Clearing the air

Western North Carolina’s air-quality problems are no secret. Nor are the effects of dirty air.

But what do we do about them?

Part of the solution, maintains the Asheville-based Western North Carolina Alliance, is encouraging people to ride the bus. At a Dec. 3 community meeting, the grassroots environmental group presented a twofold strategy. Besides improving the Asheville Transit System, the proposal also calls for urging the Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners to support land-use and transportation policies aimed at reducing traffic growth. More specifically, the proposal calls for slowing the growth of “vehicle miles traveled” or VMT (the total miles driven by all the vehicles in a region on a given day).

These ideas drew a largely positive reaction from the roughly 50 people who attended the meeting, held in the sanctuary of the Haywood Street United Methodist Church in downtown Asheville.

The N.C. Clean Smokestacks Act, adopted in June, requires coal-fired power plants to reduce emissions. But about half of the nitrogen oxide — a component of ground-level ozone pollution — in our air comes from vehicle exhaust, said Andrew Goldberg of the Mountain Air Quality Coalition, a project of the nonprofit Western North Carolina Tomorrow.

And because of land-use patterns that encourage more automobile use, the VMT in most cities is increasing faster than the population. In the Southeast, the VMT is growing at nearly four times the rate of population growth, according to information from The Southern Appalachian Mountains Initiative. In the Asheville metro region, the VMT grew 4 percent per year between 1995 and 1998, while the local population grew only about 1.5 percent annually, The Brookings Institute reported in 2000.

But those trends aren’t inevitable. Asheville consultant James Garner touted Boulder, Colo.’s transit system — described as the best in the country — for taking steps that have limited the growth in that city’s vehicle miles traveled. Sixty thousand of that city’s 100,000 residents have bus passes, which are bought in bulk by businesses, neighborhoods and universities. Boulder also has community-designed high-use routes, which offer bus service every 15 minutes.

The same approach could be tried in Asheville, suggested Brownie Newman of the WNC Alliance. In addition, he said, land-use policies could be developed to steer future growth into areas that can provide high-quality bus service.

One audience member questioned whether Asheville is big enough to support a superior transit system. Boulder, conceded Garner, has a larger population (100,000 people to Ashevillle’s 70,000) and has two-and-a-half times the population density (4,100 people per square mile, compared to Asheville’s 1,670 people per square mile).

In response to another question, Garner noted that Boulder spends much more than Asheville does on its transit system each year — more than twice as much, he said later. But Boulder, he added, is also a richer city, both in terms of average income and the overall size of its budget, which is also more than twice as large as Asheville’s.

After the meeting, Garner said that Asheville doesn’t necessarily have to copy Boulder, but folks here could use some of that city’s ideas — like soliciting community involvement — to improve our local transportation system.

Someone else asked if Boulder’s efforts had improved air quality there.

“It’s worked for VMT, and if you get more penetration of these cleaner vehicles, you will get cleaner air,” Goldberg replied.

The large group then broke up into five smaller working groups.

In the West Asheville group, Alliance Executive Committee member Darleen Benson asked what folks thought about the existing transit system. Greg Arnold said he doesn’t use the bus because it takes too long. Because of the way the bus routes run, a trip from West Asheville to Bent Creek, for example, entails an extraneous trip to downtown Asheville. On the plus side, if downtown’s your destination, the bus is “very convenient,” reported Linda Giltz.

Asked about a community effort to design routes offering frequent bus service, Rebecca Em Campbell — noting the all-white makeup of the working group — said they need to reach out to black and Hispanic community members.

The West Ashevilleans supported the idea of encouraging city and county leaders to develop policies to stem the growth in vehicle miles traveled. But they seemed skeptical that the county commissioners would be willing to take action.

“It seems like the county is so reluctant to step in for anything,” Arnold observed. And Rusty Sivils added: “The county is so spread out that there’s no transit, period. And even if there were … [a] very smaller number of people would use it.”

Sivils suggested that offering free bus rides (underwritten by local government) would eliminate the organizational headache of bus passes. And Arnold observed that the passes could be paid for with a city-assessed fee (similar to the way recycling is handled) But Jonah Goldwag said discounts — rather than freebies — might be viewed as more valuable and so offer a bigger incentive to ride.

The whole group then reconvened, with all five working groups offering suggestions. Among those ideas were: emphasizing that a better transit system could improve tourism, determining local transportation patterns (based on where the most people live and work), and somehow eliminating the social stigma of riding the bus.

Newman said the WNC Alliance would compile the data from audience surveys, approach City Council about including the VMT policy proposal in the city’s 2025 Plan, ask the county commissioners for their support and schedule another meeting for early February. He also thanked participants (including the event’s co-host, Friends of Asheville Transit).

“We see this as a long-term process for improving transportation in our community,” concluded Newman.

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