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How Dangerous Is The American Tobacco Trail, Really?

American Tobacco Trail
Eric Mennel

For residents of the Triangle, it's no secret that a certain portion of the American Tobacco Trail has an image problem.  Here's a selection of comments on stories about the trail:

We have been hearing about the high crime rate on this trail for a while now. It amazes me that anyone sets foot on it, especially in the Durham area.
That trail goes through one of the worst crime areas in Durham. That area has been bad for at least 50 years and I do not see it getting better any time soon. I see no reason to travel through that gang infested area.
the trail needs to be closed down it is a high risk highly dangerous area

This section of the trail was even cited by gun rights advocates who pushed to extend concealed carry permits to parks and greenways.

For the most northern part of the trail, the portion that runs through south Durham, crime is the story. Or, as a group heading a new study would argue, the perception of crime is the story.

"This is not the Durham of the 1980s," said Carrie Banks, Executive Director of NC Rail Trails. She's helped organized a group of community stakeholders to look into safety concerns in the Durham section of the greenway.

The group met for the first time this week. Police officers, pastors, city planners, park advocates -- about 30 people in all sat in a conference room at NCCU to hear about what Banks and her co-organizers have in mind.

What was clear from the start was that everybody was on the same page.

The scope of the study was meant to focus on a 7 mile stretch of the ATT, leading down from the American Tobacco Campus in Durham. But nearly everyone in the room (some whom biked to the meeting on the trail) shifted their focus even tighter, on just the northern most 2 or 3 miles.

"It hasn't been a bad 2014," said Captain David Addison of the Durham City Police Department. "So far, we've only had seven break-ins along the trail, and those were crimes of opportunity." By that he means cars parked, often unlocked, with purses, wallets, or cell phones in the front seat. 

According to data gathered by NC Rail Trails, both 2011 and 2012 saw about 13 crimes committed on the trail. And Banks admits that some of those crimes were high-profile.

"So far, we've only had seven break-ins along the trail, and those were crimes of opportunity."

"We had a couple assaults and a couple of sexual assaults," said Banks. "And any number of those things is too much. But if you extrapolate that out those neighborhoods as a whole, it's not that high."

In the meeting, the group zoomed in on cross streets where there is often the greatest perception of potential conflict. One such spot, near the intersection of Fayetteville St. and East Pilot St., often has a lot of kids hanging out there. Some solo runners are worried about that.

"There's a bus stop there," one attendee said, laughing. "That's why there's so many people gathered. It's a bus stop."

But that's what the trail is up against. By design, it encourages outsiders to pass through neighborhoods they might not otherwise. But it's still just passing through, which makes it difficult to understand the idiosyncrasies of any given city block.

The group seemed to agree on the disconnect between people who use the trail (including the Durham portion) regularly, and the communities who live around the trail. There's an "ownership" question. One attendee made note of the fact that people are often riding their $3,000 bikes on a greenway through some of the poorest parts of town, often without interacting with the locals.

American Tobacco Trail
Credit Eric Mennel / WUNC
Some of the problems are simply design issues, as opposed to crime.

The group hopes to change that dynamic.

They've gotten some funding to create a comprehensive map that will include parts of the trail where safety can be improved using urban design. Shrubs can be cut lower, so they're easier to see behind. Tree canopies can be taken up to improve how far users can see down the path.

They've also planned some community engagement activities in the neighborhoods, with raffles and food and music. The plan is to gather opinions on the trail from various parties: Those who live along the path, those who use the path, and those who might use the path if they felt it was safer.

The study runs through November.

Eric Mennel prepares the afternoon/evening "drive time" newscast on WUNC. Previously, he was a producer for The Story with Dick Gordon. Eric has reported for All Things Considered, This American Life, 99% Invisible and other radio programs. He covered protests and security measures at the 2012 Republican National Convention for WUSF Tampa and NPR News. One day, he hopes to own a home with a wrap-around porch.
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