Free ride

Take a look at current gasoline prices, and you might begin to see your old bicycle in a new light. “[Bicycling] is simple and easy and cheap. There’s no car insurance, big repair bills or gasoline to buy,” points out Oliver Gadja, bicycling and pedestrian coordinator for Asheville’s Public Works Department.

“We choose to drive, a lot of times, [when] 50 percent of the trips generated in the United States are five miles or less — which can easily be biked,” he adds.

Gadja commutes to work, runs errands and shops by bike. As a matter of fact, he doesn’t even own a car. “It’s really a philosophy,” he explains.

Biking to work and back “clears my mind,” maintains Gadja. It’s also how he does his part to reduce air pollution and generally promote alternative modes of transporation, such as buses, trains — and, of course, good old-fashioned walking. Back in college, bicycling was an “economically driven” choice for Gadja that also supported his political and environmental views; “Now,” he says, “I just enjoy [it].”

Pro Bikes owner Fred Schultz would agree, though he came to his own convictions from a different direction: Schultz lost his driver’s license, back in his Navy days, and had to bike the six miles to the base every day. “I didn’t want to rely on anyone,” he remembers. What began as a temporary inconvenience soon became his passion and vocation: Although Schultz used to race cars on weekends, he came to see bicycling as a political and environmental statement. “We get locked into the car thing, taking the big roads, the quick routes,” Schultz observes, mentioning the automobile’s contribution to smog and the often-frustrating gridlock plaguing Asheville’s high-traffic routes. “If everybody left their cars at home just one day a week, it would make a difference [in reducing pollution and congestion]. You can get from here to anywhere by taking the back streets … and riding a bike.”

“Particularly in the warmer seasons, the Asheville area is very susceptible to inversions, where the haze can get trapped in the valleys,” explains Elizabeth McTeague, a planner with the Land-of-Sky Regional Council. She refers to the large number of high-ozone days recorded last year, emphasizing the need to seek alternatives. to driving. “If more people biked, we’d reduce the amount of [exhaust] emissions that pollute our atmosphere,” says McTeague. An avid bicyclist, she shares her passion with her two toddlers: “We have done the whole-family-biking-to-Ingles [trip] on occasion. Even families that are dependent on the car can plan trips, combine errands and reduce their time in the car,” she remarks.

Government, too, is getting with the program: Congress recently re-authorized the Transportation Equity Act, dubbed TEA21. It will provide more money for bike and pedestrian projects around the country, as well as alternatives like park-and-ride programs, van-pooling projects, and intermodal centers linking several modes of transportation — such as a combination bus-and-rail depot, McTeague notes. In Western North Carolina, Land of Sky has collected more than $60,000 in grants from the federal Appalachian Regional Commission, the Asheville-area Metropolitan Planning Organization and other sponsors to come up with an alternative transportation plan for our area.

That ties in with homegrown plans to install bike racks around town and bike carriers on city buses, Gadja adds. One key to encouraging bike use is to make the switch convenient: A long-haul commuter could pedal to a bus stop, load the bike onto the bus rack, and ride into town, he explains. “Start small, maybe biking to work every other day,” Gadja urges. “Give yourself enough time to get to work. Most people are pleasantly surprised at how quickly they can bike three to five miles.”

Schultz points out: “You don’t get that Friday-afternoon, beat-the-Jones-in-traffic attitude when you’re riding a bike. It’s more down-to-earth.”

Both men recommend getting a copy of the Bicycle Transporation Map for Asheville and Buncombe County. Published in 1998 by the state’s Division of Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation, the map rates routes based on their safety and difficulty, and provides numerous tips for bikers. “It’s always smart to wear a helmet,” stresses Gadja. And it’s important to obey stop signs and signal lights, just as if you were a motorist, he continues. Instead of the annoying horn that motorists use, get a bell for warning pedestrians, wayward dogs and the like.

“It’s less threatening than a horn,” he notes lightheartedly; Gadja also reminds bicyclists to “roll up your right pants leg, so you don’t get grease on your pants.”

Schultz says it’s a good idea to have lights for your bike and reflective clothing, for those times you must ride at dusk or after dark (reflectors are also a necessity). The shop owner commutes the mile to work most mornings by riding his bike — with his dog, Millie, tagging along. “It’s healthy, and it clears my head,” he reports. In fact, Schultz urges everyone to try it: “The first time, it’ll seem like a long trip. But you can average 10 miles per hour on a bike. And you can research your route on a Saturday or Sunday, when traffic is less. Just try it one day.”

Gadja echoes that sentiment. “I used to think [bicycling] was something radical,” he confesses, “but it’s something my grandparents used to do. We’ve lost touch with a simpler time.”

[For copies of the Bicycle Transporation Map, check with local bike shops, or give Gadja a call at 232-4528. To get involved in bicycling/pedestrian issues, attend the March 16 meeting of the Pedestrian and Bikeways task forces. The two groups will meet at 5:30 p.m. at Asheville’s Public Works Building, 161 S. Charlotte St.]

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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