Recreational biking is all the rage in the Southern Appalachians, and for good reason, mountain biking here is among the best in the country. Bicycling for transportation in the cities can be an altogether different story. In Asheville, for instance, daily challenges to commuter cycling may include: a hilly terrain that limits finding alternate bike-friendly routes; old narrow roads with little or no shoulder; heavy traffic and perhaps semis; car drivers who may be unaware of bicycle laws and safety.
Fortunately, several Asheville bike shop owners, Claudia and Mike Nix of Liberty Bikes, and Eric Krause and Matthew Johnson of Biowheels, are taking the lead in efforts to improve bike travel in the Asheville area. Both businesses are Appalachian Voices members, and both are advocates of increased bicycle use as a great step toward cleaner air for mountain communities.
Liberty Bikes opened in 1980, but Claudia has been working on bicycle advocacy issues in the Asheville area since 1974. “I felt like a lone voice in the wilderness for a long time,” she says, “but there has been a big upswing in community interest and involvement in the last five years.”
She currently chairs the Bicycle/Pedestrian Task Force, which provides a connection between the Asheville city government and the bicycle community. The Task Force meets every month, and features advocacy committees that provide opportunities for citizen involvement. Nix also sits on a North Carolina Department of Transportation (DOT) board, which has input on setting priorities at the state level.
The Task Force also reviews the city’s Transportation Improvement Plan and may recommend changes. For instance, the recent McDowell Street bridge project included widening and higher railings for safety, and paved and widened shoulders were included on Sardis Road in West Asheville.
Nix invites people who are interested in getting involved to contact them and says, “If people have ideas, we would like to see them.”
Nix sees positive trends for bicyclists in Asheville in a more sympathetic city government that includes people who are themselves bicyclists. Jeff Burns of the Asheville Planning Department in turn acknowledges Nix’s work saying, “I really want to commend her because she’s been doing this for years.”
Burns says of Asheville’s planning, “Multimodal transportation is ingrained in the process and considered in every project.” He notes that there are two schools of thought regarding bike travel: one that bikes should be always on the road and in the flow of traffic; and one that bikes should be off road (on trails and sidewalks, etc.) as much as possible, to accommodate different skill levels and safety concerns. Asheville is focusing on both and trying to connect parks with greenways, with grants pending for projects. Jones also points to the downtown College Street plan of reducing the current four lanes to two with increased pedestrian and bike safety.
Nix believes that for safety reasons, roads should be no more than five lanes undivided and would prefer fewer lanes with medians and bike lanes for safety. She also believes that “all bike improvements will make life easier for drivers”, and drivers should not view bicyclists as a threat, or transportation money spent on bikes as misspent. She advises communities that wish to seek funding for bicycle projects to explore federal grants in several areas including, congestion mitigation funds, safety funds, and water quality protection.
She adds, “We like to encourage people to ride as much as they can.”
Eric Krause and Matt Johnson started the Biowheels name and concept in 1993 as a small community-oriented store in Cincinnati, opened the Asheville store in 2000, and both now live here.
Last November, Biowheels introduced a petition (cosponsored by Appalachian Voices, Canary Coalition, and Western North Carolina Alliance) designed to promote increased bicycle and pedestrian facilities and safety in Asheville and western North Carolina.
Johnson says the petition drive has recently started to take off, and completed forms with hundreds of signatures are coming in from people who downloaded it from the web or picked up forms at the store. The goal is 10,000 signatures by the end of the summer, which will show strong support for alternative transportation.
Johnson believes the petitions will carry a strong message after what is likely to be a hot, dry summer featuring congested streets, bad air days and rising gas costs.
Biowheels is very concerned about the seriousness of air quality issues in this region. Johnson notes that this issue also affects mountain bikers, because nearby forests are now so polluted that even athletes are beginning to suffer from asthma. However, he also believes that Asheville has the right type of population base for positive changes and also commends support from within the city government and planners for improving bicycle travel in Asheville. He also hopes that some old negative stereotypes of bicyclists will be retired and encourages the businesses community to be more supportive to intelligent traffic planning and in that way contribute to overall health.
Laws regarding riding on sidewalks and wearing helmets vary (though North Carolina state law requires that kids under 15 wear a helmet), but some major roads are too dangerous not to be on the sidewalks, especially for children and older adults. Johnson feels that for safety reasons, a driver’s license test should involve
understanding basic pedestrian, bicycle and non-motor transportation laws. Often drivers are not aware that bicycles have a legal right to be on the road.
Johnson notes that advantages to bike commuting include a more open and enjoyable form of travel as opposed to isolation and road rage. He says about Biowheels,
“We’re all about healthy communities — we would like to see a place that is safe for businesses, families and communities to flourish.”
For information about the Asheville Bicycle/Pedestrian Task Force, call Elizabeth Teague at 828-232-4528, or email, firstname.lastname@example.org
For Liberty Bikes sponsored rides, events and information call 828-274-2453 or visit www.libertybikes.com
For Biowheels sponsored rides, events and information, or to download a copy of the petition, call 888-881-BIKE (2453) or visit www.biowheels.com