Clean and green: Transportation initiatives work to clear the air in WNC

A cleaner, greener city: As part of Asheville's efforts to support alternative transportation, charging stations can be found at the Asheville Chamber of Commerce and other spots around town.
A cleaner, greener city: As part of Asheville's efforts to support alternative transportation, charging stations can be found at the Asheville Chamber of Commerce and other spots around town.

It’s 5 p.m., and you’re sitting in backed-up traffic trying to get home. You’re stuck, choking on vehicle exhaust, which pollutes the surrounding air. You may think there’s nothing to do but patiently wait it out and repeat the next day.

But there are things you can do, and Asheville is ahead of the game when it comes to looking at the future of transportation and sustainable fleets. With a real need for sustainable transportation solutions, there are many individuals and organizations working to increase access to those cleaner options in our metro area.

Until recently, Americans have been 97 percent dependent on petroleum-based transportation, and 40 percent of the oil we used in 2012 was imported from foreign countries, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That same year, transportation use of petroleum dropped to about 71 percent, a trend that looks to be improving nationwide as more affordable solutions roll out.

“There is no one solution,” says Anne Tazewell, who manages the Clean Transportation Program at the North Carolina Solar Center at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. “Right now we’re focused on the things available in the marketplace today — biodiesel, natural gas and propane, electric vehicles and efficient driving habits.”

Greener fleets

In the Asheville metro area, the nonprofit transportation service Mountain Mobility has 10 vehicles that run on propane or gas and a dozen that run on compressed natural gas or gasoline. The city of Asheville has more than 30 vehicles running on CNG, the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department has several patrol cars running on propane and the Metropolitan Sewerage District of Buncombe County switched its more than 80 diesel vehicles to biodiesel in 2003, making MSD the first major purchaser of biodiesel in Buncombe County. By the end of June 2013, the agency had purchased more than 725,000 gallons of B20, replacing about 145,000 gallons of fossil fuel with oil made from soybeans.

“The inspiration, on a personal level for the staff involved, was looking at the amount of miles that we drive and the emissions,” says Lori Hembree, general manager at Mountain Mobility. She and her operations manager “wanted to look at a way to contribute less in terms of vehicle emissions,” Hembree recalls. “Once grant money became available, we started looking at the cost savings and reduced dependence on foreign oils. It has been very successful.”

The Asheville Police Department is considering greening its fleet too. The APD has three hybrid SUVs used by administrative personnel, one Chevy Volt electric cruiser used downtown and five Ford Fusions used in the criminal investigations division. Beyond that, they say they are assessing the use of green vehicles for more non-patrol vehicles in the future.

“The police department, within the city fleet, is probably the biggest user of fuel in the city,” said Lt. Gary Gudac of the APD. “We are one of the largest divisions within the city, and we also have the most vehicles. So we definitely want to reduce our operating cost and reduce our carbon footprint. That’s something we’ve been looking at for a while, [and we’re] looking at what vehicles we could switch over to … without compromising the public safety aspect.”

But Gudac notes some concerns the department must consider: Can hybrid vehicles deliver power when needed, get through or around traffic, or maintain power on steep mountain roads? The biggest thing APD has done recently, he says, is to purchase 29 new Ford police interceptors with “smart” engines that cut down on fuel consumption when power isn’t needed.

“We hope to see big fuel savings,” Gudac says.

Cleaner cities

Bill Eaker is the Clean Cities coordinator for the Land-of-Sky Clean Vehicles Coalition, which works with vehicle fleets, fuel providers and community leaders to reduce petroleum use in transportation in Western North Carolina. The coalition worked to- ward getting Land-of-Sky’s five-county area certified by the U.S. Department of Energy as a clean city in July 2012, something that Eaker says is very proud of.

“The federal clean cities program, which is 20 years old, designates metropolitan areas, and in some cases entire states, as clean cities after those [area leaders] have proven to the DOE that they are serious about reducing their petroleum use and improving their quality through the use of all these technologies,” Eaker says. “There’s a lot you have to do over a period of years to prove to the Department of Energy that you are serious and worthy of being designated.

“Just because you are designated a ‘clean city’ does not mean by any means that you are clean,” Eaker is quick to note with a laugh. “What it means is that these are areas that are working toward being clean. Some of them may be clean in terms of air quality; others may have severe air-quality problems, and they are working toward it by using more sustainable forms of transportation.”

One of the main objectives of the clean cities program, says Eaker, is to reduce dependency on foreign oil, especially oil coming from unfriendly countries.

“There’s a lot of interest in the use of alternative fuels and more sustainable transportation in the region, especially the Asheville/ Buncombe County region,” Eaker says.

The coalition makes use of that interest by sitting down with fleet managers and helping them analyze their fleets to determine what kind of alternative fuels they could put to use, whether it be biodiesel, CNG, propane or electric hybrids. Then the coalition helps find federal and state grants available for vehicle purchasing, conversion or infra- structure installation.

“We’ve made a lot of progress,” Eaker says. “In the last year, with all of our partners, we reduced petroleum use by about 800,000 gallons through all of the different fuels and technologies. Asheville is a leader in terms of the variety of fuels and technologies.”

People power

There are also several things commuters can do to reduce emissions and help to make this a greener area to live. Electric hybrid cars are a popular option, and there are more than 50 charging cords at 25 locations around the region. The N.C. Solar Center also offers a few tips for nonhybrid drivers, including coasting on downhill stretches when it’s a safe option, lightening loads to improve efficiency, reducing idle times, keeping speeds under 65 miles per hour as much as possible and considering smaller vehicles when it comes time to update your ride.

“Save the planet and save money at the same time,” Tazewell says.

Biking is another great, clean transportation choice. Mike Sule, founder of Asheville on Bikes, says there is a three-tiered benefit from choosing to ride instead of drive.

“The first one is quality of life,” Sule says. “It’s a lot of fun to get outside and ride your bike to a destination. It slows down the pace of life, you get some quality exercise, and you get to re-engage with your community.”

Secondly, Sule says, riding your bike saves you money.

“AAA estimates that the average American spends $10,000 a year on the total costs of owning an automobile,” Sule says. “Even if you do own a car but choose to ride part of the time, you’re still saving yourself money.”

He adds that riding a bike means you’re doing your part for preserving a healthy environment.

Meanwhile, Asheville and Buncombe County are working on building connected greenway systems that can make it easier to get around by bike or foot. The city currently contains 4.3 miles of developed greenways and is working toward a vision of a 15-mile system. The county has adopted a greenway plan and is in the early stages of funding it.

“Our system is moving toward connectivity,” Sule says. “We’re not quite there yet, but in the city of Asheville there are a lot of champions who are supporting greenways.”

The next hurdle is establishing interconnected greenways throughout Buncombe County, Sule says, in part for the boost they bring to businesses along greenways.

“We’ve got some work to do on demonstrating that a robust greenway system is healthy for the community,” Sules says. “I think we’ve made that case in Asheville, but the next place to really make that case is countywide.”

For the best places to ride in the city, the Asheville Parks and Greenways Foundation has created an active transportation map — the Get Moving Map — that can be found at the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce as well as most bike shops in town.

So while you may still find yourself stuck in traffic, the spread of cleaner transportation methods will, in time, reduce the amount of pollution in the air. From improving greenways to increasing the ease of active transportation methods like walking and biking, to expanding usage of alternative fuels in city fleets and encouraging electric vehicle ownership by providing numerous charging stations, Asheville is continuing its move toward a cleaner, greener city.


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