of this investigation and its connection with traffic configuration are expected to be released soon.

In a special meeting of the Durham Traffic Safety Committee on Aug. 25, Durham Police Chief Dave Kurz presented a report detailing all of the bicycle accidents that have occurred in Durham between July 2002 and July 2014.

According to Kurz’s report, there have been 41 bicycle-related accidents during that time, which amounts to an average of 3.73 accidents per year.

UNH Special Projects Director Steve Pesci, who serves on the Durham Traffic Safety Committee, said that pedestrian bike activity has been a rising trend in the downtown, while vehicular traffic has been flat and even down in several cases in the last few years.

Pesci believes that as downtown development have increased, drawing the growing pedestrian activity, the question for the town has been how to reduce vehicular speed.

“When there is a crash, the vehicle travel speed is the number one thing that will determine whether it is a fatality or an injury,” Pesci said.

The problem in this solution, according to Pesci, is that lowering speed results in traffic gridlock. Pesci specifically cited the two-through lane between Jenkins Court and Quad Way being decreased to one, and the inclusion of the diagonal parking spaces as a “bridge too far.”

Resource Systems Group, a Vermont-based planning and engineering firm that drew up the original plan developed a revision of the program. It was presented before the Town Council on Monday.As part of the plan, the original two travel lanes between Pettee Brook Lane and Jenkins Court were restored, while retaining much of the bicycle elements and parking as possible, provided that they were safe areas, and to add a sharrow between Pettee Brook Lane and Jenkins Court.

Selig described the proposed changes as being “the best configuration possible given available real estate, available finances, speed concerns, parking and a myriad of other often competing factors.”

At the meeting on Monday, many Durham residents expressed dissatisfaction with the council for originally approving the June plan.

Many of the residents expressed their disgust over the town council’s handling of the pilot program, while others called for a more “common sense” approach to the issue.

A few bicyclists were also present and urged the council not to forget about their place in the community while going forward with the revisions.

In the midst of this complex debate, Pesci said that in the last 10 years, Durham has made significant progress creating a safer street system, a context he believes is important to remember.

“This has been not a successful experiment, but sometimes success is learning what works and what doesn’t,” Pesci said. “We shouldn’t lose sight of the bigger picture that Durham today is a much safer place for bicyclists and pedestrians.”

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