If you drive near UNC, you may know Ransom Street. It’s small and narrow, often less than 20 feet across (16 feet, with 20 inch gutter pans), and lined by large trees and old homes. It is also the primary route around Pittsboro Street. Ransom and adjacent McCauley streets are so popular, they should be called the “Ransom-McCauley Bypass.”
On early weekday mornings, I calculated that between a third to half the cars traveling east on Cameron take a right on to Ransom Street. The vast majority of the drivers do not live in the area. But it is an attractive cut through. Despite stop signs and speed tables, it is often faster to travel on Ransom and McCauley than to deal with delays on Pittsboro and South Columbia. Even drivers from UNC facilities frequent this route.
Ransom and McCauley are also the primary route for cyclists traveling from Carrboro and West Chapel Hill to the UNC hospitals and health science buildings. The small neighborhood streets seem like the perfect alternative to the heavy traffic on Pittsboro or Columbia. But often cyclists feel threatened as car drivers try to accelerate around them on the narrow streets with parked cars, blind spots and oncoming traffic.
I ride my bike on this route nearly every weekday to catch a Triangle Transit bus at UNC. In the early morning at around 7:45am, the scene is always the same: cars pour on to Ransom from Cameron, and drivers are pushing hard and fast to get to work. The speed tables are nearly 20-feet long, and gentle enough that drivers can travel well beyond the 15 mph on the warning signs. Often car drivers will accelerate around the cyclists, only to slam on the brakes at the stop sign. The early morning traffic is the most hair raising, but nearly any time of the day you can see drivers cutting through, many young UNC students, passing or tailgating cyclists. In the late afternoon, the traffic problems are reversed, with car drivers avoiding South Columbia and traveling on McCauley to Ransom. I’ve seen many close calls and near accidents, cars brushing by so close you can almost feel them.
I’m not a professional planner, but I have been involved with local transportation issues so I knew something could be done to alleviate this dangerous situation. In 2014, I took video of traffic on Ransom Street with John Rees of the Chapel Hill Bicycle Alliance. I petitioned the Chapel Hill transportation board. I sent e-mail messages to the Chapel Hill planning department. Working with the Carrboro Bicycle Coalition, we requested public input from over 400 local residents about these streets. I reviewed accident reports from the CHPD. And we took more video to show the number of cars using the route.
The final solution is similar to other situations with small neighborhood streets: if it’s too slow and cumbersome, car drivers will judge that Ransom and McCauley are not a good cut through. And there are inexpensive solutions to quickly make this happen. Stop signs could be added at the intersections with East Patterson and Vance Streets. Recycled rubber “speed humps” can be bolted down directly into the pavement. Over the long term, the town may want to consider the effectiveness of the long gentle speed tables.
The town recently painted “sharrow” signs on the pavement in the southern and least problematic section of Ransom (many cyclists were puzzled by the placement). Although sharrow signs with double lines might improve the situation, I believe the overall problem will persist as long as the neighborhood streets are used a bypass to Pittsboro and Columbia.
I will petition the Chapel Hill town council in the near future to make changes to these streets to prevent drivers from using Ransom and McCauley as a cut through. And I am happy to talk with anybody from the planning department, transportation board or town council about my experiences and our research.