BY BETTINA FREESE
As Asheville attracts more outdoor enthusiasts, city officials are scrambling to keep up with the growing demand for greenways and safer corridors to lure and encourage pedestrians and cyclists in a town that has for so long been auto-centric.
“The city is committed to making a more bike- and pedestrian-friendly community,” says Greenways Coordinator Lucy Crown. “I’m very excited that within the next two to three years, we are going to see a lot of amazing changes, including a connected greenway.”
The way Asheville on Bikes and Blue Ridge Bicycle Club see it, the more people on the road, the more people need safety education. That’s where the CycleSmart class comes in (avl.mx/5vi). One Saturday each month (starting April 13), a class teaches cycling basics and rules of the road. Instructors are certified through the League of American Bicyclists. Participants work on bike-handling skills before going on a group ride through city streets and greenways.
The NCDOT increases greenway funding to areas with high interest, so the more people who take these classes, the more cash is allocated to Asheville. The class costs $15 per person (plus $7 for each additional family member). It’s the perfect precursor to driver’s education. Once kids learn how to navigate traffic by bike, handling a vehicle is not nearly as intimidating.
“That class really changed the way I ride my bike,” says Crown. “When I was younger, I rode my bike everywhere. I became afraid when I became a parent, and [City Council member] Gwen Wisler talked me into taking that class. It made me a much more confident rider. I would recommend it to anyone who rides their bike in traffic.”
Instructor Julie White has commuted and done cross-country bike trips her whole life. “Our goal is to get people who would like to ride, but need to learn how to navigate traffic and their position in the road,” says White. “It’s a very scary thought to ride in traffic, but it’s really not that bad.”
There are just over 10 miles of greenways in Asheville. Connected by city bike lanes, they follow creeks, skirt The Botanical Gardens at Asheville and include mountaintop views and trails through the woods, linking several parks and breweries. The city counts only paved asphalt trails on its website inventory of just under 5 miles of greenways.
The Beaucatcher Greenway is open and in use, despite its description on the city’s website as “shovel ready and pending funding.” Previous design plans called for it to be paved, but after community input, the modified design uses less funding and incorporates the use of natural surfaces. More construction will take place in 2022, according to minutes from the city’s February Greenway Committee meeting. This spring, construction of the French Broad River Greenway West is scheduled to begin along the river between New Belgium Brewing and the French Broad River Park, home of the popular West Asheville dog park, according to the city of Asheville’s blog.
Preliminary studies are underway for the Swannanoa Greenway — the first for East Asheville — and planning is taking place for another greenway in Black Mountain to travel under Highway 70, the railroad and Highway 9. This will link schools and parks.
“This is a game-changing project,” says Kristy Carter of the Swannanoa Greenway. Carter is principal of Friction Shift Projects, which is an urban and active transportation planning practice. She works closely with Asheville on Bikes.
Buncombe County is taking the lead on connecting the greenway from Hominy Creek to Bent Creek, which would allow mountain bike enthusiasts a safe ride to a system of beloved trails in the Bent Creek Experimental Forest. Bent Creek and Brevard have long been vacation destinations for avid mountain bikers, road bikers and racers looking for the perfect place to train.
“There are a lot more cyclists on the road now,” Carter says. “There used to be a couple weirdos on their bikes all the time, but now there are people everywhere who are commuters, rather than recreational riders. It’s been wild to watch that evolution.”
Sharing the road
Despite the increasing numbers of cyclists braving the road, the reviews of city riding are mixed. The clearest message is that the city’s infrastructure does not encourage feelings of safety even among the most seasoned of riders.
“Riding your bike or walking on the sidewalk along Tunnel Road makes you feel like a destitute person who can’t afford a car,” says Joe Minicozzi, principal of Urban3, an urban design consulting company, who also spent years working with the Asheville Downtown Association. “A car-dominant infrastructure makes you feel unprotected, anxious and more apt to do something illegal to keep yourself safe. The environment is sending you those signals.”
That’s why Asheville on Bikes Executive Director Mike Sule is working to create multimodal infrastructures as neighborhoods evolve. Simple bike lanes aren’t enough. Cars drift, turn across bike lanes without looking and open their car doors into riders. Local commuter Michelle Pugliese got “doored” a few years ago by a driver sitting in a parked car on Coxe Avenue. “The force of my body slamming into the car bent the door,” she says.
Sule, AARP and the Blue Ridge Bicycle Club have joined to teach tactical urbanism, a guerrilla gardening way of taking over the streets using cheap products like paint. Rather than waiting for paving trucks and new curbs, cities are having murals painted into intersections, along bike lanes and crosswalks to make a clear delineation for motorists. Tree-lined medians, string lights, plants and tape can help motorists slow down and make way, while pedestrians and cyclists feel lured into a visibly appealing area that makes them feel wanted.
One such project, the temporary mural design on Coxe Avenue downtown, was put to the test last fall shortly after it was installed when the paint began flaking off. Asheville on Bikes plans to clean and repaint the path this spring, “using paint and consulting advice from a new vendor,” according to a project update on its website.
In the meantime, downtown is peppered with bike lanes, but not everybody is behaving. Distracted drivers and cyclists who disobey traffic rules make for a bad combination.
“Our roads make us dependent on the car at this point,” says Sule. “It’s not an equal share of the right of way.”
Evan Coward is not only an avid cyclist but also worked for many years downtown as a bike cop. He is aware of the disparities. “I’ve been on the harsh end of comments from drivers and had things thrown at me,” he says. “But not when I’m on duty. Luckily for us, people give you a wider berth when in uniform.”
Common infractions he’s given to cyclists are for disregarding stop signs and lights and just blatantly unsafe movements while taking advantage of situations. “Rolling the dice so many times will eventually get you caught up in a car,” Coward says.
Cyclists disobeying traffic laws can get citations that go as points against their license. This is a Catch-22 for folks who are riding bikes due to losing their license. For that reason, District Attorney Todd Williams uses the CycleSmart class as a court diversion.
“I want to encourage people to continue cycling ― especially if they have had a brush with the law,” says Williams. “This CycleSmart class is a constructive intervention that provides for responsibility and constructive change.”
Bettina Freese has been living and riding bikes in Asheville since 2000, teaching kids to safely ride streets and working with Asheville on Bikes; she also has two boys and is a freelance writer and massage instructor.