Sure, there was an election last week, one involving politicians seeking public office.
But you know what’s really on the ballot in Asheville these days? The Merrimon Avenue “road diet.”
This has got to be the most unpopular diet since the “Tapeworm diet” swept the country in the 1920s (Seriously, Google it. You could buy a tapeworm at your local pharmacy and let the little rascal do all the eating for you. Who knew?)
But I digress, which you really can’t do on Merrimon Avenue anymore. Or turn left.
On Oct. 10, the N.C. Department of Transportation, at the behest of the city of Asheville, converted Merrimon Avenue from Midland Road to W.T. Weaver Boulevard from two traffic lanes in each direction to a three-lane configuration. The road now has one travel lane in each direction, north and south, and a center turn lane, with room for bike lanes on the outside of each travel lane.
And boy do some folks really hate it. A petition to change it back to four lanes, titled, “Save Merrimon Ave Before It’s Too Late” had over 2,750 signatures when I checked it around noon on Nov. 11.
A friend who posted what I thought was a fairly mild rant about the new configuration being dangerous because of impeded emergency vehicle access got thrown in Facebook jail because of her comments.
North Asheville resident Sheri Richardson reached out to me via email to express her displeasure.
“Since I live right off Merrimon, which I have difficulty even getting on, I have no choice but to use Merrimon,” Richardson said. “When a U.S. Highway depends on the courtesy of other drivers to get on it, is that even considered functional?”
She also noted that with “bike lanes on Kimberly, Edgewood, Weaver Blvd and many other streets, a U.S. Highway was a poor choice with the multitudes of curb cuts and so much going on.”
Richardson also contends, “Accidents are occurring due to the lack of visibility with bumper to bumper traffic in both directions.”
This plan has been hotly debated for months, and everyone knew it would be controversial to implement, so the complaints come as no surprise. I’ve previously advocated for giving the plan a try, as Merrimon Avenue has always been a dangerous racetrack where you pass speeding vehicles separated only by a double yellow line — and a voodoo prayer that you can avoid a head-on collision.
Also, you can’t expect cyclists to use such a road if it doesn’t have bike lanes.
So I thought I better check it out myself. I had a crash on my first lap.
I exaggerate. But let me say this: It’s a really bad idea to try to snap some cell phone photos on the traffic backups on Merrimon while you’re driving.
Almost rear-ended the car in front of me. While that would’ve made for a great column bit, I’m sure the driver in front of me would not have been appreciative.
Since the conversion, I’ve now driven Merrimon on two different weekends, and several times last week on two different days, including around lunchtime, mid-morning and late afternoon. I’ve got to say, the weekend traffic wasn’t bad at all, with few backups and mostly smooth-flowing traffic.
During the week, traffic does back up. It’s definitely going to take you a little longer to get up or down Merrimon, so plan accordingly. And try not to get stuck behind a bus.
And left turns can really be an adventure.
Clockwise from upper left: Lisa Sale, John Connell, Julie Ward, Merrimon Tapeworm Diet, a map of Merrimon Avenue (yellow), and Merrimon when “It’s not that bad!”
I made one into Bruegger’s Bagels, and it took awhile. However, to be honest, left turns on Merrimon were always sort of ugly.
But Bruegger’s Manager Lisa Sale said the left turn struggle has become a serious issue for their business.
“I see the most impact in the afternoons, probably around lunchtime. It’s at a complete standstill,” Sale said. “Our bank is like a hop, skip and a jump — Wells Fargo up here — and it took us 25 minutes to get up there and back.”
From what she’s seen and heard, early morning is equally congested. Sale said it’s definitely costing Bruegger’s sales because potential customers driving southbound just don’t want to mess with a left turn.
So, she’s in the camp of returning Merrimon to how it was, sans bike lanes.
“I mean I like the turning lane, but … you never see bikes up this way,” Sale said. “You’ll see them down UNCA and around in that area, but I’ve never seen bikes up this way — ever — and I’ve been here two years.”
There are some fans out there
At this point, another Bruegger’s employee, John Connell, hopped into the conversation.
“Personally, I like it,” Connell said. “I waited one minute at 8 o’clock in the morning, at the most.”
Connell acknowledged that traffic looks bad at times, and he said the synchronization of the lights — or lack thereof — is a real problem.
“If they were all in sync, it would go a lot smoother,” she said.
Connell, who is also a pedestrian along Merrimon at times and likes the extra cushion the bike lanes afford, is not oblivious to folks getting worked up about the big change.
“My thinking is everybody’s upset because it’s new, and people don’t like change,” he said.
Also, folks have legitimate questions about emergency vehicles, Connell said, and that needs to be worked out.
Across the street and a little north, at Swannanoa Cleaners, manager Julie Ward said the change has created one effect they can’t miss.
“Lots of honking,” she said with a laugh.
“Business-wise, it hasn’t really affected (us), but getting into the building, it’s definitely affected the flow,” Ward said. “People coming from downtown (heading north) are having a hard time turning in here.”
The store has big picture windows up front, so they have a front-row view to the congestion
“I haven’t seen an accident yet, but a couple of times it’s been close,” Ward said.
Another employee chipped in, “Everyone hates it.”
“It’s Not That Bad!”
Well, not everyone. A woman with a high-profile job who asked not to be named emailed me recently to eat a little crow about Merrimon.
“As you might recall, I wrote you at least twice earlier this year about what a confoundingly idiotic plan it was,” she said. “I also signed several petitions and was outraged when I heard City Council had approved it, despite so much opposition from the public, businesses and emergency services professionals. It seemed that the only proponents were the state and the cycling enthusiasts.”
“But I’m writing today to say it’s not that bad!” she continued. “I drive up and down Merrimon at least twice a day during rush hours and do most of my shopping on Merrimon, so I’m one of the regular motorists.”
She’s not known for patience but says the drive isn’t that bad, unless you get stuck behind a dreaded bus.
“It also feels much safer without cars weaving from one narrow lane to the other, stopping abruptly for left turns, and turning into the various businesses on both sides,” she continued. “I wish they’d get the paving done, but otherwise I am pleasantly surprised. I thought I should eat some crow since I was ready to head to City Hall with pitchforks!”
I’ll note I’ve heard from a couple of folks who suggested accidents have been occurring on the reconfigured stretch but are going unreported. I asked the NCDOT and the city of Asheville about this.
I did not hear back from the city by deadline, but NCDOT spokesperson David Uchiyama sent an email back stating they have “no reports filed for near misses making analytical evaluation impossible.”
“NCDOT and the city will meet quarterly to review the area of Merrimon that has been reconfigured after the work is completed and traffic has normalized to the new signal timing plans,” Uchiyama said. “We will jointly review a variety of data, including the following: Vehicle crash data, bike and pedestrian crash data, congestion in — and beyond — the corridor or to side roads.”
The DOT can obtain crash data independently, but the Asheville Police Department investigates wrecks in the city limits, “so the city/APD should have that data quicker than our officials in Raleigh.”
We’ll stay on the city for crash data.
Not a lot of cyclists yet
Like Sale, Ward also mentioned the lack of cyclists on the road, and she’s at the store from early morning to mid-afternoon most weekdays.
“Funny enough, I’ve only seen three cyclists use the lane,” she said.
Overall, she said, it doesn’t affect her because she comes in early, but the congestion gets real bad around 8 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., when folks are heading to work or taking kids to school.
Ward thinks the turn lane could stay, but she’s not a fan of the bike lanes.
“I just don’t believe the bike lanes are necessary, and they’re not being utilized from what I’ve seen,” she said. “I don’t know many cyclists, but I don’t know anyone crazy enough to want to ride along Merrimon, with how fast everyone goes.”
Give it a chance?
Judging from the amount of asphalt being laid down and striping going on, let’s assume this plan is going to stay in place for a while. Uchiyama said Thanksgiving is the “targeted completion date for resurfacing, pending weather.”
So in the big picture, who knows? Maybe cyclists will start using the lanes, and as Connell noted, the configuration definitely gives pedestrians a safety buffer.
I’m not a business owner along Merrimon, obviously, and I can see where they don’t like it.
But let’s be honest, the previous configuration was a nightmare, which is evident when you drive the more southerly portion of Merrimon that remains the same. It’s not fun.
I say give this one some time — six months or so. Give drivers time to adjust, and this might just work out. Long lines of traffic and mayhem in the center turn lane likely will ease. Maybe some tweaks can be made to ease congestion.
Hey, maybe some more cyclists will dip a pedal into the turn lanes.
In the meantime, I’d like to suggest the DOT rename the corridor “Merriment Avenue,” as it’s making so many people so happy, and it’s perfect for the holiday season.
What could be more festive than lots and lots of honking?
But please, do not take pictures while honking.
Got a comment or a question? You can reach John Boyle at 828-337-0941 or at firstname.lastname@example.org