Laura Piraino: Go forward

Go forward

By Laura Piraino on 03/13/2013

Asheville is familiar with accolades. It’s been recognized as the best (or in the top 10) for its happiness quotient, beer, Southern charm, access to outdoor adventure, beauty and more. But did you know that we are moving toward becoming a more walkable, bikeable and transit-friendly city as well? One of Asheville City Council’s strategic goals is to fully use our urban services and infrastructure to create more transportation options and reduce vehicle miles traveled. The latest initiatives to green transportation may have benefits that extend well past the initial ride.

Last May, the American League of Bicyclists designated the city of Asheville as a Bicycle Friendly Community, in the bronze-level category, in recognition of the city’s accomplishments in increasing bicycle accessibility and awareness. These efforts included expanded bike lanes, bicycle parking, bike racks on city buses, bike lockers and a bike-repair station. A growing network of greenways extends beyond bike lanes, increasing route options for cyclists and pedestrians.

Designing and constructing an interconnected infrastructure benefits not only residents, but employs folks here at home. Improvements can stimulate economic growth for rental, tour, equipment and outdoor-gear related businesses, but are not limited to the recreation industry. Businesses like New Belgium Brewing were attracted to Asheville in part for the amenities that sustainable transportation planning had to offer.

Asheville is already a mecca for mountain bikers, and becoming a more bicycle-friendly city offers the city an opportunity to increase tourism. The North Carolina Outer Banks’ $6.7 million investment in bicycle infrastructure led to an annual 9-to-1 return, generating more than $60 million in economic activity a year by drawing affluent visiting cyclists.

To increase awareness, the city and community partners like Asheville on Bikes and the Blue Ridge Bicycle Club organize events for both beginner and advanced cyclists, including the Ring of Fire bicycle races at the Carrier Park velodrome, low-cost bicycle-safety classes, the annual Strive Not to Drive campaign and regular group bike rides in the summer. To emphasize the health and transportation benefits of greenways, a community bike ride to celebrate the Reed Creek Greenway ribbon-cutting was led by Olympic silver medalist Lauren Tamayo.

For those who prefer to travel without pedaling, public transportation offers the option to ride, relax and connect. The city of Asheville approved its first Transit Master Plan in 2010, with the first phase of the implementation of Asheville Redefines Transit ( launched last May. The reconfiguration of the transit system included increased bus service along major corridors, improved schedules and streamlined routes to improve on-time performance. Riders are now able to use the transit feature on Google Maps to identify route options, transfers and schedules completely online.

ART has been able to modernize the transit-vehicle fleet with seven hybrid-diesel vehicles and seven cleaner 2012 diesel vehicles, resulting in fuel savings and reduced carbon emissions. By 2014, riders will be able to receive real-time information about route arrivals at any given stop, via online maps, downloadable apps or by using a text-message feature.

Since many local car trips are less than one mile, traveling out of the car can really save money. Owning, operating and parking a vehicle on average is more expensive than the alternatives, so integrating multimodal into our lifestyles can help decrease our transportation expenses, which is essential for those on limited or fixed incomes.

To advance a more comprehensive approach, Asheville adopted a Complete Streets policy last June, which mandates that new and renovated roads include safety measures for pedestrians, bicyclists, transit vehicles and riders, children, the elderly and people with disabilities. Part of a larger strategy to reduce vehicle miles traveled, the city is leveraging existing funds to pursue opportunities to improve an interconnected network of sidewalks, bike paths, greenways, transit options and access to rivers.

As our population continues to grow, reducing time behind the wheel will help protect the character of our neighborhoods by increasing safety, reducing traffic and the need for new parking spaces. At the same time, we “cut the carbs,” or carbon emissions, and reduce air pollution that leads to many respiratory illnesses. This also reduces our dependence on imported petroleum, and allows us to reinvest the savings into our local economy.

Reducing dependence on the automobile through complete streets helps folks of all ages and different physical abilities, as it provides safe routes to school for children, increases mobility for the disabled and can allow seniors to stay independent for a longer period of time.

Increasing safe and active transportation choices allows residents to burn off those regular carbs through frequent out-of-car travel experiences, as we spend more time outdoors and increase physical activity. Along the way, we also have more opportunities to interact with others. As residents look for more transportation and recreation choices, access to a green infrastructure increases the options.

Want to support and improve multimodal transportation here in Asheville? Serve on one of Asheville’s many community boards and commissions, like the Transit or Greenway Commission or the Asheville Bicycle and Pedestrian Task Force. But most important: Get out from the behind the wheel and explore Asheville’s multimodal options.

Laura Piraino is the sustainability-outreach specialist for the city of Asheville’s Office of Sustainability. Piraino has a background in sustainability program development, education, fundraising and marketing. Prior experience includes work with the Blue Ridge Sustainability Institute, the Sierra Club and her own consulting firm, Post Carbon Services of Asheville.