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UNC Bike Riding, Chapel Hill Edition: Nothing Could Be Finer

With four majestic seasons and a history going back to the nation’s founding, the leafy University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill provides a truly picturesque backdrop for bicycling any time of the year. The campus here has a ton of rideable paths and plenty of attractions, so riding a bike is a logical way to get to class. Even better, the city of Chapel Hill itself is loaded with places to explore by bike, and riding is getting safer and less stressful with more bike lanes and newly protected greenways. There could hardly be a better way to both get to class and also decompress than by riding through this city within a park.

On Campus...

The University at Chapel Hill has a vast and plentiful network of paths that are open to pedestrians and cyclists alike. The paths will get you anywhere you need to go, and there are enough to handle high traffic. Between classes, though, pathways can get pretty crowded, so riders sometimes choose to ride at walking speed or even dismount to reduce the chance of accidents.   

Although the path network amply connects the entire campus, the eponymous hills here present some unique challenges. First, some routes are blocked by several sets of stairs. Of course, stairs are not a problem for most pedestrians, but as a rider, you may need to be prepared to get off and carry your bike up or down to the next level. Chapel Hill is looking into remedying this inconvenience, and solutions have been proposed. In the future, you may see new riding paths that circumvent the stairs. Alternatively, the stairs themselves may be outfitted with a chute under the banister to allow riders to roll their bikes as they walk up or down the stairs. That said, this place wouldn’t be the same without the beautiful hills that make UNC bike riding so interesting and fun.

Ahhh, Downtown

One of the best features of Chapel Hill is the way that the northern end of campus seems to just blend right into Chapel Hill’s famously fun and quirky downtown. Soon after you arrive, you’ll become very familiar with Franklin Street and its blitz of restaurants, bars, and shops just a block from campus. With downtown so close, everything is accessible by all modes of transportation. However, parking is notoriously difficult, so driving can be more trouble than it’s worth. On the other hand, some destinations may be a bit far for walking. Bicycling offers a great way to cover ground without missing anything or having to worry about parking.

Greenways-- Getting Away from it All

The City of Chapel Hill really does seem to be a community hidden within an unending, leafy park. There are many opportunities for taking a break from studying by enjoying a refreshing ride through the ever-changing scenery. Several greenways throughout the area, many originating on or near campus, offer safe thoroughfares for walking and biking. When it’s time to take a break from studying, bicycle on over to the nearby Battle Branch and Bolin Creek Greenways for a peaceful, refreshing retreat into nature. Fan Branch and Meadowmont Greenways offer woodsy quiet spots for easy riding on the south end.

Safety Around Town

Biking at school here is pretty idyllic, but it must be admitted that both the town and campus of Chapel Hill present certain challenges to stress-free riding. First among these is the charming but sometimes inconvenient nature of any university town that was built for horses. Some streets are rather narrow and simply cannot accommodate separate bike lanes. Chapel Hill and nearby Carrboro, as well as the university itself, are working hard to correct this, but there is still a lot to be done. Exhaustive infrastructure master plans are in place and provide guidelines for improving the ease and safety of walking and riding. Most notably, more streets now feature bike lanes. Even better, some popular designations are becoming increasingly more accessible via the city’s many protected greenways. Where bike lanes are not feasible, you can find some streets with “sharrows” (symbols painted on the street surface to remind drivers to share the road). A few streets here are not great for riding, so take some time to familiarize yourself with the safest routes.

The best streets for riding are Cameron Avenue and the south end of Columbia Street because they feature bike lanes in both directions. This makes college biking much safer and certainly less stressful. An additional benefit to these bike lanes is that they move cyclists off of the sidewalks, reducing conflicts and accidents with pedestrians.

North Columbia is Maybe Not So Awesome

On the other hand, it’s wise to completely avoid the north end of Columbia Street. Unlike the south end, the north end of Columbia Street does not have bike lanes, and it continues to be the most stressful conduit for drivers and riders alike. In a survey of residents, the intersections on North Columbia rated last for ease of walkability and riding as well as driving.

Downtown’s Franklin Street is a little better, but it does not have bike lanes. On the plus side, Franklin does offer a wealth of bike racks all along the main drag. There are also a few bike shops in the vicinity. If you ride your bike to the bar, it’s always best to just walk it back home on a sidewalk, safely out of harm’s way.

The Right Bike for Riding on a (Chapel Hill) Campus

When you begin looking for the best bikes for college students attending Chapel Hill, take a look at a few important considerations that apply to the conditions here. For most college students, the price will be the first thing to think about, balanced with the need for lighter weight, reliability, and capability. The cheapest bikes available will be a headache. It’s a good move to pay a little more for some quality, and luckily for cash-strapped students, you don’t need to break the bank to find a great ride for college biking.

While keeping your budget in mind, there are a few features that will optimize UNC bike riding. Besides springing for a little quality beyond the cheapest options out there, make sure to get a nice range of gears. Chapel Hill is more fun to explore with a good set of gears. For an idea of how to balance the need for quality, reduced weight, and gears, take a look at Firmstrong’s Body Ease Men's Matte Black 21 Speed Comfort Bike. The Body Ease offers a remarkably light aluminum bike made for a college budget. The lightweight frame is good for the inevitable stairs on this hilly campus. Also, 21-speed gearing is the perfect option for cruising the rolling terrain. Equally important, this bike comes with a rear rack for carrying your books.

When you arrive on campus, you’ll soon be using your bicycle to get to all of the notable hot spots. The Ackland Art Museum, Dean Center, Morehead Planetarium and of course, Franklin Street await. Besides using your bike as a fun way to get around, treat yourself to simply enjoying the ride itself by meandering along a greenway or taking in the charm of our nation’s first public university town. Welcome to Chapel Hill.


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