As if downtown Asheville didn’t have enough going on these days, the city is also looking at putting in dedicated bike lanes — and taking away a vehicle travel lane – on some major corridors.
To put it mildly, some downtown business owners are not happy. They feel like the plan to turn one of two vehicle travel lanes on College Street and Patton Avenue downtown into dedicated bike lanes will create traffic congestion, make deliveries a nightmare and reduce parking spaces.
The city announced the plan in March 2022, and the Citizen Times carried an article about it that month. Mountain Xpress also reported on the plan in September of that year.
But Patti Glazer, an architect who’s worked downtown since 1980, said the city made little to no effort to engage business owners or solicit their input before that, and not much since. She surveyed business owners downtown last October, walking east up Patton Avenue, then cutting over to College Street and coming back down west to Pritchard Park.
Glazer found again and again she was breaking the news about the bike lanes to just about everyone she spoke with.
“It was amazing to me that nobody had heard of it,” Glazer said. “I was first informing them. What became obvious was there really had been no public engagement, as far as the businesses that are going to be directly affected.”
This is a project the city is hoping to wrap up this year, by the way. About a month ago, Glazer and Nur Edwards, who owns Asheville Discount Pharmacy on Patton Avenue, arranged a meeting with Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer and a couple of city officials, Glazer said.
It was a step in the right direction, as these kinds of projects are always controversial. The original plans have been tweaked considerably, adding in delivery zones, for instance, but business owners still want more input.
‘We probably didn’t do enough public outreach’
On that count, Asheville Transportation Director Ken Putnam had some good news Friday when I reached out to the city to see where the project stands.
“This project has been going on for a little while, and there’s been quite a bit of outreach and all this,” Putnam told me in an interview. “But, based on the feedback that we’ve been getting — including the feedback that you probably got – we listened and we agreed that we probably didn’t do enough public outreach.”
So now the city is looking for a place to hold “another face to face meeting with all the business owners,” Putnam said.
“The time frame on that is probably going to be sometime within the next 60 days,” Putnam said. “So this project is not being rushed. We’re not trying to shove it down anybody’s throat. We’re just taking a step back to make sure we cover all our bases.”
City Council already approved the project as part of its 2023 fiscal year budget, Putnam said. Once the city feels like it’s done enough public outreach, and the project can move ahead, Putnam said they’ll put it out for bids.
“If it’s over $90,000 — which we’re anticipating it will be — it would go back for approval of the contract (to council),” Putnam said.
The project mostly will involve restriping of streets, although it could involve some resurfacing, Putnam said. If everything moves ahead, “Our hope would be to totally finish this project this calendar year, probably some time in late fall, early summer.”
The city’s web page on the project notes the most recent draft design “attempts to respond to the input received” between February and September last year.
“The primary concern heard throughout the engagement events related to loading and delivery access,” the page states. “The draft design now includes over 115 feet of additional loading zone area.”
Business owners say that’s primarily on a small section of Haywood Street by the Wells Fargo bank building and won’t be adequate. They’d like more input on loading zones.
In December, the Downtown Commission recommended the project move forward and voted in support of it.
So, it looks like this project is going to happen, but maybe with some more public input.
It’s hard for me to stress just how important this is, and I’m glad to see Putnam acknowledge that the city could’ve done better in the notification department.
Because you may have noticed, these projects tend to get people very agitated. Just take a drive up Merrimon Avenue and talk to a few businesses, as I did last year.
That road diet stirred up a hornet’s nest, although I think people are coming around to it some. It would help if the DOT could finish up the actual bike lanes, though.
To be clear, the business folks I talked to downtown for this story, including Glazer, Asheville Discount Pharmacy Owner Nur Edwards and Weinhaus beer and wine store owner Hunt Mallett, all say they support biking and multi-modal travel.
“I’m totally not against biking – I’ve got one myself and do it, but in the area that they’re talking about, traffic is already slow enough that bikes can easily coexist,” Mallett said. “However, reducing it to one lane is going to be a problem for emergency vehicles, I think.”
He just thinks the plan is going to “clog everything up,” as it will reduce vehicle traffic to one lane.
“And the other thing is that all of this was kind of railroaded through the planning department,” Mallett said.
Edwards said she’s “definitely not opposed to bike lanes,” or “complete streets” as multimodal advocates call it.
“I think there’s been no public input, in terms of from the business owners and the people that are doing business on this corridor every day,” Edwards said. “And once we did get involved, the plan started to shift, because we were able to see the plans and voice our concerns.”
Glazer feels that businesses that have been downtown for a long time, weathered the pandemic and pay “really high taxes” — and took the risk to revitalize downtown — are now being asked to sacrifice by essentially giving away a travel lane and delivery zones.
‘It will make biking and walking safer downtown’
The city of Asheville is working with local non-profit partners Asheville on Bikes and Connect Buncombe on the project.
Asheville on Bikes notes the new bike lane on College Street would connect to the existing bike lane that ends at Spruce Street, and go to Pritchard Park. On Patton Avenue, the new bike lane would start at Pritchard Park and go to Biltmore Avenue.
On its web page about the project, AOB offers 10 reasons why Asheville needs these bike lanes and loading zones. Number one is pretty darn compelling:
“It will make biking and walking safer downtown. Asheville kills or injures more pedestrians and cyclists than any other city in North Carolina and it has maintained that status for several years.”
That’s a sobering message.
Mike Sule, who heads up Asheville on Bikes, told me that he understands “that not all the merchants got the message” about the project early on, although he does “push back that the city didn’t communicate” adequately. He said letters went out to businesses in February 2022, and “a whole timeline of communication touches has been made.”
“I personally have been in front of the Downtown Commission twice,” Sule said “I feel the city has done a thorough job of attempting to communicate this.”
“Does that mean that communications can be improved? That the city may need to look at its communications strategy and tweak things? Sure,” Sule said.
Glazer’s office is above Asheville Discount Pharmacy, and she said she was not notified about the project, and she has lingering questions about delivery options and parking.
“We haven’t gotten answers on a lot of the issues that still haven’t been addressed,” Glazer said. “They’ve kind of brushed over those.”
Someone who’s been a pillar of the downtown business community for four decades shouldn’t feel that way.
Sule has been heavily involved in the Merrimon Avenue road diet and other bike issues in town, and he’s not surprised the downtown plan has engendered controversy.
“Every one of these I’ve been involved in, there’s been people who’ve been agitated,” Sule said. “We’re dragging people into the future kicking and screaming.”
He was half-joking, but it has some truth to it.
“All of these safety improvements and maximizing the public utility of the right of way, they’re always controversial,” Sule said. “You can pick any city and see the same thing. This is well researched stuff.”
Sule points out that the construction of the Arras Hotel downtown caused a lane closure downtown for an extended period of time, and everyone got by. Also, he notes that people tend to drive slowly through this part of downtown already, so these are not high-speed thoroughfares.
Personally, I’ve been here long enough to witness the anger and rows that surface whenever these bike plans emerge. They are big changes, and let’s face it: We’re a heavily car-dependent society.
With more and more people moving here, and more hotels and apartments coming, we need to look at better, safer ways of accommodating all modes of transportation. You can’t expect to see more cyclists around town the way a lot of our roads are designed, because they’re just not safe.
So yes, I’m coming around to these plans, and we need to make our city comfortable for pedestrians, walkers, and people riding those crazy one-wheel things. It’s a brave new world out there.
But make everybody feel like they’re part of the process — genuinely.
In this case, I applaud the city for taking a step back and reaching out to business owners again. It’s a smart move, and I hope they listen to what they have to say.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
“Once the city feels like it’s done enough public outreach, and the project can move ahead, Putnam said they’ll put it out for bids.”
So what’s the point in more public input if they’re going to do it anyway?
Take one lane of traffic for bike lanes in large cities where there are more than 2 lanes of traffic = no problem for DC or LA or Baltimore where cities have lanes to spare.
But in a downtown that sees more than a million visitors a year, taking away one lane only makes more worse traffic jams and angry tourists and downtown workers.
Not everyone can ride a bike to get to or through downtown—older people, people with disabilities, people who are car pooling or are transporting kids, people who live more than a couple miles away from downtown, people (workers especially) who need to leave downtown late at night and go more than a few blocks. And the weather? Who wants to bike in rain, snow?
Using one whole lane of traffic for bike lanes is —let’s be honest here—elitist. It’s for a very small minority of people and it puts the rest of the travelers (the majority) in a huge time crunch at best and at risk of getting caught in road rage, accidents or injury at worst.
Bicycles in this area are overwhelmingly recreational vehicles. You don’t get to your job on one. You don’t get to the hospital on one. You don’t shop for groceries on one. You don’t, God forbid, go bar-hopping on one. YOU USE A CAR FOR THOSE. And cars need dedicated traffic lanes. Not bike lanes. What is our increasingly out of touch mayor, city manager, and city council thinking? Assuming they are capable of thinking. Which is doubtful. Try driving on the slimmed-down Merrimon Avenue. Or walk around the wreck they have made of Pack Square. Can we find a bicycle built for 8 and ride them all out of town on it?
Add Riverside Drive. It’s been backed up from Pearson Bridge to Broadway several times in the past 10 days. There are bike lanes along Riverside, but mostly they’re used as parking for Salvage Station overflow…Does AOB know or care about that?
Bikes are only a tiny fraction of trips taken anywhere. They always will be, until oil runs out and bikes are all that’s available. Catering to an arrogant and well-funded elitist group like the biker folk is not good governance. It’s attempted social engineering, and doomed to fail. Tax dollars need to benefit a majority, not a tiny, privileged minority.
Wow, these bike lanes will be great for the tourists visiting Asheville and the small percentage of locals that live close enough to downtown to access these lanes!!…..at least during nice weather….I guess all the rest of us who couldn’t afford to live in the city but have to go there anyway don’t count in Mike Sules’ world.
BREAKING NEWS: I saw a bike in the Merrimon Avenue bike lane one day last week. First one since the street was re-laned weeks ago…
For 18 years, I almost exclusively commuted by bicycle from North Asheville to work at Mission and my husband commuted to AB Tech. It would have been safer and more pleasant cycling for us if there had been bicycle lanes through downtown. So it is not just joy riders or tourists who would use the lanes. And we do use our bicycles for grocery shopping contrary to what one commenter claimed. I would like to think that having more bicycle lanes throughout the city will eventually result in more people quitting their cars and traveling by bikes. Something’s gotta give in this car-centric city to encourage multi-modal transportation! (BTW…@WW we use Merrimon Ave bicycle lanes. They rock!)
Yet another score for Asheville PR! Ken Putnam is a good guy, but he’s not responsible for PR. After the water fiasco, you wonder if anybody is. “Transparency” is a City by-word, but, in fact, it’s more like “translucentcy.”
I wonder what would happen if certain streets downtown would just close to all vehicular traffic for a period of time when deliveries were not required. Allow deliveries during specific low pedestrian volume periods. I believe the walkability on those streets would drive high business sales volumes. Also, tables could be relocated to existing sidewalks to allow for more outdoor dining. Why not try it before you fight it? As far as bike lanes, I believe that the more “safe” bike lanes we have the more people will use them. A positive is it takes far fewer parking garages to store bikes. Pedestrian noncar transportation corridors have proven to be very successful business and commerce attractors. Take a look at the Beltline in Atlanta.
So I guess all these businesses expect free parking for themselves at the expense of everyone in the city. Interesting. Socialism is alive and well in North Carolina, I guess. I just don’t want to keep subsidizing business owners, the welfare queens that they are.
Who said ANYthing about free parking (wanted by businesses)? You’re just making stuff up here. Did you read the article? Did you read the comments? Apparently not.
When are businesses going to learn that they aren’t entitled to an endless public subsidy? Build your own parking if you aren’t willing to cater to pedestrian customers.
Where did you get the idea downtown businesses “want free parking” or “public subsidies?” We are talking about taking away one entire lane that moves traffic! So that traffic doesn’t back up even more than it already does with two lanes for traffic. And public subsidies? What is that even referring to. There’s enough parking in parking buildings. (Although taking away handicap parking in front of the pharmacy makes handicapped people unable to , or blocked from getting their medications.) please stop making this about something it isn’t about.
Why is it that no data is readily available with respect to the question of how many 10’s of thousands of motorists are going to inconvenienced/delayed for the sake of how many dozens (?) of bikers? I have nothing against bikers but I can’t shake off the idea that they have an outsize influence on transportation policy here, compared to their actual numbers. I agree with the writer who pointed out how few bikers we actually ever see on our roads/streets, even those that have bike lanes. It does come across as elitist.
I don’t mean the following comments to disparage the intent or character of any individuals. I know multiple people involved with Asheville on Bikes (AoB) and they all strike me as good people with their hearts in the right place. However, Asheville on Bikes is an adult bike clique that also happens to be a single issue advocacy group in Asheville. A group which seems to have enormous sway with the city despite having a complete lack of actual expertise on transportation infrastructure. Their advocacy is often more informed by a zealots appeal rather than balanced data review. As such they have a mixed record when it comes to projects they have pitched and advocated for with the city. Does everyone remember Coxe Ave? Merimon is TBD but not looking like the best outcome for the general public at this point. At the same time, I see they have created programs that have been beneficial to the city of Asheville. I’m not even faulting them for being the group that they are. Advocacy groups by their nature are often zealous and unbalanced in their approach. What concerns me is that we seem to have a city government that values the input from this one group much more than from any others. It seems like Asheville city government often falls into this trap. It wants nothing more than to be a cool, progressive city. So when a group pitches cool progressive city things at them they bite without question. It’s not their role to be advocates. It’s their role to take a balanced approach. Nothing in this article makes me feel the city has approached this in a balanced matter.
Have there been credible studies of how much use existing bike lanes get? I feel that it is extremely rare that I see a bicyclist in a bike lane. I feel that there are some bike lanes I have never seen a cyclist. I am a regular runner and a walker, so I use greenways and sidewalks. I don’t oppose multi-modal considerations. But, I question whether we have seen much use of existing bike lanes. Show me study results based on good methodology that tell me there is heavy bike lane use and I can be persuaded.
Most Asheville streets were set up when one lane in each direction made sense. Today, streets with 2 lanes in each direction can’t handle the traffic flow. Cutting back to one lane is idiotic. AoB is largely responsible for this push. Their major weapon is, “it will make streets safer”. Who is going to fight against safety? Has any tried making a left turn to enter Charlotte or Merrimon recently? Close to impossible and NOT SAFE!
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