Asheville – Asheville City Council finally got around to “reaffirming their commitment” to direct staff to create bike lanes on College Street and Patton Avenue. The vote was four-three, with “the three black women on council” voting against the idea. Councilwoman Antanette Mosley thought people should look past color and see that it was the three native Ashevillians on the board that had objections.
Presenter Jessica Morriss said this project would be quick, low-cost, and high-value. The $100,000 budgeted would pay for restriping the roads, making bolder crosswalks, erecting signage, and planting armadillo posts to keep cars in their lanes. A somewhat dated sample cross-section from College Street showed variable-width sidewalks on both sides of the road, a six-foot bike lane, a six-foot buffer, an eight-foot parking lane, and a 12-foot travel lane. Emergency vehicles would be allowed to drive in the buffer and bike lanes.
Morriss said the advantages of the changes included more predictable driver behavior with fewer options for swerving, better visibility for people using alternative modes of transportation, and no double parking of delivery vehicles. She said between 2018 and 2022, 16 accidents involving pedestrians or cyclists on the road segments in question were reported. Causes ranged from driving on the sidewalk, disobeying signals, darting into traffic, and failure to yield.
Councilwoman Antanette Mosley called the public’s attention to the fact that the current calendar year’s data had been truncated from the report. For the first nine months, there have been zero incidents. Morriss returned that there were 213-215 vehicle crashes on the road segments for the same period, and Mosley added that crashes this year numbered 29, which is even lower than in 2020 when people had been ordered to stay home.
As was repeated in previous meetings, 17 parking spaces would be eliminated, and nine would become loading zones. For some perspective, Morriss said there were 1,200 on-street parking spaces in the central business district, 1,437 spaces in the city’s parking garages, and 1,700 public parking spaces owned by the county. Also, 13 businesses continue to use a total of 25 parking spaces for parklets and streeteries. The option was made available during the pandemic so restaurateurs could seat enough socially-distanced customers to stay in business.
Mosley said she had requested some data from the police, which, unfortunately, was disseminated too late for some of her peers to read. Mosley found preliminary estimates alarming in that they claimed the road diet would add two minutes to emergency vehicle response times. She said she was not going to vote in favor of a threat to public safety.
Throughout the meeting, references would be made to the Merrimon Avenue road diet. The problems, advocates consistently said, were due to the North Carolina Department of Transportation not finishing what it started. Mayor Esther Manheimer suggested that police staffing shortages may factor into response times more than the number of lanes on the road. After a few people put words in the police chief’s mouth, Mosley asked that he come to the podium.
Chief David Zack began, “I have some issues with staff as well.” Mosley explained that staff claimed in their reports that the police department, downtown business owners, and even WRES “were consulted.” When she spoke to representatives of those parties, she found that staff neglected to state their concerns, if not outright opposition, to the bike lanes.
Zack said simply that the police department’s position was, “We have concerns. We don’t have a position.” The department has held that position since May 2022, when the chief said priority response times had risen from about five minutes to nine minutes between 2019 and 2022. It didn’t seem to be the time to be getting rid of lanes of travel, but he said he would make a decision on the Merrimon Avenue road diet after the project was completed and data was collected. It was like investigating a crime, he said. He needed data.
Zack spoke about something else that happened in May 2022. A racially-motivated mass shooting took place in Buffalo, New York, near where he used to serve as police chief. Ten were killed and another three were seriously wounded by gunfire. The response time for the Buffalo Police Department was two minutes.
During public comment, Paige McKinnon talked about the ongoing aftermath of being assaulted while working at Asheville Discount Pharmacy. Customers were screaming and cowering under counters. A few minutes was a long time for them. Another time, a man overdosed outside the store. “A few more minutes, and he would have been dead,” she said.
Councilwoman Maggie Ullman found it incomprehensible that eliminating travel lanes could slow traffic. Those who voted in favor of the bike lanes contended that progressive governments perform experiments and learn from the data collected.