My Turn, Dylan Horne: A missed opportunity on Salisbury Avenue in Spencer

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 26, 2022

The town of Spencer missed an opportunity to improve the safety and livability of their community by maintaining the status quo on Salisbury Avenue.

The Federal Highway Administration has found evidence from all over the U.S. that indicates road diets improve the safety of all road users (See FHWA-SA-15-052).

Reducing the number of travel lanes makes it easier and safer to make left turns to access homes and businesses, and has been shown to reduce the number of crashes.

Having biked on Salisbury Avenue with groups of children during summer bike camps, the current configuration is intimidating for anyone outside of a motor vehicle. Adding bicycle lanes makes it more comfortable to ride a bicycle, increasing the likelihood that people will make active transportation choices. But most importantly, reducing the number of travel lanes makes it safer to cross the street (Imagine playing Frogger to cross 2 lanes instead of 4).

The character of Salisbury Avenue feels like a highway because US 29 was the major thoroughfare before Interstate 85 was built back in the 1960s. And up until the widening of 85, and the expanded Yadkin River bridges, Salisbury Avenue provided an alternative route during crashes or construction. However, since the expansion of Interstate 85 to eight lanes of capacity, Salisbury Avenue is an overbuilt artifact of a time past. It is broke, and it could be fixed.

Resurfacing provides an opportunity for local governments to make transportation improvements at zero cost, as the N.C. Department of Transportation is footing the bill for the project either way. Reducing the number of lanes is not going to cause traffic jams. If the volume on the road was high enough to justify having four lanes still, NCDOT would not be considering reducing the lanes. If the driving public needs to get across town quickly, we have a parallel eight-lane superhighway just 1 mile away that you can drive 70 mph or faster and still be the slowest vehicle.

More commercial development is not going to come to Spencer with the current configuration. Living beside a busy highway does not attract new residents, and businesses that are driven past do not survive. Changing the layout of the street could convert an old highway back into a main street, a place where people want to visit and live.

Traffic calming encourages people to want to be near the street, walking the sidewalks and patronizing local businesses, instead of avoiding the highway like their lives depend on it.

Town Planner Steve Blount is exactly right with the intended benefits of a road diet project, improving community connections, local health, property values and development potential.

Cities across the country (including downtown Salisbury) are reaping the benefits of road diets by changing the context of our roads from highways to get to somewhere else, to streets to get to where you are already at. But once again, the status quo reigns supreme, as anecdotal worst case scenario thinking outweighs professional judgment.

So for what it is worth, I will not be making plans to move to Spencer, or to ride my bike or walk to the businesses on Salisbury Avenue. In fact, I will probably avoid the town altogether, as it is quite clear that community safety and livability are not a priority, even when a free proven-effective project is watered down over “what ifs?”

Dylan Horne earned a doctorate in civil engineering from Oregon State University with a focus on transportation safety and serves Salisbury on the Greenway, Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee.