At this writing, Asheville is three weeks into its 90-day, ride-for-free promotional campaign for mass transit. Already, ridership has increased by 66 percent. The buses are running full, and we’ve gone from people saying that no one would ever ride the bus here to actually having some concern about overcrowding.
We know that Asheville is going to grow. But we need to learn from the mistakes of other communities that have allowed sprawl to destroy their character and degrade their environment. The ride-for-free campaign and new evening transit hours are just a couple of examples of the kind of innovative policies we need to keep this city healthy and vibrant.
The Asheville City Council doesn’t have all the answers; we need the community to be involved. To that end, we’ve proposed creating a new Citizens Committee for Energy and Environment, which would help identify specific actions our community could take to reduce energy use, improve air quality and foster sustainability. If you’d be interested in serving on this committee, we invite you to submit an application (see below).
In the meantime, however, City Council already has enough information to take action on a range of environmental issues. Over the next several months, we’ll be supporting the following actions:
• Reduce the city’s energy use (including fuel for its vehicles) by 25 percent over the next decade. Asheville should also require any new municipal building over 5,000 square feet to meet strong “green building” standards and be LEED-certified.
Asheville needs to lead by example. As a hypothetical, suppose we decided to convert our transit fleet to super-low-emission, hybrid-electric buses? Converting just one city bus to a hybrid-electric bus is the environmental equivalent of replacing 10 conventional cars with hybrid-electric models. But because the average car in Asheville is driven less than 90 minutes per day, while the typical transit bus is driven 12 or more hours per day, it’s really like replacing one conventional car with 80 hybrids. So running hybrid vehicles on all 15 transit routes would be tantamount to replacing 1,200 conventional cars with hybrid vehicles.
• Provide strong incentives for green building in Asheville. Buildings account for 45 percent of all the energy consumed in this country. Using green-building practices in new homes and developments can dramatically reduce energy use. We’re working with staff on a proposed package of strong financial and regulatory incentives to encourage both the goals set by the community in the 2025 Plan and this Council’s own strategic goals and plans. If enacted, these incentives will encourage a wide variety of green-building practices (including sustainable site selection), affordable housing and mass-transit-oriented development. The city already offers a 50 percent reduction in permitting fees for LEED projects; we propose offering the same discount for the state’s HealthyBuilt Homes Program and (in partnership with MSD) giving comparable reductions in water-and-sewer connection fees.
• Join ICLEI’s Cities for Climate Protection Campaign. This will give us the resources and support needed to conduct an organizational energy-usage base-line audit. Armed with that information, we can make informed and responsible decisions about how to improve operational efficiency while saving money and resources.
• Rein in big-box development. We should close the loophole in the Unified Development Ordinance that allows Wal-Mart Supercenters to exceed the 75,000-square-foot building-size cap. If big retailers want to exceed our normal limits, there should be strong requirements for using innovative designs and green building practices.
• Ramp up efforts to create a regional parks-and-greenways network. In 20 years, we hope there’ll be a continuous greenway network connecting Asheville, Hendersonville and Black Mountain along the riverways. Almost all our state transportation dollars are now earmarked for highway expansion. Our local Metropolitan Planning Organization has the authority to allocate up to $3 million per year for sidewalks, greenways and mass-transit improvements, but it hasn’t chosen to do so. Asheville should formally request this, so we can realize some of the exciting opportunities for creating beautiful new parks in the region that will pay dividends to this community for generations to come.
Besides making Asheville a better place to live, these policies are also part of something much bigger. City governments are the ones charged with managing the infrastructure that creates and sustains communities — and thus has the most direct connection with energy-use patterns. We’ve also seen in the past few years that cities are on the front lines when it comes to feeling the effects of climate change (such as increased flooding, storms and health concerns).
For this reason, local communities nationwide are leading the way on sustainability issues. Asheville has a chance to be at the forefront of that movement for the long-range health and viability of this community.
We welcome your feedback on these ideas. See you on the bus!
[Brownie Newman and Robin Cape both serve on the Asheville City Council.]
To apply for a seat on the Citizens Committee for Energy and Environment, call the city clerk’s office at 259-5601, or download an application form at www.ashevillenc.gov/forms/boards.pdf.