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Architects Try to Build a Better Bike Route


By Megan Williams


Wilmington, NC – In honor of the American Institute of Architects 150th anniversary, Wilmington is getting a 12.5 mile long birthday present. AIA chapters around the country are celebrating the big year by designing public projects for their communities and here in Wilmington, that has local architects on the move.

When members of the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects put their thinking caps on, those caps turned out to be bike helmets.

They're redesigning Wilmington's River-to-the-Sea bike route to make it safer, easier to navigate, and more fun to ride. While the trail is already marked with small blue signs along its length, the team thinks there are a lot of possibilities, from fine-tuning to major changes, to get more Wilmingtonians, and tourists, out on their bikes.

To get a sense of what the trail could someday be, one of the project's principal planners, Phillip Humphrey, agreed to provide a two-wheeled tour of what it is now.

The ride starts out on the wooden boards of Riverwalk on a blustery spring day, under the tolerant scrutiny of the tourists strolling past. Humphrey, his curly hair barely flattened by his helmet and his orange wind-breaker snapping in the stiff breeze, points to the 'Begin Route One' sign. Among the things he'll be keeping note of on our ride is how easier those signs are to find and follow.

Off we go, led on a stair step of turns up through the brick streets of old Wilmington. To build a better bycicle route, Humphrey and his fellow architects are looking at everything from where to put benches and bike racks, to possibilities for tying into bus lines, to improving trouble spots. The latter task is easily illustrated when we hit the barely-marked crossing at Dawson Extension.

Humprey says some of the first letters his group got were complaints about the risks of this road, although the clearest illustration might be a friend who recently got roughed up as he wove through rush-hour traffic here. The cyclist was only shaken up from his slow-speed collision with a van, but the problems remain.

"This is a spot where probably the first thing we'll look at is working with the city and traffic trying to come up to a solution," Humprey says, "whether it's switching the timing of the lights, coming up with a push-button and a flashing light that says cyclist in the road or something. It seems like a solvable problem."

After we make our hurried crossing, the ride gets easier, rolling along a quiet bike path surrounded by the first wild growth of spring. This is Humphrey's favorite part of the trail: wide, well-paved, and off-road.

"It's just a beautiful spot," he pants, "I mean, it's one of those clear spots, or the beginning of the clear areas where you can tell that the original trolley trestle existed."

All that's left of the trolley that once connected Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach is a shady greenway down the center of Park Avenue. Connecting to that history could have several tactical advantages for local bike fans; it might attract federal dollars from the Rails-to-Trails program or local ones from historic preservation groups. Humphrey says he's already started talking with the city about what it would take to get a historic destignation for the route.

Plus, he just thinks ephasizing the trolley could give the ride a distinctive character. We pause for water at the restored Audubon Trolley Station, the last of its kind on the route and, Humphrey believes, one of the, if not the smallest structure on the National Registry of Historic Places.

The little shelter is little more than two intersecting walls with benches and a terra cotta tile roof. "It's a neat little thing," Humphrey says, before his gaze wanders back to the greenway. "If you look down that way to the east, you can see a nice clear easement and that's a great spot for adding some concrete or asphalt, or just some gravel to create a nice safe path off the road."

Getting the trail out of the roadway is key for Humphrey. Where they are marked, the bike lanes that do exist generally aren't wide enough to really get cyclists away from the roar of passing autos. To convince families that biking is a safe pursuit, Humphrey wants to see much more of the trail separated entirely from the road. Ironically, more asphault might be what it takes to convince families to leave the car at home.

But this afternoon, we're stuck with the road. There are a few less-than-pleasant minutes, spent breathing fumes at the South College intersection waiting for the light to change, before we can follow the Route One signs back to quiet streets again. Things are smooth, until we hit the curve toward Oleander, and discover ourselves without guidance.

Turn to stay on asphault, or go straight to follow the last remnants of the trolley easement along a dusty trail? Even as Humphrey makes a mental note that this spot needs better signage, our tires are hissing through gravel. The l greenery is close on either side and powerlines march overhead. We're just realizing our mistake when the trail spills us out on the banks of Bradley Creek.

It's lowtide and the pilings that once held the trolley trestle are visible, still stretching across the marsh. Humphrey has big dreams for eventually rebuilding that bridge, one of the project's loftier goals, but today our only option is to turn back and cross with the busy traffic on Oleander Drive.

It's not too much further before we're panting up the Wrightsville Beach drawbridge. The view reminds Humphrey of a story.

"A couple months back, I had the opportunity to sit back down with Mayor Saffo and talk about this project that we were working on," Humphrey shouts over the roar of bridge traffic. "He was incredibly supportive and excited about it. But we were talking about biking in general and he told me a story about how he used to bike all over Wilmington when he grew up. But one year he was heading to Wrightsville Beach for the fireworks on the 4th of July and he got hit by a car on the way there. Said he's never gotten on a bike since. That's a testimonial we're going to keep for our fact-finding."

The bike trail may have the mayor's support, but its going to take a lot more official action than that to ever make it a reality. The architects' generosity stops with the plans. They can recommend wider street shoulders and new off-road portions, historical displays, and clearer signs. But the dollars to make those ideas a reality will have to come from the city. Faced with the pricetag, officials may decide not to unwrap this gift.

Such thoughts aren't troubling Humphrey as we near the end of our ride, though. He's chatting about the amazing trail systems other cities have managed to put together -- three hours of biking in downtown Chicago and only two traffic crossings! Get on your bike at the Capital in Washington, DC, you can ride all the way to Mount Vernon! Think what we could do here.

We dismount a little stiffly at the foot of Johnny Mercer's Pier and lean our bikes against the curb. Humphrey seems to be taking note of what amenities this terminus lacks -- no water fountain, only one bike rack, slightly adrift on the sand.

As he rests for a moment here at the edge of the beach with his back to the rolling ocean, Humphrey explains that, in the end, this ride is about a much longer journey than the twelve-and-a-half miles we've just covered. For his team of architects, encouraging alternative transportation is a small way to atone for all the environmental harm they've seen their field create.

"Maybe we're interested in it because we feel guilty about the fact that we have allowed the building community to build these tight little boxes that don't breath," he laughs, "so this is our... penance or something like that. I don't know. It's not a penance though, because we enjoy doing it."

With the sun sinking into the waves and the wind finally at our backs, we turn again toward Wilmington, retracing a route that's still a little more than a dream. Whether the trail ever amounts to more rests eventually with the wheels of government.

The Wilmington Trolley Trail committee is seeking public input on their plans for the bike route. The group will present an interactive map and questionaire at this Saturday's Earth Day Celebration in Hugh McCrae Park.

Find a map of the Route One River to the Sea ride at the Wilmington Metropolitan Bicycle Advisory Committee's website.

Do you have a personal experience or expertise with this story? Email us at news@whqr.org