The Town of Kitty Hawk declined to support the no-left-turn at U.S. Hwy. 158 and South Dogwood Trail this summer because of “safety concerns,” according to Town Manager Andy Stewart, who spoke with The Beacon yesterday.
“The Council never really was for doing [the turn prohibition] to begin with,” Mr. Stewart told The Beacon, and when the opening last year of the 7-Eleven at the intersection led to “additional traffic concerns,” he said, “We didn’t want to sign off on it this year.”
The left-turn lane on U.S. 158-east is in Kitty Hawk’s jurisdiction. Before the N.C. Dept. of Transportation will authorize closure of that lane on summer weekends—as it did for a June weekend experiment in 2018, for four weekends in 2020, and for 10 weekends in 2021—both Kitty Hawk and Southern Shores have to buy in.
Southern Shores Town Manager Cliff Ogburn cited jurisdictional issues and the lack of a three-party agreement at the April 26 public forum on his cut-through traffic mitigation plan and during the Town Council’s consideration of that plan at its May 3 meeting as reasons why the Town decided not to pursue a no-left-turn this summer, but he never actually said that Kitty Hawk had refused to cooperate. He was trying to be politic.
Mayor Elizabeth Morey and members of the Town Council declined to share this information with the public, as well. It’s a vital fact that they deliberately withheld.
Instead, Councilman Matt Neal cited at the May 3 meeting—without actually explaining—cell-phone data compiled by Streetlight, for the proposition that the no-left-turn had a “big psychological impact [on residents], but not a big physical impact,” a comment that elicited an immediate agreement from Mayor Morey and one that we thought was both condescending and dismissive.
Apparently they think that those of us who have observed the cut-through traffic all weekend long, all summer long, for years and experienced relief with the no-left-turn are just getting a placebo effect from the turn prohibition. Goodness knows the data upon which they rely couldn’t possibly be suspect or wrongly interpreted by them.
Streetlight is a “mobility analytics platform,” according to online sources, that professes to put “Big Data to work for transportation planning.” Big Data apparently include location records from smartphones and GPS and other navigation devices.
The Town hired Streetlight to analyze all summertime traffic within its boundaries by its origin (west from the Wright Memorial Bridge or south from Kitty Hawk, as well as state of origin) and destination for a three summers, 2019-21. A Dare County Tourism Bureau grant paid for its study.
Mr. Neal cited Streetlight’s calculations, which are based upon the “pinging” of smartphones in vehicles traveling across the Wright Memorial Bridge and then turning at South Dogwood Trail or going straight, for proof that the turn prohibition did not curtail the cut-through traffic.
According to Mr. Neal, 18 percent of the vehicles arriving from the bridge that had active smartphones in them, which actually pinged at cell towers (as we understand the technology), turned left at South Dogwood Trail on summer weekends in 2019, when there was no turn prohibition in effect, and 18 percent cut through in 2021, when the no-left-turn was in effect.
This statistical conclusion has a facile appeal, but it actually lacks significance, in large part because you can’t make oranges into apples.
First of all, the percentage that Streetlight provides, as we learned from Mr. Ogburn, is an average of all of the cut-through traffic “pinging” on weekends from June through August in a given year. The data cannot be broken down by specific weekends, for example, by targeting only Saturdays and Sundays in July, which is the peak month.
We met with Mr. Ogburn earlier this week, and he shared with us Streetlight’s presentation, which should be accessible on the Town website for residents to examine—with a tutorial about how to use it. We daresay no one on the Town Council, except perhaps Mr. Neal, has independently examined it.
Second of all, we’re talking about 18 percent of an unknown total number of vehicles, which, by virtue of the method of Streetlight data collection, does not include ALL vehicles. It is not far-fetched to assume that some vehicles do not have active smartphones on board. We find this fact to be a fundamental shortcoming of Streetlight’s data collection methodology.
But back to the whole numbers: Suppose we posit that 100,000 vehicles with pinging smartphones crossed the bridge in summer 2021, and 18 percent of them turned left on South Dogwood Trail and continued on the cut-through route (according to the pinging) to get to Duck Road. That would be 18,000 vehicles cutting through; and 82,000 vehicles being deterred.
Now suppose, in 2019, the total number of vehicles was only 50,000, so the numbers are, respectively, 9,000 and 41,000.
Isn’t the fact that twice as many vehicles were deterred or prevented from turning left significant? That’s twice the burden on local law enforcement.
Had there been no turn prohibition in 2021, how many of the vehicles that stayed straight and continued on to Ocean Boulevard would have taken the cut-through route? Streetlight can’t tell you that.
Last year was a historically successful year in Outer Banks tourism—an unprecedented full-occupancy, sold-out season. The pandemic-frustrated masses descended on our town. The comparison year of 2019 was very different.
As many of you will recall, the northbound cut-through traffic last year was so bad on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend that it backed up South Dogwood Trail to the Wright Memorial Bridge.
It was so bad that desperate vacationers circled around Circle Drive, which (as advertised) is a circular road off of Hickory Trail east of Duck Road, looking for a shortcut to Corolla. (See The Beacon, 5/29/21.)
It was so bad that for the first time ever, former Mayor Tom Bennett, who served in office from 2013 to 2021, voted in favor of the no-left-turn, calling for an emergency jumpstart of the planned implementation of the turn prohibition from the weekend of June 26-27 to June 12-13.
(In 2015 Mayor Bennett unilaterally killed the no-left-turn strategy, which emerged as a consensus suggestion from a public workshop led by a paid mediator from Raleigh. It was held at the Kitty Hawk Elementary School in October 2014, and more than 100 residents attended. (We were there.) He then consistently voted against it, preferring to do nothing to address the cut-through traffic, until the vehicular hordes of last May demanded action.)
It also should go without saying that the no-left-turn is only as effective as its enforcement. Mr. Ogburn confirmed that the U.S. 158-South Dogwood Trail intersection was lightly monitored in 2021 by Southern Shores police, who issued only 32 citations for its violation all summer. That’s an average of 1.78 tickets issued per day that the turn prohibition was in effect.
If a zero-tolerance policy had been in effect, how many more motorists would have been prevented from cutting through?
We note that, according to Streetlight’s data, 14 percent of the vehicles that crossed the Wright Memorial Bridge in summer 2020—the pandemic summer—turned left on South Dogwood Trail. That was a summer when the no-left-turn was in effect over four weekends: June 20-21, July 4-5, July 25-26, and Aug. 1-2. My recollection is police enforcement was more intense. But, once again, you have apples and oranges.
Finally, we must point out that Streetlight’s data are only as reliable as the methodology for their collection. We would like to be advised about that methodology beyond just smartphone “pinging.”
What’s the margin for error in the data? What changes have occurred in cellular technology from 2019 to 2020 to 2021, and how do they impact data collection? Are there any experts out there who know about, and can weigh in, independently, on Streetlight’s methodology?
There is no question that the opening of the 7-Eleven has altered the playing field at the 158-South Dogwood Trail intersection. It has given northbound motorists a “work-around.”
According to Town Manager Andy Stewart, this work-around has caused “additional congestion in Kitty Hawk at Woods Road,” as vacationers avoid turning left off of U.S. 158 by cutting through the 7-Eleven parking lot and emerging at Woods Road in order to approach South Dogwood Trail straight-on.
Some vacationers, Mr. Stewart observed, “ride on Woods Road” until they can turn around, rather than turning left out of the 7-Eleven, posing a safety hazard on what is a cut-through route for southbound travelers, including locals. (Woods Road connects with Kitty Hawk Road, which connects with the U.S. Hwy. 158 bypass.)
The prohibition on the left turn “doesn’t benefit the Town of Kitty Hawk at all,” the Town Manager concluded. It just causes “extra problems.”
Mr. Stewart stressed, however, that Kitty Hawk has a good relationship with the Town of Southern Shores and wants to cooperate with Southern Shores in the future.
With the 7-Eleven work-around exacerbating intersection conditions, and with motorists flagrantly violating the left-turn prohibition, he characterized this traffic mitigation option as “an accident waiting to happen.”
We will continue our analysis of the Town Council’s response at its May 3 meeting to Mr. Ogburn’s proposed summer traffic mitigation plan in our next installment, which we will post tomorrow.
As of this writing, Mr. Ogburn is prepared to set up northbound-lane “Local Traffic Only” barriers, which the police have no authority to enforce, at seven locations along the South Dogwood Trail cut-through route and at Juniper Trail past the Food Lion entrance, on the June 4-5 weekend.
A ninth barrier may be installed on the northbound lane of Ocean Boulevard, at the Duck Road split, near the cell tower. The Town Council rejected Mr. Ogburn’s recommendation that Ocean Boulevard be closed in both directions at this location.
Mr. Ogburn has been given authority by the Town Council to purchase more “substantial” barriers than the ones erected at the same locations last summer, but it is questionable whether he will have the time to order them, receive them, and then have them up by June 4.
The only road that may be closed for some time on summer weekends is Hickory Trail at its intersection with East Dogwood Trail. We will write more about this option in our next installment.
Again, we urge all residents to view the 27-minute discussion about the traffic plan on May 3 by the Town Manager and the Town Council at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Tyu9o67ikU. It begins at the 45-minute mark and ends at the 1 hour-12-minute mark.
To be continued.
Ann G. Sjoerdsma
©2022, Ann G. Sjoerdsma