Rich Answers Questions: Asheville On Bikes

Tell us something about your transportation habits. How do you most often get around Asheville?

I drive a car most days. I have an annual bus pass and ride the bus at least once a week. Working downtown, I walk to meetings or events whenever possible. I have a bike (an ’89 Fuji Touring) I love to ride but haven’t this winter since starting this campaign.

Elaborate on your prioritization list. Explain your ranking.

The Coxe Avenue project is effective and community-sourced. An easy choice for #1 spot on this list. Fare-free transit edged out Livingston Complete Streets only because Southside neighbors raised concerns about the goals and details of the Livingston project that I believe deserve attention and more community engagement, which will require more time (so, it’s not truly less of a priority, but would not likely be ready for implementation until after implementation of the Coxe Avenue project and Fare-free transit). Downtown has available parking, but it is inefficiently located, advertised, and priced for the needs of downtown workers, residents and customers. I am much more supportive of the idea of a downtown circulator bus, funded by hotel-tax dollars, that could address those needs and open up satellite parking. I cannot see city dollars or hotel-tax dollars funding the $100 million Thomas Wolfe renovation when there are so many other needs higher on the list. I wish this list had included funding the Transit Master Plan, reclaiming land from the I-26 realignment, greenways in East and South Asheville, neighborhood sidewalks, Haywood Road bike lanes, spot intersection improvements and dozens of other local transportation priorities. I would have ranked all of those at or near the top of this exercise.

Please identify one way in which you’ve worked to make Asheville safer for pedestrians, transit users, and / or cyclists. Share the outcome for the community and what you learned.

As chair of the city’s Multimodal Transportation Commission, I helped prioritize dozens of road, sidewalk and greenway projects for transportation bond spending, with a particular focus on neighborhoods with high levels of poverty and low non-vehicular access to jobs and groceries. Everywhere in the city, transportation works are underway that I had a hand in, and every bike lane, every sidewalk and bus shelter, is a part of making this a safer, more livable city. Throughout 2020, I’ll be on a steering committee for the Greenway, Accessibility and Pedestrian Master Plan, the next wave of planning bicycle and pedestrian facilities throughout the city, including community-driven natural-surface trails and other nontraditional connections. Like everyone who works on transportation issues in Asheville, I’m keenly aware that we rank among the worst NC cities for bike/ped safety. This, more than probably any other problem in the city, translates to lost and ruined lives, especially among low-income communities of color. We’re making progress, but transportation justice needs to be a focus of this next council. That’s one of the main reasons I’m running. 

What are your thoughts regarding tactical urbanism projects in Asheville? How does AoB’s Coxe Ave report inform your position? Are you inclined to support or resist future tactical urbanism projects? Articulate your thoughts.

I’m old enough to remember Bryan Freeborn leading a group of neighbors painting a mural on a city street to slow traffic. I love — love — the idea of community-sourced transportation improvements moving more nimbly than the usual ponderous city process, testing ideas and refining our toolbox of traffic fixes without a yearslong yes-or-no process. The Coxe Ave project exposed cheap, effective improvements that should immediately be expanded to other city streets. It demonstrably reduced speeding and, with it, the risk of pedestrian injury or death in a collision. It also contained elements that, even months in, did not draw support from resident neighbors and surrounding businesses. Weaknesses in the original design aren’t bugs, though; they’re features. Thanks to this project, we have better ideas of what works and what doesn’t. That’s the point. I’m excited for the effort to continue to a permanent design for Coxe and new temporary treatments for Westwood intersection and other locations around the city.

Investment in ped / bike facilities has been criticized as an agent of gentrification yet according to the US census lower socioeconomic groups use active transportation at disproportionately higher rates as compared to more affluent individuals. What are your thoughts regarding active transportation investment and gentrification?

My perspective is that we can’t deny improvements to neglected neighborhoods out of fear that the improvements themselves will hasten gentrification. If these neighborhoods’ infrastructure — sidewalks, bus and grocery access, schools, etc. — had been adequate and well-maintained all along, their property values would have risen steadily, protecting the wealth of nonwhite homeowners and keeping them from suddenly becoming such attractive targets for new buyers. I am concerned that the last hospitable parts of the city to low-income black renters and homeowners are rapidly turning over. I think this will take a multipronged approach around raising incomes, diversifying and broadening the economy, addressing the problems in the school system, breaking up clusters of concentrated poverty and, yes, building more truly affordable homes for new homeowners. The problem with transportation projects like Livingston, from my perspective, isn’t that low-income neighborhoods are finally getting their due. It’s that the projects are imposed from on-high, without appropriate community sourcing and buy-in. That’s why I support efforts like Participatory Budgeting, which encourages neighborhoods to generate their own projects with real city dollars, improving the things they choose, that they know to be deficient. That’s a different approach than the city has historically taken, but one that I think will result in a safer city prepared to resist gentrification.

What is the most impactful transportation investment city council could approve to advance transportation? How do you measure the return on this investment? 

Answer A: Better land management. Development decisions in Asheville are still largely driven by zoning written for a much smaller town in the 1990s. This has led, among other things, to the depletion of the tree canopy and intense development (especially hotels) in areas where the infrastructure is already overtaxed, while properties like the old Kmart on Patton and Innsbruck Mall, already supported by transit and sidewalks and ideal for dense affordable urban housing, sit underutilized. My perspective is that revizing our zoning for the 2020s is one of the most impactful things we can do for the city, full stop. But the way it can make roads, sidewalks, greenways, bike lanes and transit become more efficiently utilized will be significant — and will translate to saved lives. 
Besides land-use planning generally, I think the next council specifically has a generational opportunity to reclaim land on the western slope of downtown when it is freed up by the I-26 realignment. NCDOT doesn’t cede land under its control easily, but getting that land under public control and using it for a 50% expansion of downtown and near-downtown housing and office space is an opportunity few cities are given. Likewise, failing to bring that land under local control will leave another imprint on the city’s legacy of transportation failures. 

Answer B: True countywide transit. We know that about 40,000 people commute daily from outside city limits into the city — that much of the traffic congestion on major arteries like I-26, Leicester Highway, Patton Avenue and Sweeten Creek is commuter-related. Yes, we need more affordable housing for people who are being forced into the county by high housing costs. Yes, we need an overhaul to our 20-year-old zoning code to create housing and job density along transit corridors that can handle it. That won’t change that, for tens of thousands of people, living in the county and driving clogged city roads is already a daily reality. A city study found that for these residents, housing costs *including transportation* are higher than for city residents, even after you factor in lower rents and mortgages. With Buncombe County’s support, county transit could start in a matter of months, first with park-n-rides connected to express bus service at the city limits on Leicester, Tunnel, Hendersonville and Smoky Park. Later, transit routes could expand service in Arden, Enka, Swannanoa and Woodfin, with secondary hubs around the city creating shorter legs and better coverage. The city can’t fund that expansion on its own. But it can be a leader in pushing for county funding and use the blueprint we’ve already created — the Transit Master Plan — to make the case to regional and state funders.