From the seat attached to the back of my bike, my son suddenly yelled "Whoo-hoo!" His voice echoed off the fresh concrete walls of the greenway underpass at Culbreth Road in Chapel Hill. This was our first bike trip since the tunnel opened in early June, and I had been skeptical about the need for the underpass. Why not run a pedestrian-and-biker bridge over Highway 54 to make Chapel Hill more bike-friendly from one end to the other? Why spend money on this small, 1,200-foot Morgan Creek Trail Improvement Project when those funds might be allocated elsewhere, to a major project? But on Saturday morning, the positives quickly became clear.
The once-quiet trails were now full of people—men and women of all ages, elementary school children on scooters or bikes (some in the company of adults, some by themselves), an extended family spilling every which way, the portly and the thin, some white and many not. It felt as if the community had been waiting for an excuse to share itself with itself, and in this public space in a predominantly suburban area, here they were. "How can 1,200 extra feet of trail increase usage so dramatically, at least on one weekend morning?" I wondered.
The underpass, turns out, links two paved trails formerly interrupted by busy roads. For our family, biking from our neighborhood on the rural fringe of southern Chapel Hill to the lovely municipal meadow at Merritt's Pasture required hyper-vigilance in navigating two key segments: the intersection at Culbreth Road and US 15-501 South and then the James Taylor Bridge. More than once, my toddler son twisted in his seat to peer over the guardrail into Morgan Creek, nearly sending us from the narrow bridge's sidewalk into heavy traffic.
It was a treacherous patch, and many people simply opted out. But with the Culbreth underpass, bikers and pedestrians can move seamlessly between the Fan Branch and Morgan Creek trails, making for a great Saturday morning family ride. It's about connectivity. While this combined system of trails comprises only 2.4 miles, it provides unobstructed bike and pedestrian access for thousands of residents to an open public green space (Merritt's Pasture), two public schools (Scroggs Elementary and Culbreth Middle School), a large municipal park (Southern Community) and several small businesses in the commercial district of Southern Village, including a grocery and a pharmacy. It links citizens to services.
The urban theorist Jane Jacobs extoled public spaces because they can foster the kind of serendipitous encounters that can stimulate creativity and enliven everyday life. Is it a stretch to think Chapel Hill greenways—or those in Raleigh, Durham, everywhere—could do the work of city sidewalks and plazas? Maybe, but given the smiles my family shared with fellow residents that morning, it doesn't seem like a major leap. As cities and communities throughout the Triangle wrangle with inevitable growth and development, may the lesson of the Culbreth underpass guide the way: Only connect. —Katherine Roberts
Katherine Roberts lives in Chapel Hill and is a freelance writer.