Downtown car-bike lane project divides Council

HARD DECISIONS: Council member Sage Turner said that while the decision was difficult, she would support the bike lane project due to its expansion of multimodal transportation. Screenshot courtesy of the City of Asheville

Tension was high at the Oct. 10 Asheville City Council meeting as Council members decided the fate of the College Patton Bike Lane Project, a plan that converts a traffic lane to a buffered bike lane on two major downtown roads. After nearly two hours of public comments and somewhat fervent discussions between Council members, the Council approved the project, 4-3, with Council members Antanette Mosley, Sheneika Smith and Vice Mayor Sandra Kilgore opposed.

The bike lanes are set to be installed along sections of College Street and Patton Avenue. One lane will run between Spruce Street and Pritchard Park on College, and the other will connect Pritchard Park and Biltmore Avenue. Since the project’s proposal in March 2022, business owners and other members of the community have expressed concern regarding loading zones and loss of parking, as well as traffic and access to downtown businesses along the central corridor.

During her presentation of the project, Assistant Director of Transportation Jessica Morriss acknowledged these concerns and attempted to provide details. The project will entail removing 17 metered parking spaces, nine of which will be converted to 130 feet of new loading zone areas. No parking spaces that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act are being removed, though one would be relocated.

“We began community engagement for this project over a year ago, and we did receive a lot of community feedback that has been very important to where we are now in terms of our final design,” Morriss said. “We have made multiple revisions to the initial proposal in order to accommodate public requests.”

The $100,000 project, already budgeted in the city’s capital projects fund, is what the city considers a “low-cost, high-value” bicycle facility, promoting increased safety for all users, including the addition of high-visibility crosswalks and creating a key connection in the city’s growing bicycle network.

According to Morriss, both the Asheville Police Department and Asheville Fire Department were consulted on the project design, including lane widths and configurations to ensure that emergency vehicle access is not negatively impacted. However, citing a recent email from the police chief, Mosley expressed concerns about higher emergency response times on Merrimon Avenue, which she claimed was related to the recent lane reduction that Council approved in May 2022.

“In the email, [the police chief] attached response times from Merrimon Avenue. He said that their crime analyst examined North Asheville response times, and the data is alarming,” Mosley said. “Downtown is something that we say we want to prioritize as far as crime prevention, but the final paragraph of the email says, ‘At this time, it remains the position of the APD that research on Merrimon Avenue must be done before any additional bike lanes are considered.’”

APD Chief David Zack, who was at the meeting, responded to the comment noting that he was still waiting to see “internal data” regarding response times and public safety impacts from the Merrimon Avenue road diet and that his department had indicated neither a “thumbs-up or thumbs-down” on the downtown project.

“I’ve repeatedly said we don’t do that. We just provide Council with information, and they make a decision based on it,” he said. He also noted that there is no one reason for higher response times, noting that it could be several factors, including staff shortages or traffic.

Public reaction

There were 39 speakers in all, and like Council, the room was fairly split. Supporters of the project cited bicyclist and pedestrian safety, as well as the environment, as reasons for their support.

“We believe in investments to multimodal transportation,” said Susan Bean, housing and transportation director for MountainTrue. “Making communities less car-centric and more people-centric activates our streets in positive ways.”

Priya Ray, founder and president of DIYabled, supported the project and told Council members that as a wheelchair user, she often uses bike lanes when sidewalks aren’t accessible.

“I am frightened for my life on a daily basis because I have to use bike lanes when the sidewalk is not accessible,” Ray said. “I believe when you create something like the Complete Streets Project, you can help to change the mindset of how people choose to travel.”

Opposing the project were business owners along the corridor, who argued none among their ranks supported the project, citing public safety concerns, traffic congestion, parking and loading zones.

“Small businesses are going to be run out of downtown,” said Hadley Cropp, owner of Asheville Realty Group.

“Downtowns are fragile,” said Russ Martin, former Asheville mayor and the first speaker of the night. “I have worked in downtown for nearly 50 years, and ridden bikes for nearly 40 of those years. I am not opposed to bicycles in the downtown area, but I am concerned about closing one of the lanes of traffic.”

In her closing comments, Kilgore echoed these concerns. “We cannot afford to clog up main arteries that run through our city,” said Kilgore. “We’ve got to think about what it does to the entire community.”

Despite the concerns, Mayor Esther Manheimer noted her support for the project, saying that the bike lanes were in line with the goals of the city’s comprehensive plan, which included increasing downtown connectivity and expanding multimodal transportation.

“I very much believe in the direction that we are trying to move in here,” Manheimer said. “You go to a lot of other cities and see all modes of transportation being used and infrastructure being changed to accommodate all modes of transportation. Putting in bike lanes has become standard procedure for cities when they are building new roads.”

A longtime opponent of the project, Council member Mosley argued that bike lanes should not be the focus of Council when there are more pressing issues being faced by businesses and minorities in Asheville.

“I have been trying to figure out the underlying argument around this topic, and I have been able to recognize some commonalities. At first, I thought people would think, ‘Maybe the three Black women won’t vote on it,’ but then it wasn’t lost on me that we happen to all three be natives of Asheville,” Mosley said. “But the common thread I have been hearing is that people believe that the house is on fire, but instead of dealing with the fire, we are focusing on measuring nice silk draperies. Businesses downtown and marginalized communities are not saying no to bike lanes, they are saying, ‘What about us?’”

Council member Sage Turner, who came to the meeting undecided, said that while the decision was difficult, she would support the project due to its expansion of multimodal transportation.

“As someone who learned in planning school the importance of multimodes, the importance of future cities, the importance of safe ways of access, I feel compelled to at least try this,” Turner said. “If we see any of these issues with emergency personnel, if we see businesses fall to the wayside and leave downtown because they can’t handle the bike lane, then I will be the first to call the three women up here who are not supportive of it and say, ‘We have got a problem, and I need the four us to rally and fix it.’”

City staff will now prepare and issue a request for proposals from contractors. Council will then be asked to approve the contract, likely in early 2024.

In other news

Council also heard an update on public safety, presented by Assistant City Manager Ben Woody and APD Deputy Chief Jackie Stepp. Stepp said that violent crime in 2023 is 18% lower than 2022, but 1% higher compared with the five-year average. Additionally, property crime in 2023 is 4% lower than the previous year and down 2.5% compared with the five-year average. She also noted that crime downtown has continued to decline since the 60-day initiative. “We are also continuing to offer overtime shifts for officers to patrol downtown before and after their shifts. However, we do have to keep in mind officer burnout, as these officers already work 12-hour shifts,” Stepp said.

Woody discussed public safety initiatives not directly related to law enforcement. He discussed the success of the Community Responder Pilot Program, calling it “a proactive program to address public needs and reduce the number of instances where law enforcement is needed.” He also noted that the city is working to address homelessness as a part of public safety, with 198 new units of permanent supportive housing in the works.

“[Addressing homelessness] is a top priority for Council and for the entire city,” said Woody. “Not only will our efforts provide support for those who need it most in our community, it will also help to increase public safety as a whole.”


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About Chase Davis
Chase Davis is an Asheville-based reporter working for Mountain Xpress. He was born and raised in Georgia and holds a Bachelor's degree in Political Science from LaGrange College. Follow me @ChaseDavis0913

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8 thoughts on “Downtown car-bike lane project divides Council

  1. Pierce

    Maggie Ullman should have recused herself due to her conflict of interest. Husband being chair of AOB shows how they have so much influence in this city.

    • Bikesdrool

      Maggie was the chair of the board for AOb when they paid for and pitched these plans to the city

    • apen

      Yes, Maggie Ullman should have recused. It is like the former CEO of an oil company voting on environmental issues. Oh wait, that’s our Fed. Govt. LOL, ugg

    • My Name is Vengeance

      Nope, it was discussed in the council meeting, she was required by law to vote. Conflict of interest is specifically and narrowly defined in state law and mostly involves potential financial gain.

      • SpareChange

        Yes, she clearly covered herself by consulting with the city attorney, and by getting the opinion from him that she did. And I would not argue that Ullman was “required” under most interpretations of the law to recuse herself. However, it is nonsense to think that if she had wanted to avoid any conflict, and avoid the appearance of impropriety, that somehow she would have been prevented by the law from recusing herself.

        The statute the attorney referenced (160a-75) is interesting in that it does state that officials have an affirmative obligation to participate, unless there is a basis for recusal. That particular provision also does focus pretty exclusively on financial conflicts. However, there are other provisions in the general statutes which make it clear that having a financial stake in the outcome of a vote is not the “only” possible basis for there being a possible conflict of interest. The more general conflict of interest standard in G.S. 138A-36(c) is much broader than the “financial benefit” standard the attorney referred to, and extends to participating in decisions where the official has a “personal” relationship with parties whose interests are involved in the decision.

        G.S. 160A-86 also requires cities to adopt an ethics code, and the city adopted a code which speaks both broadly and specifically about avoiding the “appearance” of conflict of interest, and includes many provisions which could have been cited had she decided to recuse herself.

        Bottom line: She was under no obvious obligation to recuse herself, but it is disingenuous of her to in effect say that she had no choice other than to participate. She wanted to participate. She knew her vote would be decisive, and it served the interests of her spouse and others with whom she is closely affiliated and aligned beyond her responsibilities as a council member. Of course, if she chose to remain neutral in the matter, she also had the option of simply abstaining when it came time to vote. That would have resolved any question regarding 160a-75, and also avoided any possible conflict of interest.

  2. JustOne

    Who do we think is going to be riding bikes into downtown? Am I insane? Most people that work downtown likely do not live within biking distance because those locations aren’t affordable. Tourists don’t ride bikes through downtown. This just seems so unnecessary. I would argue that most locals already don’t want to deal with downtown traffic and parking except for special events. So increasing travel time and headache is really a misstep in my opinion.

  3. Curious

    Have there been any studies to collect data on the use of the new bicycle lanes on Merrimon Avenue?

  4. dyfed

    Gotta hand it to Mosley here. I don’t normally agree with anything that anyone on Council says. But screwing around repainting lanes while APD is still critically understaffed is beyond incompetent.

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