Wilmington can be a dangerous place to ride a bike. According to data from 2000 through 2018, the city ranked third in the state for bike-related crashes -- topped only by Charlotte and Raleigh, two signifcantly larger cities. But making the streets safer for cyclists will take a coordinated effort.
“So I was biking the route that I biked back then a ton; taking this turn onto MacMillan off of Wrightsville… no more than five seconds went by, and all of a sudden I was on the hood of a car being launched forward.”
That’s UNCW graduate student Nathan Conroy. Before an afternoon in November of 2018, he was also an avid biker.
“I crawled off of the road. Thankfully the person who hit me, he and his passenger got out of the car, and carried my mangled bike to me. I couldn't walk for like two months after that.”
Conroy isn’t alone. According to state transportation crash data, since 2000, Wilmington has ranked seventh in the state for total road accidents. But for bicycle-involved crashes, the city has consistently ranked third.
So why does Wilmington fare worse than other North Carolina cities when it comes to bike safety? Wilmington spokesperson Dylan Lee says there’s no single cause, but that the city does need to work harder than it has in the past to address the issue.
“We've got a long way to go with our bicycling and our pedestrian infrastructure. There were years and years back through the eighties and nineties that not a lot was happening in that regard. And so thankfully, we've got citizens and city council that's willing to play catch up, and that's what we're doing.”
According to Don Bennett, Traffic Engineer for the City of Wilmington, overall numbers of bike accidents are small when compared to crashes involving motor vehicles. So with a smaller sample size, there’s less reliability -- and, less clear answers. The challenge, he says, is to identify specific changes that will reduce accidents and injuries.
“We have some tried and true methods that we can use to try to address some things, separating a trail, creating a sidewalk… as far as finding that silver bullet that solves all the problems, that becomes the really difficult task.”
Conroy agrees that bike safety is an issue in the city, and says lack of infrastructure is a component.
“...the map is not made for cyclists. The cyclists come as an afterthought.”
City leaders seem to agree. Recent projects like the Central College Road Trail, a multi-use path along South College Road, now recognize bikes as part of the transportation mix. Multi-use trails allow space for walking, biking, running, or any other form of commuting that doesn’t involve a motor vehicle. But as Bennett explains, they’re not a perfect solution.
“When you're designing a multi-use trail, you have a broad spectrum of riders that you're going to accommodate. We've got everything from mom, dad, the kids being on a little 12 inch single speed bike. The trail really is geared towards that type of rider. But you also have the commuter bicyclist who is not really on the clock from a performance standpoint, but just needs to be somewhere. And then you've got the person who's the full competitive rider. So for them an on-street bike lane might be the preferred facility.”
According to Bennett, there’s no one right answer. The best path -- no pun intended -- may be a combination of multi-use trails, with bike lanes or at least wider roadways. The key? Building a variety of paths into future projects.
The League of American Bicyclists says factors to creating a truly bike-friendly community include creating safe places to ride, and planning for bicycling as a safe and viable transportation option. Conroy and Bennett hope to see the city get to that point. And in the meantime, Bennett says all commuters can protect themselves and others by staying aware, and limiting distractions.
“I think that is probably the one thing that would yield the greatest benefit in the quickest amount of time, is being engaged in your surroundings. It doesn't cost anything. It doesn't have a permitting process. It doesn't have a design process. It can happen tomorrow.”
For cyclists, that can mean not wearing earbuds. And for drivers, that can mean putting away smartphones.
Conroy says more awareness can not only help make Wilmington safer, but it can also improve the community as a whole.
“It's odd that this technology that's way healthier for small commuting is not the prevalent small commuting method. We could have a much healthier populous, a much safer one too.”