Asheville’s a great place to live…

Linda Giltz admits to having heard the above complaint before — “especially this time of year, when Strive Not to Drive Week is going strong.”

Giltz, a land planner at Land-of-Sky Regional Council, has been busy helping pull together this year’s event, which encourages people to swear off their cars for one or more days and sample local alternative-transportation options (such as walking, bicycling, riding the bus, car-pooling and telecommuting). The organizers of SNTD ’03 (May 10-18) point out that having fewer cars on the road helps everyone: Our streets are safer, there’s less traffic congestion, the air is cleaner, and as Giltz explains, “You get in some exercise.”

Getting around town without a car, she maintains, is easier than it used to be. “When my husband and I were looking for a place in Asheville several years ago, we wanted to be accessible to downtown … close enough to cycle into town,” she reveals. The couple, who moved here from Charlotte, have found West Asheville to be convenient to both downtown Asheville and various transit-system stops, Giltz reports.

Corner-store culture

According to Smart Growth America, a national coalition promoting alternatives to sprawl, citizens across the country are hungry for ways to spend fewer hours in traffic and more time enjoying green space; for housing that is both affordable and close to jobs and activities; for improved air and water quality; and for a landscape where their children can play safely. The recent surge of interest in West Asheville seems to reflect those yearnings.

A cluster of new businesses along Haywood Road has helped fuel neighborhood revitalization efforts. Pro Bikes owner Fred Schuldt is one of the merchants who’ve chosen to invest in West Asheville. On Labor Day 2002, Pro Bikes relocated from Merrimon Avenue, becoming the first bike store along the community’s traditional business corridor in more than 60 years.

Like Giltz, Schuldt says he’s enjoying the West Asheville renaissance. But though the bike-shop owner concedes that he’s seeing more cyclists on the roads these days, he still feels that government at all levels needs to provide more support for forms of transportation other than highways. “‘Sharing the Road’ signs are nice,” says Schuldt, “but we seem to have stagnated here lately as far as the pedestrian and cyclist is concerned.”

The competitive cross-country downhiller, who races in the “expert veteran” category, admits that he, too, drives to work (though he does manage to commute by bike a couple of times each week). And while the seasoned cyclist says he feels comfortable on his commutes, Schuldt is always on guard for careless motorists. Recently, he spotted a vehicle sporting a bumper sticker that read “Pave a cyclist!”

“With this kind of behavior, I get a sense of what minorities feel,” Schuldt observes.

The nearly 25-year Asheville resident says he’s also concerned about the decline in quality of life that he’s seen in this community. “People are moving here for the clean living, and I’m thinking about how we used to have these incredible 50-mile views,” fumes Schuldt. “We now are lucky to see 10 miles [in summer]. We all need to curb our appetite for more roads and begin to look for alternative options, including [mass] transit, car-pooling, cycling and walking.”

In 2000, North Carolina ranked second in the nation for most miles of state-maintained highways, reports SmartCommute, a coalition of Research Triangle-based businesses, government agencies, transit authorities and the N.C. Department of Transportation that promotes alternative modes of transportation as a way to ease congestion on Tar Heel thoroughfares. Meanwhile, the cost of building new roads and maintaining existing ones continues to escalate. According to SmartCommute, North Carolina needs an estimated $1 billion per year to fund new highway construction, plus $300 million per year to maintain existing highways.

Small steps

For Sarah Droke, walking to work each day provides a “nice transition” from the house to the workplace. Droke, the kitchen manager at Rosetta’s Kitchen, lives only a few blocks from the downtown restaurant. “I feel guilty when I drive to work,” she explains.

Droke moved here two years ago from San Francisco, and her experience in one of the nation’s most pedestrian- and bike-friendly cities paved the way for her personal strive-not-to-drive routine.

Droke’s co-workers at the vegetarian/vegan soul-food restaurant share her philosophy. Friends, she says, approached her about offering a bike-based delivery service. Owner Rosetta Star thought it was a cool idea, and the restaurant now offers lunch-hour food delivery via bike throughout the heart of downtown. Tuesday through Friday from 12-2 p.m., riders using specially equipped bikes and an insulated food bag pedal Asheville’s hilly streets delivering orders.

Walking a few blocks to work and car-less food delivery may seem like insignificant steps, but according to SNTD sponsors, short trips and quick errands contribute more to air pollution problems than longer or more-carefully-planned trips. “The choices we make and what we do everyday makes a big impact on our surroundings,” Droke affirms.

Putting transit on track

In the words of transit activist George Haikalis of Auto-Free NY, “The ultimate traffic-calming carrot is a transit system.”

The Asheville Transit System has taken that sentiment to heart, incorporating Take Transit Tuesday into this year’s Strive Not to Drive Week. On May 13, instead of the usual 75 cents a ride, passengers could hop on board for a quarter. The hope, of course, is that some of those riders might decide to become regular transit-sytem patrons. And even at the normal rate, a typical commuter who switches from driving alone to using commuter alternatives saves more than $800 a year on transportation costs, SmartCommute reports.

But the benefits, says Giltz, transcend the purely personal. “Even a modest increase in annual transit ridership could help relieve congestion downtown and reduce the need for parking,” she notes.

One of the most overlooked advantages of mass transit is dramatically increased safety. According to Federal Transit Administration figures, riding a bus is 91 times safer than car travel, based on an FTA comparison of accidents per vehicle miles traveled.

Strive Not to Drive, meanwhile, has grown from a one-day event into more than 10 days of activities and information, notes Giltz. What’s more, Haywood and Henderson counties have come on board, making it a regional awareness campaign (see SNTD event listings in the Xpress calendar).

Giltz is also pleased about the broad base of volunteers and diverse array of agencies that have joined forces to organize this year’s event. “The coalition that plans and coordinates the activities and promotion for SNTD is a broad partnership of organizations and individuals that have come together to encourage alternative transportation to improve air quality, health and quality of life in WNC,” she explains. That partnership includes specialists in air quality, mass transit and public health as well as regional planners, environmental groups, walking and biking advocates and concerned citizens.

This year, for example, Black Mountain Alderman Joan Brown is leading a guided transit ride appropriately titled Ride with Joan. “When we see elected officials step forward and lead by example, it may inspire other elected officials,” says Giltz.

Strive Not to Drive Week gives area residents an excuse to try out one of the many local car-free transportation options — using their feet, lungs and dollars to cast votes for cleaner air and safer, less-congested roads.

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