I have come to believe that the corner of Walnut Street and Rankin Avenue is the most dangerous one in Asheville’s entire central business district. We live just 100 meters away, and it’s rare that I pass by without observing a motorist or bicyclist committing some egregious sin. In both cases, the most endangered species is the pedestrian.
As the days grow longer, the sidewalks are filled with the tourists and shoppers who are so important to our downtown economy. Even as we speak, tourists are springing up like daisies, walking around town with their noses either buried in a map or pointing skyward as they admire our unique architecture. Either way, they’re not paying much attention to oncoming traffic!
The part of Rankin Avenue flanked by Tops for Shoes and the parking deck is a one-way street, northbound. Yet I frequently see motorists blissfully heading south on this stretch. The good news is that the one-way segment is only a block long. The bad news is that motorists pulling out of the parking deck aren’t looking for cars coming from the left.
Motorists driving the wrong way constitute a deadly hazard. To save time, some people coming from Walnut Street try to “cheat” by driving the wrong way on Rankin for just a few feet and then turning right into the deck. But they soon find out that this is just about physically impossible. Folks, it’s designed to be that way! You need to go around the block to get to the proper entrance to the Rankin Deck. Trust me—it won’t take all that long.
Between Haywood Street and Rankin, Walnut is one-way, heading down the hill. It’s too narrow to be two-way, especially given that one of its one-and-a-half lanes is often claimed by delivery vehicles. Clearly, it’s a better place for them than clogging up Haywood Street. But a lot of drivers try to cheat by driving up the hill (westbound) on Walnut as a shortcut to either the parking deck’s Walnut Street entrance or the surface parking lot across from it. Shorter it may be, but is that any excuse?
Ah, Walnut: an alley that longs to be a real street! Such a tempting slope for a bicyclist! (In the spirit of full disclosure, I admit to being a cyclist myself. A circuit around Montford on my bike a few times a week really clears the air for me, and the neighborhood’s sparse traffic is greatly appreciated.) But the Walnut hill just begs to be negotiated at maximum speed—just as I used to navigate the big hill near my boyhood home in Columbia, S.C. I survived then, as many survive Walnut today, but seeing other bike riders whip through the Walnut/Rankin intersection at 30-40 mph, I shudder.
Dear fellow bicyclists: I know that we depend on being able to hear cars coming at intersections. So the next time you encounter one of those much quieter all-electric vehicles or hybrids, consider the likely consequences of meeting one of those puppies at the corner in question.
That done, let me urge you to obey the local traffic laws. Motorists expect you to stop at stop signs and red lights, and to ride on the right side of the road. When you don’t, you are nearly invisible to the motorist—and then you’re in real danger. And when you compound the risk by declining to wear a helmet, you’re really asking for it!
Dear motorist friends: When I’m in pedestrian mode (which is most of the time), I note that both the “stop before turning right” rule and the proper use of turn signals appear to have been poorly learned. Many, many drivers turn right rather briskly—without stopping, without signaling—endangering those of us on foot.
Tourists, that means you too! Some intersections have “No Turn on Red” signs posted right beside the traffic signal, yet motorists ignore them. Those signs are there to protect whom? You got it, the pedestrians!
And finally, dear pedestrian friends: Whether you’re walking across Rankin or Walnut or elsewhere, keep your eyes open and your head on a swivel, so you have a better chance of avoiding becoming a summertime casualty in beautiful downtown Asheville.
[George E. Keller, an adjunct professor of physics at UNCA, serves on the Asheville Downtown Association board and the Civic Center Commission.]