If there was any question whether Asheville’s main roads are dangerous for pedestrians, those doubts were erased on Jan. 12. That’s the night when Bernard and Carol Budish of Minnesota — both 82 years old — were killed by a hit-and-run motorist on East Tunnel Road. The elderly couple was apparently attempting to cross the road to get from their hotel to a nearby restaurant.
Crowfields Condominiums resident Anne Campbell warned Asheville City Council members at their Jan. 29 community meeting that such a tragedy is possible on Hendersonville Road, too: Like Tunnel Road, it’s a multilaned thoroughfare with few, if any, pedestrian-safety features such as crosswalks, sidewalks or signal lights. “It’s a matter of public safety,” she declared.
But it’s a matter of money, too: The city’s 1999 Pedestrian Thoroughfare Plan identified “630 areas where pedestrian crossing improvements are needed.” The cost of making those improvements was estimated at almost $1.6 million. Upgrading the city’s 26.5 miles of sidewalks, the report stated, would cost about $6.2 million, and building all the new sidewalks needed to connect them was said to carry a $28.5 million price tag. And that was several years ago.
Meanwhile, in recent years, the city’s combined streets-and-sidewalks allocation has been about $600,000 per year — and even that amount has fallen victim this year to Gov. Mike Easley’s strategy of passing on state budget woes to local governments.
“One of our biggest challenges is trying to find ways to retrofit these thoroughfares [such as Hendersonville and Tunnel Roads] where the pedestrian environment is not good. [But] we’ve never really had a funding source,” says Dan Baechtold, coordinator for the Metropolitan Planning Organization, which represents Asheville, Black Mountain, Weaverville, Fletcher, Biltmore Forest, Woodfin and urbanized but unincorporated portions of Buncombe County. The MPO coordinates transportation-planning efforts with the N.C. Department of Transportation, helping prioritize proposed road widenings, public transit and other needs, Baechtold explains.
For pedestrians, some of Asheville’s most dangerous major roads are Hendersonville Road, Patton Avenue, Brevard Road, Merrimon Avenue and Tunnel Road, he reports.
“You could pick any of these major thoroughfares, and others, as places with a lot of shopping and services and employment, but really [having] no safe places to walk or cross,” says Baechtold. All of the above are also wide roads with no pedestrian-safety features (such as medians) and inconsistent sidewalks. The MPO would like to require the DOT to incorporate pedestrian-safety features when it widens or improves roads in the region, he mentions. (The agency, however, lacks the authority to actually do so.)
“Just having a sidewalk doesn’t make [an area] walkable,” Baechtold notes. There are several places where a sidewalk suddenly ends or a city bus unloads passengers who must cross a large, open parking lot to get to the shopping areas, he points out. Then there’s the lack of crosswalks and pedestrian signals, which are common in downtown Asheville but not in other parts of the city, adds Baechtold. (Of course, motorists don’t always respect those features anyway.) “Hendersonville Road [also] has a large elderly population that can’t walk to services and shops that are literally across the street,” he concludes.
What’s the MPO to do?
The cost of installing crosswalks and pedestrian signals at a major intersection can run in the thousands of dollars, Baechtold estimates. The city — which administers the MPO — has occasionally come up with some grant money, such as the roughly $400,000 recently allocated for crosswalk and ramp improvements along the Urban Trail in downtown Asheville. And when the DOT proposes improving a road — whether widening, repaving or reconfiguring lanes — the MPO “looks for opportunities.” A DOT repaving project on Lyman Street, for example, was a chance to get bike lanes striped: “The same kind of thing could be done with pedestrian needs,” Baechtold suggests.
But the pedestrian-safety issue is about more than just money: “Definitely the goal is to try to better integrate those travel modes [buses, bikes, walking, automobiles, trains], but it’s a long-term process to make those changes, because it involves not only making changes to the street system but to the development process and the choices people make,” observes Baechtold.
That last point, he muses, entails a kind of chicken-and-egg problem. “People aren’t going to walk or ride the bus unless the facilities are there and it’s convenient and safe. At the same time, without demonstrated demand for those facilities, it makes it harder to justify [creating them]. But the demand is definitely out there.”
Linda Giltz, regional land-use transportation planner for the Land-of-Sky Regional Council, agrees. “We identified a strong need in the entire region for safe pedestrian facilities,” she remarks, citing Land-of-Sky’s recently completed study, Transportation Options for Western North Carolina. She mentions relatively new policies in Asheville and Hendersonville — requiring developers to include sidewalks in their projects, for example, and planning for greenways.
“Hopefully, [such policies] will get some pieces of sidewalk systems built, then the [connections] can be filled in. … It really comes down to planning for [pedestrian facilities] when we do any new roads or improvements,” says Giltz.
Local governments and transportation advocates have been “asking and asking [DOT] for no more five-lane roads,” she emphasizes. And a recent DOT design for widening a section of Brevard Road (Hwy. 191) points to what Giltz calls “a slowly changing mentality” at the state level vis-a-vis walking, biking and other alternatives to the automobile. “I hope we see more of that in the future,” she remarks.
And Baechtold adds yet another reason to push for changing the “we-must-get-there” mentality: “The most polluting automobile trips are those short ones [for errands, shopping and such]. The first two minutes we run a car are the most polluting, so not having walkable areas has a direct impact on our air quality. … A shift in our thinking is required.”