Letter: Traffic engineers fail to tell the whole story

Graphic by Lori Deaton

[Regarding “Counting Cars: How Do Traffic Impact Studies Shape Development Decisions?” Aug. 10, Xpress:] I come from a family of engineers, and I must say it’s a real head-scratcher to see the lack of wisdom aiding and abetting some of the larger housing projects getting greenlighted here.

The bizarrely myopic assumption of many traffic engineers seems to be that traffic increases only impact other drivers who are wielding tons of steel. This isn’t true. Neighborhood traffic patterns impact those who aren’t driving just as much as they do those behind the wheel. This includes folks who work from home, retirees, parents tending children with autism or simply those who rightfully expect some peaceful enjoyment of the home they’ve worked hard to create.

It’s a proven fact that increased traffic brings with it pollution and noise. This leads to added stress levels, blood pressure spikes and, ultimately, diminished health of the human heart. Traffic (whether you’re in it or not) has as much to do with your well-being as it does with how quickly you can dash to Trader Joe’s.

A more complete story of future traffic impacts might be told if engineers made a more comprehensive effort to understand neighborhoods where developments are being proposed. For instance, engineers might learn more about a neighborhood’s character and daily activity from using cameras at key portions of streets. Even better would be if engineers applied a boots-on-the-ground approach like an old-school beat cop. What might they glean from a casual saunter at dusk? What might they notice on a sunny Saturday when the nearby park is filled to capacity and visitors’ cars are jammed along both sides of a narrow street?

In the current model, it seems that many nuances of neighborhoods are lost. Traffic engineers calculate vehicles per day, inbound and outbound numbers, and points of ingress and egress; they mention the thousands of additional anticipated car trips per day. But they do not take the proactive human-centered initiative to say, “Wow, that’s a 500% increase! Someone should go up there and take a closer look.” Even the least romantic STEM grad might be moved to suggest better protections for a neighborhood they’ve visited on a Sunday morning when birds are singing and the street is quiet and still.

Currently, it’s baffling and frustrating to witness so-called progressive politicians supporting bike lanes on busy through roads such as Merrimon, while many of these people stand idly by as walkable, bike-friendly neighborhoods are being thrown under the bus and turned into thoroughfares.

For example, I recently read a traffic impact analysis for the proposed Bluffs at Riverbend that struck me like some detached-from-reality attempt to concoct science fiction. The contentious Woodfin mountain village is being proposed for an urban forest squeezed between a low-density neighborhood and city park with no road from Woodfin to reach the site.

The two proposals I’ve seen have projected traffic increases ranging from 400% to 1,200%. Yep, you read those numbers right. And yet, no one from the developer’s team or NCDOT seemed to have any qualms about a likely fivefold increase in traffic. Nowhere in the study was there mention of the park, National Guard access, lack of sidewalks or the many years that heavy construction vehicles would utilize this street where there’s an ordinance prohibiting the use of such trucks.

Today I won’t get into the irony of the town of Woodfin having no road or bridge to reach a potential future Woodfin neighborhood from the town whose motto is “Where Community Matters.” But I will say that local elected officials and appointed boards have a wonderful opportunity to put their morals where their mouths are and come visit an actual community that would be severely impacted by a monstrous project built on land they annexed along Richmond Hill Drive. Here, Woodfin leaders will discover a close-knit community that does indeed matter — where neighbors know one another, tend to each other’s children and pets, walk and/or bike, and lead lives very much like what Woodfin (with its new town manager and newly elected officials) surely aspires to do.

I believe commissioners and boards of citizen volunteers should take it upon themselves to more heavily scrutinize traffic impact analyses — especially when engaged community stakeholders (who are experts on their own neighborhoods) continue to voice valid concerns. As of now, it seems that so much critical information is left out or neglected when engineers merely count cars.

So much is lost when you view other people’s homes and lives from afar. There’s a great deal to notice and learn when you listen, really listen and take a closer look. Most communities are far more nuanced and only come into focus when you pay attention and are willing to see.

To date, I’d be surprised to learn that any traffic engineer involved with the proposed Bluffs project has taken the initiative to park their car at various times and make an effort to conduct a deep and thorough analysis. But hopefully, those who ultimately decide the fate of our Richmond Hill community will.

— Robert McGee

Editor’s note: Asheville Watchdog reports that a new application for a development on the site of what was the Bluffs proposal was submitted this month by a different group of real estate investors.


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5 thoughts on “Letter: Traffic engineers fail to tell the whole story

  1. MV

    Thanks, Robert, but you failed to mention the extreme safety concerns on Richmond Hill Drive with the uptick in park traffic (tourists, disc golfers, and residents of neighboring communities). Plus there’s the WNC Retirement Home and several care facilities. Lots of elderly folk plus people with disabilities walk that street for therapy and rehab. It’s a disaster in the making.

  2. Taxpayer

    The city seems to always fail to take the future into consideration at all. Merrimon traffic was deemed to be at the top of the traffic volume for a lane reduction configuration. Now there are proposed developments all around Merrimon that will add a lot vehicles daily. From an infrastructure point of view, Asheville operates as though nothing will ever change and the city is always, always trying to play catch up.

    • MV

      No one wants bike lanes more than I do, but regarding the Merrimon 4-3: concerned citizens raised ‘future growth’ and speed limit issues to Asheville On Bikes, MountainTrue and the City Of Asheville. They shrugged us off and ignored reality. Luckily for them, taxpayers will be around to cover the 300k opt out if it’s needed. That option won’t be available to remedy large-scale development fiascoes.

  3. R.G.

    Asheville, Woodfin, and Buncombe County all need to pull their heads out of their asses and get real. All these geniuses keep passing the buck and we’re all being endangered by their weird ‘plans’ and ‘studies’ that never really attempt to get to the truth of what is what.

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