To hear local activists tell it, Asheville is on the brink of a multimodal transportation revolution. So say the folks promoting Strive Not to Drive, which aims to boost awareness of local transportation issues and alternatives to the single-occupant car. The weeklong event runs Saturday, May 15, through Friday, May 21.
Launched 20 years ago by a small group of local cyclists, the annual consciousness-raiser has evolved to encompass classes, group bike rides, reduced Asheville bus fares, and even a "multimodal fashion show" (see sidebar for complete listings).
"This is the first year Strive Not to Drive is going to be sexy," declares committee member Rachel Reeser, who also serves as arts director and volunteer coordinator for Asheville on Bikes. "We''re hoping it gives it a higher profile."
Her organization has been staging colorful events to rally the cycling community and draw attention to multimodal issues since 2006. By organizing creatively themed bike rides such as the Pumpkin Pedaler and fundraising parties such as Bike Love, Asheville on Bikes has drawn large crowds that have helped the group gain political leverage, says Executive Director Mike Sule, who also serves on the Strive Not to Drive Committee.
"Because we approach things from a fun, celebratory way, we've really been able to draw the masses," says Sule, who founded Asheville on Bikes four years ago after a cycling tour in Oregon inspired him to sell his car and make a personal commitment to bicycle commuting. "We're really good at bringing a crowd and drawing attention to specific issues."
The group was instrumental in getting the city of Asheville to install rental bike lockers at several downtown locations last year, and operates community bike corrals at festivals such as Downtown After Five, encouraging people to arrive by bike.
Asheville on Bikes also seeks to put pressure on city officials to implement the Comprehensive Bicycle Plan. Adopted by City Council in 2008, it envisions a 181-mile network including 43 miles of dedicated bike lanes as well as other cycle-friendly improvements. Last December, the group created an online tracker that charts the city's progress in implementing the plan and makes recommendations on how to proceed. To view the tracker, go to http://ashevilleonbikes.com.
And while the city clearly has a long way to go, Sule is heartened by such recent developments as the sensor installed at the intersection of Craven Street and Riverside Drive (which senses approaching cyclists and changes the traffic light accordingly), and the new climbing lane along Lexington Avenue.
"I'm seeing city leaders speak more to the issue of multimodal transportation, which tells me that they're beginning to see that there's political capital to be gained," he notes, citing Mayor Terry Bellamy's comments at the April 27 City Council meeting as a positive sign.
Transit Commission member Paul Van Heden, a longtime bus advocate, credits activists' efforts last year with helping put transportation in the spotlight. Ahead of the election, Reecer, Sule, Van Heden and others helped organize Get There Asheville, a multimodal-transit advocacy group.
"There's a very large groundswell right now — the last City Council race really represented that," says Van Heden, who plans to participate in several Strive Not to Drive events. "It turned from a non-issue to the issue of the last race."
He also points to Council members' recent votes to run more buses on major routes and pump money into a marketing campaign — both designed to attract new riders (see "An Uphill Journey" elsewhere in this issue).
Van Heden, a regular bus and bicycle commuter, believes the money will be well spent. "It's absolutely worth it," he declares. "Let's look at some services that we take for granted, that any reasonable person wouldn't want to do without: your police, your fire. Both of them have public relations and some sort of marketing attached to them. The more people who [ride the bus], the more political power, the better it's going to get."
Who owns the road?
Not everyone approves of the new marketing campaign, however.
"I think it sucks," says Fairview resident Mike Fryar, a conservative activist who spoke against the new transit measures at the April 27 Council meeting. "These people paying city taxes who do not have the benefit of a bus route … why would they want to promote something — the people [who have been] annexed into the city — they can't walk to the corner and catch?" he asks.
Fryar also says that while he has no problem with people who ride the bus because it's their only option, he feels others who use tax-subsidized public transit should pay more than the standard $1 fare. "If they want to be environmental and help, pay $2 to ride the bus," he argues. If people ride the bus "just because it's almost a freebie, that's abuse as far as I'm concerned."
Not everyone is thrilled with Asheville cyclists' increasing visibility, either.
Tensions between cyclists and motorists exploded last July when off-duty Asheville firefighter Charles Diez shot cyclist Alan Simons as he was riding with his family on Tunnel Road. According to police, Diez shot Simons because he thought the child seat holding the cyclist's 3-year-old son was unsafe. The .38-caliber bullet tore through the back of Simons' helmet, less than an inch from his head. Diez later pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill and was sentenced to 15 to 27 months in prison, with all but four months suspended. In response, the biking community rallied to support Simons and raise awareness of the hazards facing local riders.
And while Sule says the incident lent their cause a sense of urgency, it also helped set the stage for motorists to raise concerns about local cyclists' behavior.
"I shall continue to blow my horn and to curse at you and others who like to think that you are helping prevent global warming by bicycling and want to have your own way by violating the rules of the road to suit yourselves," Candler resident Craig Whitehead wrote in a letter published in the Dec. 23, 2009, Xpress. "Ride your bike all you want, but follow the laws and rules of the road or get the hell off my road. (Yes, my road, since cars and trucks pay the highway taxes and bicycles do not.)"
A fundamental shift
Amy Saunders, who regularly commutes by bike from her West Asheville home to her downtown job, thinks the best way to address Whitehead's concerns is through better education for motorists and cyclists alike. She cites the New Drivers Bicycle Education Program coordinated by Liberty Bicycles co-owner Claudia Nix, which aims to raise awareness among students taking driver-education classes in Buncombe County high schools.
"I think a big problem is biker education. People get so isolated in their cars that they don't realize how they're driving and how that impacts [cyclists]," says Saunders, telling how she once got hit by a car while riding on State Street, and the driver "didn't even notice."
But some cyclists, she concedes, also need to be more aware of the rules of the road. "If you have a biker on the road that's unpredictable, it makes it difficult for a driver to respect that individual."
And despite the challenges, local cycling activists are hopeful about the future.
"We're at the beginning of a switch in how we move about the city. When things change for people, there's definitely some stress — that's an inevitable part of the shift," Sule maintains. "There are so many people in the city that really want to see the adoption of multimodal infrastructure. … To be a part of what, 50 years from now, will be considered a monumental change in the city is really exciting."
Jake Frankel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 251-1333, ext. 115.