Answer Man: Do cyclists actually use bike lanes in Asheville? How often?

John Boyle
The Citizen-Times
Cyclists do utilize Asheville's bike lanes, although advocates say they would get more usage if the system were better connected and more extensive.

Today’s batch of burning questions, my smart-aleck answers and the real deal:

Question: Has anyone ever done a study on the number of cyclists who use the designated bike lanes? I travel often on Kimberly, Hilliard and Asheland avenues. In the past year or so, I can count on the fingers of two hands the actual numbers of bikes I have seen in these paths. And, of those, fewer than five were using the lanes for transportation. The rest looked like recreational cyclists. So, are they really serving the purpose for which they were built, i.e., to cut down on cars?

My answer: To play the devil's advocate, can you tell if the motorists are driving for work or pleasure?

Real answer: The city of Asheville's Transportation Department does coordinate an annual Bicycle and Pedestrian Count, using volunteers at about 20 locations around town. Locations for observation include the downtown to the South Slope, West Asheville and North Asheville, including Hilliard and Kimberly avenues.

City spokeswoman Polly McDaniel noted that results from the 2013-18 counts are posted on the city's transportation webpage, under Bicycle and Pedestrian Services.

The way this works is volunteers are trained to observe specific intersections, noting the number of cyclists and pedestrians passing by. For 2018, the city had 19 volunteers at 20 sites, collecting data on Sept. 11-13 and Sept. 15.

Typically, surveys started at 5 p.m. and lasted two hours. The surveys are done on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday of the second full week in September. They also do a few surveys on weekday mornings from 7-9, and Saturday mornings from 9-11. 

So keep in mind the numbers represent a snapshot of a specific time on a specific day. The numbers were down considerably this year, possibly in part because of rainy weather associated with hurricane remnants passing through Asheville.

SEE ALSO: Boyle column: Let's put aside the cycling arguments

Numbers way down in 2018

But whatever the reason, the cyclists' numbers were not huge.

For instance, at downtown intersections, the 2018 average was 19 bikes, compared to 29 on average for 2013-17. 

By law, cyclists are entitled to use an entire travel lane. Asheville does have about 10 miles of designated bike lanes.

The South Slope had an average of 13 cyclists viewed, compared to 32 on the five-year average. Haywood Road in West Asheville tallied 35 cyclists, down from the average of 46.

The River District notched 20 cyclists, compared to 36 on average, while the Chestnut Avenue corridor in North Asheville tallied seven cyclists, down from the five-year average of 22. The W.T. Weaver Boulevard and Kimberly Avenue corridors in North Asheville had a count of 14 cyclists, compared to 25 on average.

The greenways, checked on a Saturday, had 26 cyclists, down from the average of 32.

SEE ALSO: Video appears to show assault on Asheville cyclist

The city acknowledged that the numbers were down, but Transportation Planner Barb Mee noted that it's tough to tell the purpose of a cyclist's trip strictly by clothing.

"Consider that the outfit a cyclist is wearing may not necessarily be indicative of the purpose of a trip,” said Mee, who serves as the city’s Pedestrian and Bicycle Program Coordinator. "Some folks have long or strenuous bicycle commutes and don't want to risk getting dirty on their way to work. Some work in pretty casual places. Some are just more comfortable riding in bicycle gear and choose to change at work."

The idea with bike lanes, in part, is to encourage people to leave their cars at home and make some trips by bike, but Mee said they're also about making travel easier and more comfortable for everyone. Most of Asheville's streets are not used at or near the motor vehicle capacity of the lanes, Mee said.

Transportation plans tend to designate bicycle lanes where sharing the same lane might not be the best choice, be it for cyclists or for drivers, she said. Traffic volume and speed play into the planning as well as bicycle volume and speed.

Here's another important consideration, especially if you find yourself a little miffed about bike lanes: By law, bicyclists can use an entire lane. In short, they have just as much a right to be there as a car or truck.

The idea here is to help everybody get along, and do so safely.

Asheville on Bikes weighs in

Mike Sule, with the cycling advocacy group Asheville on Bikes, acknowledges that the number of riders isn't earth shattering, but he also provides some context as to why that is. First of all, he noted the city has only 10.54 miles of existing bicycle facilities, according to the Asheville in Motion Mobility Plan.

Bicycle lanes are considered official travel lanes under North Carolina law.

Sule says ridership "will not significantly increase until safe connectivity facilities are established."

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"Admittedly, Asheville's bicycle counts aren't setting mode share records, and that isn't surprising given Asheville's lack of an existing bicycle network," Sule said. "Asheville's existing bicycle infrastructure is piecemeal, as much of it does not connect riders to various parts of the city."

He specifically mentioned the bicycle infrastructure on Kimberly, Hilliard, and Asheland, which "all terminate and provide little guidance or support for people on bikes once the infrastructure ends."

"If all roads simply terminated you can imagine the impact it would have on the motorized vehicular mode share," Sule said. 

He provided links to research articles that show bike ridership increases with the establishment of a bicycle network. 

"Asheville is making steady progress in establishing a bicycle network, as evidenced most recently by the River Arts District Transportation Plan, the Swannanoa River Greenway planning, and the city's efforts to ensure active transportation facilities are included in the I-26 Connector Project," Sule said. "The city is doing the work of establishing an active transportation network." 

This is the opinion of John Boyle. Contact him at 828-232-5847 or jboyle@citizentimes.com