Uptown Charlotte's Protected Bike Lane On Track, But Not Fast Enough For Cyclists

Nov 12, 2019

Cyclists would love to not worry about being hit by vehicles. And drivers would love to not worry about hitting cyclists. Charlotte planners believe a protected bike lane project will make everyone happier and safer on uptown's roads.

The design for the Uptown Cycle Track on Fifth and Sixth Streets from a 2016 study from the city of Charlotte.

Stephanie Bercht is a designer who works uptown. She commutes to work by bike every day — she says there’s no bad day to bike. You just need to be prepared. As prepared as Bercht is, she still gets scared on her commute into uptown.

"You’re like constantly worried that you’re gonna get hit," Bercht says. "I’m not one to pray, but sometimes I kind of like, put my praying mode on, and be like, 'OK, let me get to the next light, and I’ll be fine.' Which is kind of a bummer, you know?"

City planners believe a two-mile protected bike lane will make cycling much safer in uptown. Called the Uptown Cycle Track, it would stretch east to west along Sixth Street, connecting the Little Sugar Creek Greenway to Irwin Creek Greenway. The project will feature dividers such as waist-high concrete barriers, fencing, and other dividers to separate bikes from car traffic.

It’ll cost about $6.5 million. A pilot section of the route opened in May, with temporary plastic posts every few feet to separate cyclists from traffic. It ends in front of ImaginOn right now, where Sixth Street meets the Rail Trail.

"It’s just like a mini lane just for cycling," Bercht notes. "You’ve got a couple of sections sometimes that are green to indicate there’s like an intersection with a driveway or something like that. And then you’ve got your bicycle icon on the lane and it’s actually two lanes, one going east and the other one going west. So it’s really nice, pretty clear indicator."

The Uptown Cycle Track pilot project outside the ImaginOn on Sixth Street.

She just has two questions for city planners: "When are they gonna finish this? And when are they gonna put more of it elsewhere, you know?"

The city's bicycle program manager, Will Washam, hears these types of questions a lot. 

“'When’s it gonna be done?'” That’s the question we hear the most," Washam said at a recent public information meeting for the project at the ImaginOn.

The answer is late 2021. The project’s design is being finalized, and early next year companies will bid on its construction, which is expected to begin in September after the Republican National Convention.

The project will reduce driving space. Most sections of Sixth Street will go from three lanes to two. However, Washam points out, that third lane is often for off-peak parking and trucks making deliveries.

Planners present different barrier options for the Cycle Track. Most barriers will be concrete, but their type and design may change based on location.
Credit Michael Falero / WFAE

In 2017, city planners tested the project for one week to see how it would impact rush hour traffic on Sixth Street. They blocked off the proposed route with traffic cones and signs, and allowed cyclists to travel along the temporary protected lane. Planners found that with changes to traffic light timing, drivers on Sixth Street experienced at most a two-minute increase in their commute, with an average increase of about one minute.

"We certainly don’t want to disrupt more than we have to with the introduction of this new piece of infrastructure," Washam says. "So yeah, we’re taking a deliberative approach and we think that we can make this project very successful to tee us up well."

Washam and city planners have proposed a larger vision called “The Ward Loop” — a network of protected bike lanes connecting all the wards in uptown. Most of this network is still unfunded, and at a recent event planners were asking residents to suggest a permanent name for the initative.

Charlotte's Ward Loop plan. (Key: existing bike lanes in solid green, funded and unbuilt lanes in dotted green, unfunded and unbuilt lanes in dotted yellow.)
Credit Charlotte Department of Transportation

That larger plan excites Terry Lansdell of BikeWalkNC, as does the Uptown Cycle Track. He just wants these projects done faster.

"We need the Silver Line yesterday, we need the Cycle Track done yesterday, we need these sooner than later," says Lansdell. "As we’ll see in the RNC, the streets are going to be not for cars when they’re in town, the streets are going to be for pedestrians and bikes and people using active transportation."

Safety is a big reason he wants the Cycle Track to be completed sooner.

Charlotte has seen an increase in the number of cyclists and pedestrians killed in traffic accidents, with four cyclists and 27 pedestrians killed city-wide in 2017. The city again recorded four cyclist and 27 pedestrian deaths in 2018. It also saw 143 bicycle-involved crashes that year, the highest number since 2015. Lansdell says the Uptown Cycle Track will make the area safer for everyone by physically separating cars from cyclists, pedestrians, and people on e-scooters.

"People are dying on our roads because of inattentive drivers and speeding," Lansdell says. "The more opportunities we can do to advance any type of facility design that creates a safer environment for roadway users should be the top priority."

Stephanie Bercht hopes that when this project is finished, she can feel safe while she explores more of uptown. Bercht used to live in Pittsburgh, a city she says has better biking infrastructure. But she got in an accident there when a driver tried to move into her lane and pass her. The driver’s side-view mirror clipped her, forcing her off the road.

A protected bike lane would’ve prevented that.

"Here, I think everything is designed around cars," Bercht says. "So, I feel like I’m always fighting that culture of driving fast. It’s something we really need here to make bicycling more approachable and accessible, really. Because right now, it’s not."

For the next two years, though, Bercht and her fellow cyclists will have to do what they've always done: stay vigilant on roads in uptown Charlotte.