Curious Chatham asks: What’s with the county’s sidewalks?

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When Rick Webb moved from Alaska to Chatham County, he noticed a stark difference on the road. Despite coming from a small city in North Fairbanks, Webb found the sidewalks more consistent there than where he lives now.

“Like there were, you know, only 35,000 people in the whole area,” Webb said. “But we had sidewalks. Chatham County and Orange County both have more [people] than that. So what’s up with that?”

From Webb’s observations, he came up with a question for Curious Chatham, which simply asks: Why can’t we have more sidewalks?

Jennifer Britt is an assistant engineer at the North Carolina Division of Transportation. She says sidewalks are the responsibility of the municipalities or counties in which they’re located.

Municipalities are represented by metropolitan planning organizations, also known as MPOs, while counties are usually represented by rural planning organizations or RPOs. These groups meet as representatives of their respective municipalities or counties to discuss community transportation concerns.

Ultimately, the MPOs and RPOs work with the DOT to create plans for future sidewalks. Britt says new sidewalk requests receive a score through a process called SPOT to prioritize transportation projects, including sidewalks. The score factors in votes from the RPO or MPO, as well as the DOT.  You can learn more about the prioritization process here.

But sidewalks aren’t the only issue on residents’ minds. 

Jason Loflin lives near Jones Ferry Road in Chatham County, and he sees a lot of dangerous habits concerning cyclists. He says that, as buildings are developing, the county should start planning for zoning to make room for cyclists on the road.

But he feels the mental challenges of adapting to bicycle lanes are especially difficult in Chatham County.

“It’s almost like you have a different mentality,” he said. “When you get outside Chapel Hill, you get more into your traditional North Carolina where people still are not crazy about cyclists.” 

Photos by Charlotte Ririe/Our Chatham

Britt says the process of creating bicycle lanes is similar to sidewalks in that requests start with respective municipalities or counties. Requests can also go through DOT, who can then relay the concern to the appropriate MPO or RPO. But should residents want a new sidewalk or bicycle path, Britt advises to contact your local municipality or county.

“It’s just kind of persistency and numbers, calls to your municipality,” Britt said. “If they feel like it’s a really big issue in their area, they will bring it up in those RPO and MPO meetings.” 

Chatham County is covered by both an MPO and RPO. Northeastern Chatham County is covered by the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization. The rest of the county is covered by the Triangle Area Rural Planning Organization. The Triangle Area RPO includes Goldston, Pittsboro and Siler City.

According to the DCHC MPO’s draft transportation improvement map, a small number of projects have been dedicated for bikes and pedestrians from 2013-2023. There are a small number of sidewalks planned beyond the DCHC MPO’s jurisdiction, according to NCDOT’s State Transportation Improvement Program. The State Transportation Improvement Program is currently on its 2020-2029 cycle and updates every two years.

Some residents are neutral about the state of sidewalk and bicycle accessibility. Benjamin Greer lives outside of Siler City, and he says he walks in the road when he has to travel on foot. But most of the time, walking isn’t a significant issue for him. 

“I didn’t give it much thought, because I don’t do much walking really,” Greer says.

But for resident Rick Webb, the rate of Chatham’s growth means accessibility is, and is going to be, an important issue. 

“I get why there’s no sidewalks along 64,” Webb said. “But 15-501 is developing quite nicely into a retail thing compared to Cary,” Webb said.

For more information, you can find the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Bicycle Policy and Guidelines here. You can also find their Pedestrian Policy and Guidelines here.

Photos by Charlotte Ririe/Our Chatham

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