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Exploring Local Greenways: Durham Aims For Safety

Durham might seem like it’s crisscrossed with bike lanes and greenways now – from the American Tobacco Trail (ATT) on the southern edge of town to the North/South Greenway that picks up where the ATT leaves off in the city. But 30 years ago, that was not the case.

The abandoned railroad corridor that has become the American Tobacco Trail.
Credit Durham Trails and Greenways 2011 Master Plan
The abandoned railroad corridor that has become the American Tobacco Trail.

Durham’s network of trails got started in the early 1980’s, when the city formed a citizen-led commission to develop a plan for the area. The Durham Urban Trails and Greenways Commission proposed 118 miles of bicycle and pedestrian corridors, and in 1985, the city and county adopted their plan and officially opened a segment of their first trail – the Rock Quarry Trail.

Since then, Durham has carved out 15 bike and pedestrian-friendly greenways, totaling approximately 20 miles. (This interactive map shows every single one, and Durham’s plans for future greenways are laid out here.) But even though there are miles of trails and bike lanes, some people are still wary to use them. Last year on the American Tobacco Trail alone, there were over a dozen assaults, a fact that the city is well aware of.

Durham Parks and Recreation Director Rhonda B. Parker says trail safety is a priority.
Credit Laura Candler
Durham Parks and Recreation Director Rhonda B. Parker says trail safety is a priority.

“Crime is a priority for the city council and the city manager,” says Rhonda B. Parker, Director of Durham Parks and Recreation. “We’ve done a bit of work to address it.” The work includes adding fences to sections of the trail, installing a video camera on a telephone pole at the trailhead, purchasing three utility terrain vehicles for police patrols, and establishing a network of trail watch volunteers.

Last week, City Councilman Steve Schewel and Durham Police Chief Jose L. Lopez held a ceremonial opening of the trail season at the head of the ATT. Dozens of police on bikes and on foot mingled with people attending the ceremony. Two members of the Durham Police Department staffed a tent where people could sign up to be a trail watch volunteer. That day, they got five or six new recruits.

The trail watch effort began in November of last year. Volunteers take a class with the Durham Police Department, then patrol the trail of their choice on their own time – walking, running, biking, or however they’d like. They are trained to report suspicious activity, assist new trail users with trail etiquette, and note anything amiss, such as fallen trees or trash along the trail. The 35-40 volunteers that have signed up since November have collectively put in over 300 patrol hours, according to Gene Carlton, the trail watch volunteer group facilitator.

A trail watch volunteer at tDurham's trail season kickoff on April 5.
Credit Laura Candler
A trail watch volunteer at Durham's trail season kickoff on April 5.

Peter Eckhoff has been a trail watch volunteer since the group’s inception. He patrols the Stadium Drive Trail with his dog a couple times a week. So far, he hasn’t seen any violence, but he has pulled shopping carts from a creek and reported a lost bike lock. “It’s a community spirit type of thing,” he says. He uses the trail mainly for exercise, but also rides his bike to restaurants and the baseball stadium for games.

While Durham has nearly 20 miles of trails, the American Tobacco Trail comprises seven of those and is the most heavily trafficked. The next longest trail, Third Fork Creek, is half the length of the ATT. This summer, the city plans to open a 4.2 mile section of the ATT that bridges I-40 and extends to the Chatham County line.   Durham city public works engineer Ed Venable says that the bridge spanning I-40 has been assembled and will be in place at the end of the month. Eventually, the trail will span 22 miles and connect downtown Durham to New Hill in Chatham County.

After the ceremony, people headed down the American Tobacco Trail, flanked by police officers.
Credit Laura Candler
After the ceremony, people headed down the American Tobacco Trail, flanked by police officers.

At the ceremonial opening of trail season last week, after City Councilman Schewel spoke about the future of the trail and the new safety measures, everyone was invited to bike or walk down the ATT in a group. Parents and children on foot, cyclists, and people with their pets lined up at the trailhead, then at a signal from the councilman, started off in a group down the trail. Half a minute later, two policemen on bicycles trailed slowly behind.

This month, WUNC is taking a look at greenways and trails in the Triangle region and Greensboro. Do you have thoughts about greenways or trails in the area? Share them with us in the comment section below or on Facebook.

Laura moved from Chattanooga to Chapel Hill in 2013 to join WUNC as a web producer. She graduated from the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in the spring of 2012 and has created radio and multimedia stories for a variety of outlets, including Marketplace, Prairie Public, and Maine Public Broadcasting. When she's not out hunting stories, you can usually find her playing the fiddle.
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