Asheville city leaders have had a “Complete Streets” policy in place for more than a decade—that is, a commitment to make streets as friendly to cyclists and pedestrians as they are to cars and trucks.
We’ve seen that policy take shape in the form of so-called road diets along Charlotte Street and North Merrimon Avenue and the Riverside Drive Greenway. It’s also the reason College Street and Patton Avenue are about to each lose a lane of automotive traffic to make room for bike lanes.
And predictably, city officials are hearing a chorus of protests from people who envision apocalyptic traffic.
Jessica Morris is the assistant director of the city’s transportation department. She talks with us today about the coming changes downtown and how they’re tied to the city’s master plan. We get into how the city prioritizes and funds these projects. Jessica also does her best to make sense of projects that, to many, don’t seem to make sense at all.
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Matt Peiken: When you arrived in Asheville, where were we in terms of making our streets more complete?
Jessica Morris: I would say we're very behind still are, have been, and I think that is a factor of the culture and the topography, for sure. Those are the two primary things, I think. But coming from Missoula, Montana, where we had, About seven percent of the population using a bicycle to commute to here, which is like less than one percent.
And the amount of bike lanes and trails we have there versus here it showed me that we're pretty far
Matt Peiken: behind.
You're talking about two distinct challenges here. Talking about topographically and culturally. Topographically, not much you can do. Culturally, a big difference. What would you say was the difference culturally in Missoula from what you see here in Asheville?
Jessica Morris: I Think it's just the way that town was developed versus here. This is a much older community. And I think just generally speaking, the South, and I'm from the South, so this is, I'm talking about myself as well. I'm from Florida. We are very attached to our cars and I think when you have the proper infrastructure in place and you have opportunity there, you have a lot more decisions that you can make about how you want to travel and I think that it's hard to say that the folks in Missoula are like, more interested in biking than they are here.
I think it's just a factor of there's an interest and there's infrastructure in place to satisfy that desire
Matt Peiken: when you say infrastructure in place you mean already bike lanes in certain areas yeah we're starting to develop that here you look on the Greenway on the river arts district and the road diet up on North Merrimon, now I know these are very isolated pieces do you think that this is not how it all starts only in terms of making it happen, but how it all starts in terms of a cultural shift.
Jessica Morris: I do. I do. I think there's a lot of different parts and pieces that contribute to that cultural shift, but You can only go so far to convince someone to ride their bike by talking to them. You have to have some infrastructure in place that people feel comfortable using. They're not going to put themselves in an unsafe or a feeling of being unsafe.
You have to provide those facilities too, To folks in order for them to make
Matt Peiken: that shift.
Yeah. Yeah. It's funny you say that because when I moved here and I lived in the twin cities where it's littered with bike lanes everywhere, it's very flat there, but I had my road bikes and when I bought my place in North Asheville, It would seemingly be an easy ride right down Merrimon onto broadway into downtown, but there were no bike lanes And I thought i'm not riding on the streets.
These people here do not respect cyclists. That was my first observation. Getting to the road diet now we have bike lanes there What have been the observations of you and your colleagues in the transportation department about the success or impact shift?
Slash any of that since that was installed
Jessica Morris: to some degree. I think it's too early to tell I will say that in other communities where we've implemented similar projects like road diets and bike lanes And pretty much any time we want to add a bike lane now, we have to Do a road diet because we're not going to widen streets through these very constrained corridors, so Backing up though, the concerns that the public generally has whenever we bring forward a project idea like that.
They're very similar to every other place that I've worked and had done a similar project. There's always concern about congestion. There's always concern about safety. There's concern about no one's going to use it. Nobody rides. And. It's a copy paste situation in a lot of cases where I've worked where we hear those very similar concerns.
That doesn't mean that they're not valid. I would say that Asheville is a much more vocal. population. And so we had heard and continue to hear a lot of concerns about those projects, but I will say it has slowed down significantly since we've implemented it.
Matt Peiken: When you say concerns, I read in there what you hear criticisms and you mentioned the copy paste element of things.
Do you think some of these are reactions more almost knee jerk, that they aren't experienced reactions? They're more like fear based reactions.
Jessica Morris: Yes. I think most people, when they're responding negatively it might be coming from a place of fear or misunderstanding. You know, maybe we're not doing a good enough job providing information and explaining the perspective that we're coming from.
But... I do think that a lot of it is just not having experienced it in other places perhaps and not looking at it maybe from other people's point of view as well I think comes into
Matt Peiken: it. Talk about what goes into deciding and where this is leading up to the changes coming up on College and Patton. What goes into deciding we need to, or we are interested in looking into changing it. The traffic flow and making X street or boulevard more pedestrian and cycling friendly what goes into that?
Jessica Morris: This might be a long answer so There are a ton of things that go into it and it goes from high level policy down to the project on the ground being implemented. Policy starts with our comprehensive plan. So the city's comprehensive plan adopted in 2016 has a lot of statements and goals about wanting to improve multimodal transportation.
And we see similar policy goals and Downtown master plan our transportation plan called the Asheville in motion plan And then we have a complete straights policy as well. So all of those Documents plans policies. They're setting the stage so to speak for Whether you're talking about affordable housing community health, public safety, all of those documents have goals and policies that are stating an intention.
The intention of the City of Asheville through those policies is to provide more transportation options. And the reasons for that largely speak to, not just Trying to make it possible to not have a car, but also to help with affordability issues, help with community health not to mention sustainability and climate change.
It's not just necessarily about being able to ride your bike or having improved sidewalks or transit. It's all working towards a lot of different goals that the city has. When it gets hard is when we go to actually implement a specific project on a specific road, right? Because I think 99 percent of the people that live here, maybe not quite, but when you say, Do you support sustainability?
Do you support multimodal transportation? Do you support, mitigating climate change? Yes, yes, Yes. And yeah, these are rubber meets the road literally is where it gets
Matt Peiken: hard, right? It's a classic NIMBY mentality, right?
Jessica Morris: That's one label you could use, I hate to necessarily label that on anybody in particular,
Matt Peiken: but people, when people support something in concept, That's different than, oh, how is it going to affect me?
Oh, this is really going to affect me. Oh, I don't know about this. And that's what you're talking about, this dichotomy.
Jessica Morris: Yes. It's a dichotomy and I think it's normal and natural to have those feelings. When something does impact your life, it has a lot more significance than if it didn't.
Matt Peiken: Where the rubber meets the road. Is, we've got policy that the city of Asheville. Through its civic leaders, city leaders, elected officials have decided we are going to lean into making our streets more Multimodal friendly, so that's our default We want our streets to be that way and we're going to identify certain projects then what goes in what are there studies that go that the transportation department?
Undertakes at that point once you've identified Yes, we want to do something with X Street or Boulevard. What happens then?
Jessica Morris: So we do have transportation plans, and even in our downtown master plan, part of that effort is not just necessarily high level policy, but also putting lines on a map, so to speak, and saying, this road could be part of the bicycle network.
You really need improved sidewalks on this street. So we do go beyond just saying we want more multimodal. We actually have plans that say these are candidates for those types of projects.
Matt Peiken: So right now, already laid out, there are candidates. Are they already prioritized?
Is there like an A list that these will happen first before a B list or C list? Is that how it works?
Jessica Morris: In an ideal world, yes. We do have, I think, a need for. If we're just talking about bicycle facilities, we have a need for an updated bicycle master plan, but we do have a recently completed greenway plan and pedestrian plan that do have kind of that top tiers of lists of projects needs.
And then it doesn't always happen where you're building project number one first and number two second. Sometimes conditions or grant opportunities or you might move like something that's fifth in the list to a top project.
Matt Peiken: Yeah. So talk about that a little bit. How much do finances and budgeting come down to making some of these things a reality?
It's one thing to have the policy and to actually identify, yes, this street needs something. It's another to make it happen. Is it basically the lowest cost projects win?
Jessica Morris: Not always. A lot of our projects in transportation, we've been really fortunate to get a lot of grants. When we're talking mostly about sidewalks and greenways in particular, we get a lot of grants for those.
And that helps us overcome financial challenges and helps a project that might be more costly because of topography, for example. We can use grants to help us forward those.
Matt Peiken: Now we were talking a little bit ago about criticisms, feedback that you get.
And I, from what I see on social media, people are already in a semi dither about what they think is going to happen on Patton Avenue and in college Avenue, what is happening there? Describe the complete streets project as it will manifest on Patton and college.
Jessica Morris: So we recently asked our city council to approve the installation of bike facilities on College and Patton in our core of downtown.
So there'd be a bike lane on College on the left hand side and a bike lane on Patton on the left hand side. And we expect that project to move forward in the spring summer. of next year, and essentially, the project will add a bike lane, it will remove one of the vehicle lanes. The turn pockets will remain traffic signals will remain, we're not moving any curb lines, it's essentially just a re striping project
Matt Peiken: so what you're saying it's just a re striping, but let's be clear. If you're taking away a lane of automobile traffic, that's bound to have some impact. Significant impact on motorists ability to get from point A to point B using those streets, right?
Jessica Morris: I would quibble a little bit about the significant part of that.
Why would you quibble with that? I think it depends on so many, it depends on one's perspective. It also depends objectively on the time of day. There are guidelines that we follow that give you an idea of what can a single lane road handle in terms of the daily traffic versus a multi lane road.
So College and Patton have about five, six thousand cars a day. That is well within the number of vehicles that you can easily move. On a single lane, there are times of day, peak periods where congestion occurs on every roadway. We have right Merriman. I think it's fair to say without having seen the data that we have increased congestion during peak periods because of the road diet, right?
I do think that we will see that on college and Patton. I think what the city is trying to do with these projects is say, we're okay with more congestion because the benefit is that you're providing access to people that don't have cars. You're providing improved access.
Matt Peiken: I want to say I thought it was interesting that council only approved it by a four to three vote.
This is very close. It was. So it's not as if there was a consensus. What does that tell you about this city's commitment to be behind these projects?
Jessica Morris: I generally think that even though the vote was close, I do think that the council is committed to multimodal transportation. And the things that it provides, I think it's again, when you get to the project on the ground, that's when things become a little more questionable and it's their job to consider, everything that they're hearing from the public.
So I don't think that a close vote necessarily means that. That the council members who voted no don't care about those things. I think they have a difficult job of weighing all the perspectives that they're, and their constituents that they're hearing from. I don't know that if it were a different roadway.
It could be a 7 0 vote for, you know, so I think this was a difficult project because it's in the center of our downtown.
Matt Peiken: Now, one of the things I wanted to ask you about is projected use of these. Now, you rode to this interview on an e bike. You came up in an e bike. I don't have an e bike. I have two road bikes.
And what are you seeing, what is your department seeing in terms of the impact? And the the proliferation of e bikes, is that making a sizable difference in the number of people using our bike infrastructure now?
Jessica Morris: I wish I could say with certainty with data, back it up to say, yes, there's been an X percent increase and it's due to e bikes.
And I think anecdotally, e bikes are becoming way more prolific. They're coming down in cost, just like a lot of technology. Does eventually, I think that it removes that major barrier that we have here, which is the topographical barrier. I'm not in shape at all like I would not be able to bike here.
If it weren't for that e bike and I know that makes it a lot easier and it makes it a possibility that didn't exist before for
Matt Peiken: a lot of folks.
Yeah, you, another thing you mentioned about being in shape, but I also know they're expensive. E bikes are not cheap and we're talking about accessibility.
And while some people can't afford cars, don't have access to cars, some people can't afford e bikes. Some cities do have. Bike share programs to my knowledge and this it's been a while since I've lived in a city that has a bike Share program, but they didn't involve ebikes. I think they were just pedal bikes are there bike share programs happening now involving ebikes?
And if so, do you see something like that on the horizon in Asheville? Are you talking is the city talking with different? bike companies that do this
Jessica Morris: There are many bike share programs now across the world that have electric bikes as part of the fleet. At the time that the city started thinking about bike share, and we have a draft bike share plan that kind of got stalled out a little bit.
E bikes weren't really popular at all. Like they were just starting to hit the market just in the two, three years since that draft plan was created, it's completely changed. And I think that If and when the city ever has a bike share program, it will absolutely include e bikes.
Matt Peiken: How will something like that, how can something like that happen in Asheville?
What does it take? Does it take a private company? Is it something where the city takes that on themselves? How does a bike share program enter a city?
Jessica Morris: MY experience is that it's usually a private company that works with the city. They have to have permits and things like that.
So they would have to, I think, sit down with city and work with us to decide how a program like that would be rolled out.
Matt Peiken: Because frankly, to make this, I would think in the public's eyes, whether driver A or driver B ever gets on a bike. I think visibility is important when they see people using this infrastructure that's put in place Even if it slows them down even if it in their eyes Negatively impacts their own commute or their own time.
They can at least understand. Oh Now I see why this is happening on the road diet I drive that road every day, and again, I am in favor, personally. I like what's happened, even though I tend to drive fast. I don't drive fast on that street. You can't now. But I can go many days without seeing a cyclist.
I do see them once in a while. But the use has not yet caught up with the availability of the infrastructure that's in place. How important is visibility to making something like this politically palatable over the long haul?
Jessica Morris: There are studies that show that the more bicyclists there are, the more bicyclists there are, you know, I mean, that is a part of the cultural transition that has to take place or that I would expect will take place once we start to put some of these pieces of the network together. I think one of the things that's really important about the Merrimon Road Diet was safety was really the primary reason why the city was interested at all in doing that project.
Merrimon has A significant number of crashes more than a similar roadway in a different city. The city of Asheville is routinely at the top of the list of pedestrian and cyclist fatalities and serious injuries.
Matt Peiken: Yeah, we still see that all the time in this city.
Jessica Morris: Yeah, year after year.
And you can't change those things without making physical infrastructure changes. And cultural changes, like we can't convince everyone to just be safer. So we need to do things proactively to try to make it safer for everyone on the road.
Matt Peiken: Jessica, we're talking about in one hand visibility and others data.
When are we going to have data that supports or at least informs the impact of these changes?
Jessica Morris: So with any project, we aim to have before data and after data. And so for Merrimon we will have before and after data on vehicle speeds, the number of vehicles that are moving along. We will have crash data before and after. We'll have congestion data travel time. We also have before and after data for Charlotte Street, that road diet.
Not saying that they're similar roadways, but, we collect before and after. And for example, on Charlotte Street, we saw decreased speeds, which you would expect. We saw decreased crashes, decreased severity of crashes, which is a lot of times you might see more rear end accident, like the rear end accidents might go up, but that's a less severe crash than A different kind, you know, so those are the counter measures or those are the changes that we're trying to make from an infrastructure standpoint to improve overall Safety,
Matt Peiken: so we're already seeing that the charlotte street changes have been in long enough The road diet that happened on charlotte street has been there long enough to already Measure.
Measure. And so regardless whether cyclists are using those lanes to the degree city officials want, from what you're telling me, we're seeing differences that are part of the goals when it comes to safety and motor speeds. Correct.
Jessica Morris: And I can say that with confidence for Charlotte Street, the Merrimon Road Diet has not been Installed for long enough.
And in fact, I'm not sure. N. C. D. O. T. Is completely finished with some of the striping. And I think they still got some changes, they want to make tweaks, they want to make to signal timing, but it also takes months if not years for behavioral change to occur and for things to settle in and people to get more used to things and so in transportation world and in data world after a change occurs, you want to have a reasonable period of time to make sure that any trends you see are um, Real like they're not just a blip
Matt Peiken: right now When are we going to see merrimon's diet Extended to where it connects from downtown to where Luella's whatever that street is Where Luella's barbecue is and where the university is when is that change going to happen
Jessica Morris: so that is not on anybody's current radar at the moment. It is not,
Matt Peiken: no. Oh, okay. Oh, that's interesting, because in a way, it's not a complete street, in a way it's an incomplete street.
Why is that not on the radar, and I'm not suggesting it would be an improvement or not, but when we're cutting off there, you take out the ability to go north south from downtown Beaver Lake why not complete
Jessica Morris: that street?
Incremental improvement is the name of the game for everyone in government, right?
And I will say that was looked at, and at the time. Both NCDOT and the city said let's not push it let's see if we can have success with the northern part of Merrimon which has less vehicle traffic and Less activity, you know that part of Merrimon just north of I 240.
There's a lot going on there a lot of Driveways and such. And so everyone felt more comfortable with WT Weaver North. I think after things have settled in and we've looked at data, maybe someday that will be looked at. But I can assure you that, you know, it's not something that anyone is actively planning on doing right now.
Matt Peiken: So you're talking about Weaver. So Weaver has bike lane infrastructure. But then when you take that down to. Broadway, North Broadway, that also does not have bike lane infrastructure. Is there any talk about, now that's not a highway.
We've got two lanes going in each direction with a median. Is there any talk about eliminating one of those lanes and putting in a bike lane there?
Jessica Morris: No, there's not. We do have the Reed Creek Greenway on that part. And we're looking to extend that greenway south and over I 240 down by Off of Hill Street.
Oh, really? Okay, and that's a long term plan, but I mean what you're hinting at is this these sort of disconnected pieces And I think sometimes when a lot of the criticism we get is about that disconnected, that disconnectedness of the system and like, why are you putting in this piece when it doesn't have a connecting piece?
Why don't you do that other piece over there first and wait until that's done to do this? Those are absolutely valid questions and concerns and yeah.
Matt Peiken: How do you respond to that? Because that goes right to use when you're trying to make things more convenient for and more encouraged when you're trying to encourage multimodal use and you as a cyclist see yeah, I can get from point A to point B, but where, how do I get from point B to point
Jessica Morris: C?
Yeah. Yeah. And the only answer that I can give, which is the true one is that we try to. Connect the pieces when as we can and a lot of times it's based on opportunity based on grant funding based on oh is NCDOT gonna be Resurfacing this road is this an opportunity for us to put in a bike facility but the order in which the pieces get put on the ground It's not always in order, or in the order that would make the most sense, or the order that we would want. It's just, how can we do these pieces bit by bit? Sometimes it's the private sector, so there's a lot of moving parts, but I, I think it's important to know that we're not just randomly putting these pieces out there.
There is a plan in place. There are policies in place to support it. And we do the best we can to put those connecting pieces together.
Matt Peiken: Yeah, so when are we going to see actual change happen on college and Patton? When is the striping, re striping as you termed it, when is that going to start and what's the timeline for it?
Jessica Morris: So our next step is to put out a bid document for that work to be done. And I'm hoping that we can get that bid document out before the end of the year. Then that means we would hopefully receive bids and select a contractor. So I think spring, summer, early summer is the goal that I have for me, for my staff and
Matt Peiken: the city.
So what is being looked at in terms of next projects? I think of Everything south of downtown, we don't have any bike lane structures, at least coming out of downtown. Unless you count Charlotte Street, to where it connects back into Biltmore. Are there any projects to make south?
Because I get reports from APD saying another crash happened on either Sweeten Creek or somewhere in South Asheville Yeah, what kind of plans are afoot if any to make those streets complete streets?
Jessica Morris: I think what you'll see most of next is not necessarily on street bike lanes, but many more greenways.
And greenways are for bicyclists too, and a lot of people, I think of greenways as recreation, but they're absolutely transportation. Facilities, so people are using them just as commuting facilities just as well.
I'll plug our newly adopted greenway plan on the city's website, and we've got a number of great greenways that are in the queue for construction, as well as. They're in the design stage or the planning stage.
So we're trying to move those projects through the queue. The ones that we'll see probably sooner rather than later would be one that's called the Nasty Branch Greenway. That's in the Southside community. We are doing a project Called the Greenway Connector Project, and that's going to be partly on Depot Street, some improvements there that will connect to the future Nasty Branch Greenway.
We've got greenways proposed for Bocote Branch and Bowcatcher. So there's all kinds of... Facilities that we are aiming to roll out and in the next 10
Matt Peiken: years.
Super. Is there anything we haven't talked about or talked about enough that you want to expound on or amplify a little more?
Jessica Morris: I guess what I want people to know is that my department is, we're not trying to make anybody's life or commute. Worse, like I think we have a lot of opportunity here to make some shifts in how we view transportation and how we view getting from place to place.
And, one of the things that's been troubling to me is that a lot of folks have said oh, this is my personal pet project or I'm the one doing this or my staff is, and it's absolutely not the case. Like we're trying to do. For the public the best we can and it certainly doesn't mean that we're going to make everybody happy And we're human beings as well.
And we're just trying to do the best job we can for the citizens and for everyone here