TLR Staff Report
Traffic clearly is getting worse in Chapel Hill. Alternatively, traffic actually is getting better. Then again, maybe vehicle traffic is pretty much the same as it’s been.
In fact, all those statements might be accurate — depending on how traffic is measured in the community.
Annual Average Daily Traffic, or AADT, is measured by the North Carolina Department of Transportation on an annual or every other year basis in the fall, at 44,740 locations throughout the state. Four hundred and sixty-two of these locations are within Orange County and some 82 fall within the boundary of Chapel Hill. Measurements count vehicle trips passing sensors during a 48-hour period.
Town staff provided The Local Reporter with a copy of the enormous Excel spread sheet compiled by NCDOT. This particular spread sheet listed sensor counts for the years 2002 through 2017.
Most of the data points are listed only for the odd years and even among the odd years there are a fair number of missing points, or empty cells. Whenever NCDOT staff perceived a sensor error, they left the cell empty, so as to not provide erroneous information.
Some of these empty cells were located on Chapel Hill roads during the periods reviewed by town staff. Some of these empty cells had significant values, such as 50,000 vehicle trips during the 48-hour recording period, in other years.
How these vacant cells are processed has a consequential outcome on the “published” result, that is, on the description of whether traffic is increasing, decreasing or remaining constant.
Another factor that undoubtedly affected the quality of the NCDOT sensor counts was the actual dates during which the data was collected. We all know the massive impact that visitors attending UNC basketball and football games has on Chapel Hill traffic, yet those sensor readings are not available.
As a point of reference, traffic data was collected for the Central West Small Area Plan during the period that President Obama was visiting the town and many roads were closed. Only much later when the consultant presented a recommendation about remediation steps needed to keep traffic flowing at the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Estes Drive intersection did it become apparent that the raw data must be flawed. Traffic counts were re-collected.
A potential resolution to this problem of empty cells would be to use the town data collected separately during the dozens and dozens of Traffic Impact Analysis consultant studies done as part of the town’s development approval process.
But if we assume that we are dealing with perfect data from NCDOT, what can we conclude?
The Chapel Hill town government staff, in presentations to the town council and during broadcasts on radio station WCHL, prefers the decreasing view of traffic. The town states that traffic in Chapel Hill decreased by 4 percent from 2003 to 2017, a 14-year period. And traffic may be decreasing in some locations in Chapel Hill due to the significant investment in free bus service over the last decade or so as well as more people riding bikes to commute to work.
However, using a more typical 10-year period for comparison, say 2005 thru 2015, the numbers say traffic increased by 7 percent. Using the period of 2011 to 2017, traffic increased by 22 percent. From 2007 to 2017, traffic increased by 1 percent.
During the period from 2005 to 2009, traffic was essentially constant.
In other words, pick your period and the answers vary enormously, even just with the data provided from 2002 through 2017. Better analysis would use data collected during the 10-year annual census periods so that population trends could accurately be compared to traffic results.
Summer Construction Traffic on Franklin
Regardless of the various traffic counts totaled throughout Chapel Hill during various time periods, why does the typical resident have a “seat of the pants” feeling that traffic is surely increasing?
Since Chapel Hill is not laid out on a grid, there are but a few thoroughfares, such as Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard, Fordham Boulevard, Franklin Street and Estes Drive, that all drivers must use or cross to get anywhere in or out of town. It is traversing these thoroughfares that occasionally give residents, pass-through commuters and visitors alike traffic nightmares.
Most of the congestion during rush hour that annoys drivers involves those thoroughfares, and is easy to diagnose. For example, the road funnel where two lanes of Franklin Street and two lanes of Fordham Boulevard heading toward Interstate 40 are merged into a total of two lanes is one of the major headaches.
This pinching backs up traffic so that the Franklin and Estes intersection is often blocked, as is the Franklin and Elliott Road intersection, the Ephesus Church Road and Fordham intersection and the Elliott and Fordham intersection. Blockage can even extend to the Estes and Fordham intersection.
Since both Franklin and Fordham are NCDOT roads, there is little the town can do beyond complaining. NCDOT currently has scheduled remedying this particular traffic problem for 2025 — three to five years after the new Wegmans store opens, the new UNC Healthcare Eastowne Campus is finished and three major new apartment dwellings along Fordham Boulevard will be in operation.
The perception of Chapel Hill traffic being bad and getting worse is clearly represented by the public sentiment displayed in the results of the periodic “Town of Chapel Hill Community Survey.” The 2018 edition shows that vying for first place in dissatisfaction with town services, along with parking, is “Management of Traffic Flow.” The 2015 Survey shows a similar first-place tie for dissatisfaction in “overall flow of traffic & congestion management.”
Dissatisfaction with traffic leads the way in 2013 and 2011, while traffic falls to second place in dissatisfaction in the original 2009 survey, following “managing and planning for growth.”
One factor in congested traffic flow along major roads that could be alleviated now is to improve the synchronization of traffic signals. This seems to be particularly a problem with NCDOT roads. I assume their plans for 2025 involve construction, but improved synchronization could be done now. It has never been clear to me if NCDOT places a priority on synchronization, where they could get much better traffic flow for the dollar.
It’s interesting to note that, according to Chapelboro.com, there are 25,000 more folks who come to Chapel Hill for work every day than leave to work in other places. Perhaps if we provided more moderately-priced housing, some of those people wouldn’t find the need to commute.
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