The Great Charlotte Street Traffic Diet of 2018

The Great Charlotte Street Traffic Diet of 2018
The corner of Charlotte and Chestnut Streets, looking north.  This is where the road diet will begin. (Photo by Roger McCredie)

Is the city’s plan a victory for bicyclists’ “tactical urbanism” ?

“The reason they are removing the [Charlotte Street] lane for a bike lane is because a small group of elitist wealthy bicycle riders have been vocal and used their political pull/clout to get them a special place to ride their bicycles … totally inconveniencing the taxpaying citizens that live there and use the roadway. These elitist bicyclists think it is their right to have what they want regardless of who pays for it or how many problems it causes anyone else. And the Asheville city council agrees with them … ”

That’s an excerpt from an email Enquiring Mindsreceived recently, and it summarizes the perception of those who feel that their personal lives are about to be negatively impacted yet again by a city they say is more committed to promoting its bikes-and-beer persona than to looking after its citizens and its infrastructure.

The Diet Cometh

The City of Asheville began poring over possible solutions to traffic congestion on Charlotte Street in 1997.

Twenty-one years, four traffic studies, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside consultants’ fees later, the city has announced it is now ready to move off square one with a Charlotte Street “traffic diet” of its very own devising.

The plan, budgeted at $1.2 million, calls for Charlotte Street to be reduced from four lanes to three along a half-mile stretch between Chestnut Street and Edwin Place. One lane in each direction will carry through traffic; the middle lane will be a shared left turn lane.

Flanking each outside car lane will be a five-foot bike lane.

It’s the bike lanes issue, apparently, that caused the city to sidestep the recommendations contained in the Asheville in Motion (AIM) plan, which it adopted in principle only two years ago.

The AIM was based on a study conducted by Kimley-Horn and Associates at a cost of $336,000. That study contained a “tool kit” of suggested ways to handle bicycle traffic on city streets, including road shoulder striping, signage, and “sharrows” – pavement symbols indicating shared bike and auto routes – as well as segregated lanes reserved exclusively for bike traffic.

The AIM suggested regular or buffered bike lanes for several key city streets including Patton Avenue, Merrimon Avenue, Amboy Road, Coxe Avenue, Biltmore Avenue, and parts of Lexington Avenue and Haywood Road.

But Charlotte Street didn’t make the cut. For it, the Kimley-Horn plan suggested only sharrows. No bike lanes.

Just as in all the previous studies.

Studies-R-Us: What Came Before

In 1997 the city conducted a “traffic corridor analysis” of Charlotte Street that included traffic flow and accident analyses as well as proposed improvements. These included repairing and raising curbs, the removal of utility poles from sidewalks (i.e. underground utility wiring) and the addition of pedestrian amenities “where practical.”  Bicycles, as such, were not even addressed.

Two years later the city published the “2010 Charlotte Street Small Area Plan,” which contained a traffic analysis and a list of suggestions for amenities and refinements it hoped to accomplish by then. This study offered only a passing nod to bikes, suggesting the addition of bicycle racks.

In 2002 Asheville hired Kubilins Transportation Group to conduct a transportation “enhancement study” of Charlotte Street.  Kubilins mentioned a road diet as one of several traffic flow solutions but made no mention of bike lanes – or bikes, for that matter – in its conclusions.  (Enquiring Mindsreached out to city staff for the cost of the Kubilins study but was told that information was “no longer available”.)

Then, in 2013, a city-commissioned study by VHB Engineering – at a cost of $43,865 —  said flatly, “Charlotte Street is not conducive to bicycle travel due to narrow lanes/lack of shoulders and traffic speed, volume, and bicycle conflicts.” (Emphasis added.)

The Lay of the Land

From where it enters Biltmore Avenue just south of midtown, Charlotte Street curves northward as an uncongested five-lane road running behind the courthouse and City Hall with a breezy posted speed limit of 45 miles per hour.  This free flow halts abruptly at the College Street traffic light, just beyond which heavy traffic enters and exits I-240.  Charlotte Street narrows to four lanes here and the speed limit falls to 25, which is seldom attainable especially during morning and evening backups.

The four-lane toils uphill to Chestnut Street, and at this point Charlotte Street takes on a new character: it becomes the neighborhood commercial district supporting the Grove Park, Town Mountain, and Sunset Mountain neighborhoods.  Here are restaurants, pubs, shops, and offices.

It’s the middle, transitional section from Chestnut to Edwin that will get the do-over.

Most Ashevillians  only learned via mainsteam media reports, after the April 24 city council meeting, that a major city traffic artery was going to be reconfigured.  Otherwise there might have been more questions asked than actually were about why, of all the listed AIM projects, Charlotte Street, complete with bicycle embellishments, was getting pushed through now.

AIMing to Please?

The day after the council vote, WLOS-TV burbled, “Many Charlotte Street business owners and residents got their wish Tuesday night as Asheville City Council approved significant changes to how the road will be divided.”

Well, maybe not exactly “many.”  An internal city report on the Charlotte Street “process” earlier this year says, with surprising candor, “Strategic Development Office and Transportation Department staff have engaged with Charlotte Street community members for a little over six months in order to build some relationships with stakeholders in advance of any planning or capital project development process.While this engagement has not been comprehensive, it has included enough input for staff to assess that the implementation of a “road diet with enhanced bicycle facilities” is not fully accepted by the community at this time. A recent non-scientific survey produced by the Charlotte Street Business Association indicates that the majority of respondents would prefer the AIM vision [with no bike lanes] be implemented.”(Emphasis added.)

A good many of the “Charlotte Street community,” as well as motorists from all over Asheville who use Charlotte Street, see the traffic diet not as a solution, but as the loss of one-half of a forty-foot-wide street, with half of the lost part, in turn, going for bikes. The bike lanes, for them, are the straw that has broken the back of the Charlotte Street camel, not only for the mess they foresee, but also for the part that upscale recreational cycling – and the affluent arrogance it represents to them – is playing in it.

Wheeling and Dealing

“Bikes-n-Beer” has become not only the Asheville brand but also the ethos of many of its movers and shakers. A bike ride and a brewpub visit have replaced a round of golf and drinks at the Country Club bar as the locus of wheeling and dealing.  This cultural shift was sanctified in 2013 with the coming of New Belgium Brewing, a company whose very name comes from a biking trip its founder took through Europe and whose flagship beer is called “Fat Tire.”

New Belgium rode into town on a taxpayer-funded $8.5 million city incentives package. Its site construction disrupted and forever changed two old residential neighborhoods and touched off a nasty culture war that smolders to this day and flares anew whenever a related issue, such as the Charlotte Street diet, comes along.

The official party line for any bicycle-related project in Asheville is that it’s not about the Spandex-covered sports cyclists with their $3,000 machines and their $200 cycling shoes; it’s about helping the everyday people who can’t or don’t want to drive cars to get around, and about making Asheville a greener city in the process.

Critics don’t buy it. Sounds good, they say, but most of that line is pure virtue signaling – self-interest masquerading as concern and forward thinking. Of course, critics say, there are Ashevillians who, from choice or necessity, use bikes for everyday transportation. And of course they deserve safety and consideration.   But where, they ask, are these legions of frustrated and frightened bikers trying to navigate Charlotte Street while commuting to work or shopping or grabbing a bite to eat?  Neighborhood resident Max Alexander told the newsblog Ashevegas he participated last year in a city bicycle count that showed an average of three to four bikes per day traveling on a street that carries 21,000 vehicles a day (The maximum recommended number of cars for a street diet to handle is 19,000, according to DOT traffic studies.)

Not to worry, replies the bicycle lobby. Once the traffic diet gets going and people see that bike lanes on Charlotte Street make for safe and convenient cycling, more and more people will be encouraged to mount their metal steeds.  Similar diets and other aids to bicycle traffic can be implemented all over town, and Asheville will truly become a two-wheel city.  If we build it, they will come.

At least that’s the vision of Asheville on Bikes.

Founded as an informal group of bike enthusiasts in 2006, Asheville on Bikes is the brainchild of passionate cycling devotee Mike Sule. Under Sule’s tireless promotion AOB became a full-fledged nonprofit in 2013, the Year of New Belgium, with Sule as Executive Director.  It is now the go-to resource for all things bicycle in Asheville and the handmaiden of the city’s Multimodal Transportation Commission.

Say hello to “Tactical Urbanism”

Central to Asheville On Bikes’ stated goal of establishing a full-fledged “bike culture” in Asheville is the concept of “tactical urbanism,” which AOB defines as “a newer approach to infrastructure planning” that “allows a city to make widespread, lasting improvements by funding and completing a variety of smaller, cheaper [and] quick-turnaround projects” and then using the smaller victories as leverage for bigger and bigger ones.

“And it works,” AOB goes on to say. “Towns and cities that have embraced tactical urbanism, including New York, Portland, and Memphis, have seen small-scale [projects] evolve into more expansive, permanent plansfor more (and safer) bike lanes and sidewalks and more green spaces.

Asheville is poised to embrace tactical urbanism,” AOB’s website exhorts its readers, “and with your help, we can make it our city’s M.O.”

The Charlotte Street diet certainly seems to jibe with AOB’s tactical urbanism approach. Sule told council at the April 24 meeting that mere sharrows “do not meet the mark” on Charlotte Street. He said that Asheville “is holding strong at the bronze level” of the League of American Cyclists’ biker-friendly ratings, but “has a long way to go” to reach LAC’s silver status, which bike lanes on Charlotte Street would help attain.

Crash Diets

Whether road diets are a boon or a bust appears to depend on whose ox is getting gored. Bicyclists applaud Los Angeles’ diets; others say they strangle neighborhood business and make right turns dangerous for bikers and motorists alike; one LA Timeswriter opined that “If there were a Museum of Stupid Ideas … an entire wing would surely be devoted to the idea of “road diets.”

Just last week (on May 16), Memphis, one of AOB’s listed success stories, voted to ditch the Peabody Place road diet it adopted just a year ago, primarily because of traffic congestion. In 2015 Memphis removed bike lanes it had installed along Riverside Drive because of decreased traffic flow and an increase in the number of crashes.

Gainesville, Florida, abandoned a road diet after only a year, citing a spike in crashes, traffic bottlenecks, and an ongoing tendency of cyclists to continue to use car lanes and sidewalks instead of keeping to bike lanes.

Closer to home, Carolina Beach enacted a road diet in 2010 only to get rid of it in 2012 after repeated complaints from drivers and merchants that  the diet caused massive gridlock, particularly during peak tourist season.

“And You Can Quote Us On That”

In the summer of 2014, city council was busily discussing a proposed five-year capital improvement program that included changes slated to be made to Charlotte Street sometime between 2016 and 2018.  On the table were wider sidewalks, underground utility lines, and substantial landscaping.

But on June 21, 2014, Mark Barrett reported in the Asheville Citizen-Times:

“What the project will not involve is narrowing the four-lane street down to three lanes for cars. That idea has been considered since at least the 1990s to free up room for wider sidewalks and bike lanes within existing right-of-way, but a consultant hired by the city found last year that it would result in a significant increase in traffic congestion and benefits to pedestrians and cyclists would be minimal. City Council has dropped the idea.”

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