The Gospel According to Jerry

As neighborhoods organize to discourage traffic on their streets, the general population is subjected to more and more abuse.

In my ongoing quest to become neighborhood man of the year, I want to talk about traffic calming.

When I think of traffic calming, I am reminded of a childhood song: “Here we go loop de loop, here we go bump de bump.”

Traffic calming has two purposes; the first is public safety. This means maintaining traffic speeds that are compatible with the topography, type, size and special uses of particular streets and roads (a school zone, for instance).

Naturally, a winding road full of blind curves requires slower speeds than a four-lane straightaway with good visibility and sidewalks. These situations obviously require appropriate speed limits and strict enforcement.

But traffic calming also diverts traffic from specific roads and neighborhoods to reduce the number of vehicles and the annoyance for residents. The idea is to discourage outside motorists from cutting through a neighborhood by redirecting them to other routes.

The growing demand for this type of traffic calming is a reaction to Asheville’s rapid growth and the resulting increase in traffic. And the construction of large retail, commercial or public facilities often accelerates the fervor.

But as neighborhoods organize to discourage traffic on their streets, the general population is subjected to more and more abuse.

For several years now, there’s been a push to discourage north/south traffic on Charlotte Street by making it a three-lane road with bicycle paths. People going to or from downtown or the freeway would be forced to use Merrimon Avenue. And now there is discussion about putting traffic calming on Merrimon Avenue as well, to curtail all but local traffic on that street.

If these efforts succeed, it will send these already-overcrowded routes into total gridlock, to everyone’s detriment.

What the neighborhoods must understand is that these streets are taxpayer-supported, and as desirable as the goal might be, these folks do not have exclusive proprietary rights to use their street. Every citizen is entitled to drive on any street in town.

Let’s consider the various traffic-calming measures used in our city.

First there are the traditional speed-limit, school-zone and watch-for-pedestrians signs. There are stop signs and traffic lights of all types.

Then there are the newfangled traffic islands and speed bumps and humps. In Redwood Forest and on Murdock Avenue, there are obstructions that look like something you’d find in a pinball machine. These devices, favored by the advocates of exclusion, force drivers to bob and weave and slow down to well below the posted speed limit. In some cases, these calming tools cause side roads to suddenly become one lane, setting the scene for collisions at whatever speed.

And then there are the ever-so-hip roundabouts, designed to bewilder us dumb country folks and produce an unlimited number of T-bone accidents.

I tried to cross beside the College Street roundabout, and I discovered that they’re so complicated that they have a sign to tell pedestrians which way to look. If you’re lucky enough to look in the right direction, you still can’t tell whether the car coming toward you is going to continue around the circle or go straight ahead and join you in the crosswalk.

One of the most effective tools is what I call the “whoops, busted!!! flash board.” These display your actual speed in neon lights, and believe me, they wake up drivers who may be going too fast, whether intentionally or not. I have watched these machines in action and have run past them myself — vividly reminded that I am a scofflaw and that a squad car may be hiding just beyond the sign. The advantage of these signs is that they’re portable and can be easily moved to hit the trouble spots.

On main thoroughfares, the placement of most traffic lights, stop signs, speed limits and traffic circles is determined by the city’s Traffic Engineering Division or the DOT. But the second kind of traffic calming is covered by the city’s “Neighborhood Traffic Calming Policy.” And though the policy emphasizes the importance of citizen participation in all traffic-calming projects, in practice, it systematically excludes those citizens who live outside the neighborhood but might use its streets to get to jobs, schools, shopping, etc.

You may wonder how the latter kind of traffic calming gets put in place. To initiate the process, 40 percent of an arbitrarily selected group of neighbors must sign a petition. Then there’s a study, community meetings to approve a plan, and a second petition, which 60 percent of the neighborhood must sign.

But the signatures are verified by phone, and the whole process is very random and vague, making the results questionable. We need a stricter verification process for neighborhood petitions.

Beyond that, however, our traffic calming must be single-purpose: designed to provide maximum safety and convenience for all of our citizens, while acknowledging that people are also responsible for looking after their own safety as they walk or travel our streets.

For this reason, traffic-calming measures should be reviewed on a regular basis, and obstructions that prove dangerous should be modified or removed. Most of all, there should be well-advertised opportunity for citizen input — not just from neighborhood residents, but from those travelers affected by traffic-calming measures.

And if this whole discussion about traffic makes you mad or anxious, please do your best to keep calm.

[Local developer Jerry Sternberg is a longtime observer of the community scene. He can be reached at gospeljerry@aol.com.]

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