When I first moved to Chapel Hill/Carrboro, I used to go back to New Jersey where I grew up and drive on the New Jersey Turnpike to relax. I found the stream of cars, all intent on a goal and moving fast with a rhythm of their own, soothing.
Of course, Chapel Hill/Carrboro was a far different place then, when things moved at a much slower pace and the grocery-store boys (who were always boys) brought your groceries out to your car.
Things have changed.
The eminent local columnist Jim Shumaker (who served as a journalism professor at UNC and was editor of The Chapel Hill News for 15 stormy years) once wrote about this place that it was “nutty about, in order of importance, trees, dogs and squirrels, along with talk, which is practically the only thing in Chapel Hill dirt-cheap.”
That was 25 years ago. I’d say the new concerns are traffic, land use and stormwater run-off, along with whether the talk of citizens is going to be listened to by our town officials, including town staff and those elected to represent us, or whether they’re going to figure out a way to silence the pesky populace once and for all through all kinds of procedural boondoggles.
Given hardly enough space exists to cover all these topics in one column, let’s start with traffic.
It’s increasing! Ever since Interstate 40 was finished to Chapel Hill, the floodgates have been opened. You can now get from here to there, at least more easily.
I remember commuting from Carrboro to Raleigh on two-lane Highway 54 for several years, and you hardly saw anything, except for a few houses and a gas station that had the brilliant idea for a while of selling doughnuts to us commuters. It perked us all up. The drive was long and slow.
Ever since I-40 has been open, however, our towns have faced more commuters, more bedroom-community concerns and everything that comes with these. As a result, we’re confronting a demand for office-park complexes and high-rise buildings everywhere in the guise of the new urbanism and the need to compete with Durham.
Surprisingly, our neighbor to the north has against all odds become the new “hipster” enclave. We’re beside ourselves. We’ve developed what I tend to call “Durham envy.”
Who would have thought it possible?
Since I’ve yet to hear a proposal to tear up I-40 and replace it with nothing, we’re stuck with the consequences of what happens next. I begin with a modest proposal: Observe the rules of the road.
This goes for motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians – and anyone on any kind of mobile equipment since some around here like to create their own contraptions to get from point A to point B, including one man I saw on a bike-like sailboat.
The concept begins with an understanding that cars, for instance, come with a blinker system. You can signal whenever you want to turn right or left, and you can do it in plenty of time for others to understand your intentions. Nothing impedes the flow of traffic like not knowing whether someone has decided to turn. This goes for bicyclists. A well-established series of hand signals exists to indicate where you are going. This may save a bicyclist or two, all of whom face road hazards and some constantly complaining about cars.
Suggestion two: When the light turns green, it means “go.” It does not mean sit and think about “the meaning of go,” its existential properties or what competitive advantage might be gained by waiting so only two cars can make it through the light. It does not mean reading your last text messages or finishing your phone call before proceeding forward. If we want to be like New York or Philadelphia, remember this: The sound of horns is deafening when you sat at a green light there.
As the light has turned “red” for this column, more about traffic later.
Linda Haac lives in Carrboro.