Two-wheeled ecology

The simple feat of transporting people from point A to point B and back again poses enormous challenges for city planners and transit-system managers across the country. But analyzing transportation trends is similar to the way wildlife biologists study their furred and feathered subjects — you do it by looking at behavior. Whenever engineers, city planners and transit officials try to take a big-picture approach to transportation issues, they consider needs, access and patterns in the ways people travel. This comprehensive approach to people-moving looks at the full spectrum of transit-related solutions, including car-pooling, mass transit, “trip chaining” (combining a number of errands into one inclusive trip), creative street design, greenways, walking — and cycling.

The two-wheeled, people-powered vehicle, say both local bike commuters and city planners, provides a viable mode of transportation that’s clean, inexpensive, healthy and nonpolluting.

And if you’re sick of those endless rounds of circling the block in search of one of downtown’s coveted parking spaces, consider these statistics: On average, transportation is the second-largest household expense (behind housing); auto emissions are the number one cause of air pollution; 54 percent of all Americans live less than 12 miles from their school, college and/or workplace; and only 19 percent of North Carolina residents are getting the recommended amount of daily physical activity (30 minutes).

Does the bicycle have a valuable role to play in Asheville’s auto-centric transportation puzzle? Eric Krause and Matt Johnson believe the local prospects are good and getting better all the time. Both moved to Asheville in the mid-’90s to open Bio-Wheels, their downtown bike business. “Like many folks in the community, we enjoy the people, diversity and natural environment of the region,” noted Johnson, who had just completed his five-mile bike commute to work. “There’s a sense of community. … A lot of people want to participate in the process of making Asheville a better place to live.” Both Krause and Johnson feel that bike commuting can be a contribution to making Asheville more livable.

To this end, their shop actively promotes the cycling lifestyle. From independently built frames to mountain bikes to city cruisers to bike-maintenance workshops aimed at helping cyclists become more self-sufficient, Bio-Wheels encourages participation, fitness and a people-powered way of life.

How bike-friendly is Asheville? The answer, Krause believes, depends on the cyclist’s level of experience. “We receive positive feedback from individuals who have good bike-handling skills and are used to riding in traffic. Others with less experience are intimidated with some of the narrow streets, hilly terrain and speeding motorists,” says Krause.

Metropolitan Planning Organization Coordinator Dan Baechtold also believes local cycling options are improving. “Through city, state and federal-government funding, we have increased the awareness level with ‘share the road’ signage and the development of bike lanes along various roadways. The greenway project currently under construction along Weaver Boulevard and Broadway will also provide safe cycling and pedestrian options,” he notes.

In the meantime, however, Krause and city transportation officials agree that there are some roads cyclists should avoid. “A cyclist heading north [from downtown] can have a safer and more enjoyable experience traveling along Kimberly instead of Merrimon Avenue,” explains city Transportation Services Manager Ed Hutchinson.

Cyclists looking for suitable routes should consult the Bicycle Transportation Map published by the N.C. DOT’s Division of Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation (available at local bike shops). The map, which covers Asheville and Buncombe County, rates selected roads from level I (those that typically carry little traffic and are suitable for folks with basic bicycling skills) to level IV. (high-traffic-volume routes requiring much more skill and concentration). The map also shows designated bike loops within the city, marked by special signs.

Asheville Transit Planner Jeffrey Burns explains that cyclists can extend their commuting range by taking advantage of one of the 14 bus routes that originate downtown. All city buses are now equipped with bike racks (drivers record about 1,200 users per month). “Intermodal usage of various transit services also allows a bike commuter to avoid congested areas,” says Burns.

Finding a secure place to store your bike while shopping or working has also gotten easier. “Over 30 bike racks have been permanently installed along various locations downtown,” Hutchinson notes proudly. Another 30 racks will be added later this year.

In recent years, the city of Asheville has exhibited a “lead by example” strategy geared toward demonstrating practical solutions to transportation issues. This year’s city budget provides for the acquisition of four bikes, four helmets and four locks for use by city staff. After taking a required training program, city staff will be able to request a bike to use for downtown travel. And the city, says Hutchinson,”would like to see other downtown businesses and employers consider bikes as a practical mode of efficient travel.”

To some, this might not seem like a major contribution. But those four bikes could remove four vehicles (and their attendant emissions, noise, use of nonrenewable fossil fuels, etc.) from city streets. Replacing vehicles with bikes also frees up parking spaces. Besides, a bike rack costs about $250 — compared to about $20,000 per space to build a parking lot.

Making a small difference in one’s own community can be the first step in pointing a whole culture toward positive change. “We have to be honest with ourselves,” notes Johnson. “What do you personally want for yourself? What do we really want our community to be? The answers to these questions eventually affect the health of our entire planet!”

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