Asheville was just issued its first winter weather advisory. Temperatures fell into the 20s, and wind gusts threatened to cause power outages across the region. It was the kind of day when, waiting in traffic ten minutes to get out of Sam’s Club, one really wanted to thank the traffic engineers for backing things up so badly, construction workers were fantasizing about cycling to work, cement mixers in tow; and secretaries wanted to walk the lanes balancing file cabinets on their heads.
But, as with all things these days, there must be a rift. And so it was with the city’s decision to proceed with a road diet for Charlotte Street. The plan was to reduce the number of automobile traffic lanes from four to three and add bike lanes.
Mayor Esther Manheimer made it very clear this was already a done-deal. By approving the agenda item, city council would only be agreeing to enter into a contract for up to $155,000 in design costs toward the $1,250,000 amount the city has budgeted for the project.
Manheimer announced there would be one hour of public hearing time and called alternately on persons who supported and opposed what turned out to be a discussion about the entire plan, anyway. Throughout the exercise, she played Candy Crowley, fact-checking only those who spoke in opposition.
Just about everybody who spoke admitted change was needed. But many shared a history of how residents and business owners on the street approached the city wanting something done with the sidewalks. They are old and deteriorating, narrow and often interrupted by telephone poles. Drainage is poor, and there is no buffer between the sidewalk and the road. Wheelchairs and double strollers cannot roll down the sidewalk without going into the busy road.
Unfortunately, after spending $1,250,000 on the road diet, there was nothing left to address the sidewalk issues. Interim City Manager Cathy Ball contributed that adding bike lanes would slow traffic and thus be good for pedestrians. John Kerr of Metro Wines said after city staff agreed to entertain a request from a group of business owners to increase safety on the street, they only worked with a pro-bicycle faction to reach a resolution.
Another concern was traffic. It was bad, and a proposed apartment for the Fuddrucker’s property was just the beginning of anticipated increases in density and therefore congestion. Linda Sarubbi cited a city study in 1977 that said reducing Charlotte Street to three lanes would cause the road to be ranked Level F, characterized by gridlock. A 1999 study recommended improving safety by investing in sidewalks. Another from 2002 concluded a three-lane scenario would work only with sidewalk improvements. Then, in 2013, a study said it would be “difficult to maintain acceptable conditions with fewer lanes.” And, lastly, the 2016 Asheville in Motion plan recommended sharrows instead of a road diet.
Supporters of the change argued they wanted to protect their neighborhood from encroaching urbanism. Clark Mackey only wanted a safe place for his family to ride their bicycles; Mark DeVerges said restricting the flow of traffic would discourage additional infill development; and Mike Sule said if road widening were the appropriate response to growing population, then Los Angeles and Atlanta, “would be the models of success.”
Jo Stephenson argued, “What’s frustrating and very disturbing to me is that the only opposition to this, is to provide a more expeditious commute for motorists. People aren’t willing to spend a few more minutes at a stop light or slow down to improve the safety of their community members.” She continued, “If folks really think that this is gonna affect their day, then [they should] set their alarms five minutes earlier. … I just don’t understand that mentality.”
Manheimer said members of city council had been to Fort Collins, Charleston, Savannah, Boulder, and Portland (Maine) in search of best transportation practices. Ball even cycled around Minneapolis with her on a hot day. Minneapolis, she said, has added bike lanes to every downtown street. Manheimer acknowledged it was counterintuitive that restricting a flow would help with circulation and added Asheville was not unique in “reclaiming its urban vibrancy.”
Councilor Julie Mayfield referred skeptics to a document published by AARP, which she referred to as, “not a particularly radical organization.” The four-page fact sheet states, among other things, road diets slow traffic down, do not slow emergency vehicles, promote safety, do not cause congestion, do not cause traffic to spill over onto cut-throughs, and support local businesses. The document also gives instructions for advocating for road diets.
After the meeting, Asheville on Bikes posted on its Facebook page, “When we work together, we get results. Huge thank you to all who supported Charlotte St road diet. Let’s continue to work together and expand transportation options for all.”