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Autocentric Paradigm Squelching Municipal Health, Vibrancy

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At their last meeting, Asheville City Council unanimously adopted the Asheville in Motion Plan. Created by Kimley-Horn and Associates, the plan attempted to integrate, while not supplanting, eight other master plans guiding transportation policy in the city. Mark DeVerges commented online, “It feels like this $324,000 AIM plan uses funds and attention that could have been used to actually implement previous (similar) plans . . . It seems there have already been many plans (going back to 1922, eek) – some citing the same issues.”

During public comment at council’s meeting, former mayor Ken Michalove established the plan had actually cost $336,000. $200,000 of the total came from the federal government as passthrough funds from the Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Unified Planning Work Program.

It has been said that rather than optimizing the fluidity of traffic circulation and helping people get where they need to go; traffic plans are exercises in social engineering. They don’t facilitate demand. AIM was upfront about this. One of its five priorities was “Travel Mode Shift,” transforming autocentric paradigms to favor more vibrant and health-conscious means of moving about.

Among the study’s most notable recommendations is travel lane diets for Charlotte Street, Merrimon Avenue, and Broadway. That would divert north-south traffic back onto I-26, which would have been eight lanes long ago had the people not stood up and demanded no more than six lanes. Those having to sit in Malfunction Junction between jobs, with no luxury of adjusting travel times, will understand.

Biltmore Avenue, assigned top priority by the plan, would be converted to three lanes. The middle lane would be for turns, motorized vehicles would use one lane to either side, flanked by 5-foot bicycle lanes and then widened sidewalks.

Charlotte Street, for starters, would give cyclists equal access to vehicle lanes. Signs would indicate, “Bicycles May Use Full Lane.” The document explains, “A longer-term plan for Charlotte Street could include a road diet with enhanced bicycle facilities. However, this longer-term scenario will need additional feasibility studies.”

The plan recommended seriously limited municipal resources be allocated for two phases of rip-up-lay-down upgrades for Broadway. The end result would be two-lane vehicle traffic on one side of a lush median and two lanes of pedway on the other.

Also commenting online was Blake Esselstyn, formerly of the city’s Planning Department. He noted there was already a perfectly good greenway near and parallel to the bike/ped path proposed for Broadway. “It seems madness to me to devote so much land to two such facilities so close to each other,” he wrote. “This design does not appear to consider the opportunity cost of devoting so much flat prime land close to downtown to a huge cycle track, redundant sidewalk, and lots of sod.”

In the east-west direction, Haywood Road, currently made navigable only by friendly neighbors who courteously cede the right of way, would lose its center turn lanes. Cars and bikes would share a lane going in each direction with “Bicycles May Use Full Lane” signs, while on-street parking interrupted by planted trees would grace either side, and sidewalks would be brought up to 6-foot standards.

Overall, the plan assumed a “build it and they will come” philosophy. “In taking a closer look at Asheville’s streets, it was clear that many of them were either overbuilt with great potential of being reimagined into multimodal streets, or were so autocentric that major actions would have to be taken in order to make the streets comfortable for the average cyclist.”

It was clear the visioners foresee motorized vehicles falling by the wayside. They were to be a minor component in about half the land-use areas explored by the plan. Other “realms,” like landscaping, medians, parking, and sidewalk pushed into less than half available transportation space the “vehicle realm,” which would be used by bicycles as well as cars, buses, and trucks.

Per AIM, a typical street cross-section should allow around 11 feet for automobiles and bikes, 7-8 feet for on-street parking, 16 feet for a median, 8 feet for landscaping, and 5-12 feet for sidewalks. Additional space would be needed for things like curbing and frontage. The Manufacturing, Aerospace, and Logistics districts were unique in that they were allotted 14 feet of travel lanes to “safely accommodate cyclists.”

While pedestrians would be king according to the plan, more bus ridership would be encouraged. Recommendations included increasing the geographical extent of the fare-free zone, offering incentives like employer-paid passes, and running buses more frequently and reliably on major routes. Unlike other programs in Asheville, this plan indicated it was more important to look out for those who needed the bus than “choice riders.” Currently, about 5000 people ride Asheville’s buses each day. 50 percent of riders earn less than $10,000 per year, and 75 percent earn less than $25,000.

Serving the underserved fell under the “social equity” criterion for identifying “transformative projects,” which would be prioritized. The other categories were “economic vitality,” “community vibrancy,” “public sentiment,” and, of course, “mode shift.” Recommendations were further evaluated in terms of how they promoted other strategic goals of city council, like affordable housing.

Another concern of the study was safety. In recent years, on average, 11-12 people have died a year on Asheville roads. While accidents are often traceable to some combination of unforeseen circumstances and distracted driving, the study recommends another kind of shift. “Historically, transportation systems placed the responsibility for safety on users. Vision Zero takes a different approach and puts this responsibility on system design.”

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