An Inside Look Into Commuting Across Durham
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An Inside Look Into Commuting Across Durham

Justin Laidlaw
Justin Laidlaw

Here’s a horror movie script: Durham cyclist rides on streets. Spends entire film fearing for his life. The end.


For a city that promotes itself as a beacon of progressivism, our bike infrastructure is seriously lacking. Sure, we’ve spent money to improve, but so have the Charlotte Hornets. That still doesn’t make either actually good. It’s a shame, really. There’s an appetite for more cycling in this city, but the way drivers treat cyclists on the road is a strong disincentive for anyone considering adopting the two-wheel, analog lifestyle. Better infrastructure is the only way forward to get more cycling citywide.

That hasn’t stopped me from being a bike commuter since 2014. I love it! Just ask Bike Durham. The last two years, most of my commutes are within 10 minutes of my house. But starting in January, I will double that commute multiple times a week. No, I can’t tell you why yet. Stop asking! I went to test out the new route this afternoon. Want to see?

Our journey begins at my house on Holloway. It’s a drag trying to get up this hill every day. No bike lanes. Most of the historically Black neighborhoods in Durham don’t have them. Can’t say I’m shocked.

Holloway Street 1.JPG

Within the last few years, Durham has added lanes starting at the corner of Elizabeth Street and Main Street and running up until Roxboro Street. The more responsible thing to do would be to take the left turn at Oakwood and Holloway toward Main Street. It’s flat, less trafficked and leads right to the aforementioned bikes lanes. But the lanes only last two more blocks after that so what’s the point, really. Most of the time, I’m on my way toward the DIY district anyway so I default to this route.

Holloway Street 2.JPG

From there, it’s a quick scoop around Dashi onto Chapel Hill Street. The next set of bike lanes are on the other side of Ramseur a couple blocks away, through the heart of downtown.

Chapel Hill Street 1.JPG

Way back in 2014, Aaron Mandel and I argued for the downtown loop to be permanently closed to non-commercial traffic. Basically, if you weren’t making a delivery, stay out. It would make the downtown loop much more friendly to pedestrians, including cyclists. You’re finally starting to see the city adopt out of necessity because of COVID with curbside parking spaces being converted into outdoor dining. Why not make it permanent?

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Once the bike lanes pick back up near the bus depot, they stretch for most of the remainder of the trip, which is not something to take for granted. It’s a highly-trafficked road. I remember tweeting at Charlie Reece on multiple occasions irritated about churchgoers at Immaculata parking in the bike lanes across the bridge over 147. Can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been on the brink of slashing tires. They are designated bike lanes for a reason! How pissed off would you be if I parked my bike in the middle of the street? You barely let me ride in it.

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There’s literally a driveway right there…

About halfway down Chapel Hill Street, we arrive at Lakewood Shopping Center, an area of Durham that always seems to be in limbo. Is it the new DIY-district, the next neighborhood ravaged by gentrification, both, or something else? Having a considerable amount of bike lanes is great but it’s also a sign that the neighborhood is changing, and the people taking advantage of this new infrastructure aren’t usually the ones who have been living there. There are community advocates working to change that. Groups like Blackity Bikes, who host regular bike rides in predominantly-Black neighborhoods to stimulate interest in cycling and help build advocacy groups. If we want to build equity across our neighborhoods, then the infrastructure we build has to be accessible to everyone.

Lakewood Avenue 3.JPG

The end of the trip slides past La Vaquita aka “The Cow Store” before reaching its final destination; Rogers-Herr Middle School. Okay, so the final destination is NEAR Rogers-Herr. I told you I couldn’t share where I was going!

The total trip took roughly 23 minutes, give or take a couple to swerve the woman who tried to run me over turning onto the one way and stopping to take the photos in this blog post. So yeah, my commute doubled. But the impact ROI far outweighs the extra 13 minutes I would save. If you are unfamiliar with the benefits of bike commuting, let me lay it out for you:

  • Biking saves money on car-related expenses including monthly payments and insurance.
  • Biking improves your overall health, increasing your endurance and muscle strength every time you peel off.
  • Biking improves global health, reducing our individual carbon emissions to combat the climate crisis.
  • Biking connects you with your neighbors, freeing you from your mobile steel prisons and creating a more intimate relationship with the people and places around you.
  • Biking is fun! Full stop.

Feedback I often get from people when I mention bike commuting is the lack of safety and the inconvenience. “The roads are too dangerous. I get all sweaty going to work or to the bar.” Unfortunately, as it stands today, I have no push back for those complaints. Biking is scary and it can be inconvenient but it’s not a zero sum game. Becoming a bike commuter isn’t like joining a monastery. You don’t have to give up driving cold turkey. Get a starter bike and try commuting once a week, or anytime you’re traveling within three miles of your house. For me, three miles gets me to the liquor store on Hillsborough. ’Tis the season.

Biking is a chicken or egg dilemma. Less people bike because the infrastructure is lacking, but the infrastructure lacks because not enough people are in these streets. We need our own version of the Hell’s Angels.

Purgatory’s Pedalers! T-shirt pre-orders coming soon.


If you are interested in the idea of adopting the Purgatory Pedaler lifestyle, send me an email. I’d be happy to talk to you more about buying a bike and mapping out great places to ride for your commute or just for the thrills.