Emmet Fisher, Guest Writer (efisher@wwc)
“Hey, watch it!” I shout, slamming on my brakes to allow for the one ton, dual wheeled, truck to cut me off, almost forcing me into the curb.
“Asshole” retorts the truck driver out his window.
I maneuver my way back into the bike. It’s my last day commuting to my summer job with Asheville Transit, but it’s my first time getting cussed out for being on a bike. There’s something about being shouted at aggressively by someone wielding 4,000 pounds of metal and glass that leaves a person feeling threatened. Only once this summer did I drive into town alone. Every other day of the summer, I bicycled, carpooled, took the bus, and even walked if I was already in town. My most common trip was a bicycle ride into town and a bus ride home.
While I only once got cussed at, the shoulder-less stretch of suburban strip malls along Tunnel Road gave me lots of time to think about land use and its effects on the transportation mode share of our country. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of mode share, think of a pie chart that represents all the trips made by everyone in the United States, from the kid running to the corner store to buy a lollypop to the bay area commuter who sits in traffic for hours to cross the bay bridge. In the United States, walking makes up about 11% of the mode share; biking about 1%. Commuting along Tunnel Road I can see why: there’s no infrastructure for these modes. Bicycles are forced to share a twelve-foot lane with cars speeding along at thirty-five and forty-five miles an hour. Pedestrians have worn trails into the grass just to the side of the road where sidewalks connect only a few destinations.
When my summer job comes up, the first question students often asked me is “So what do you know about the Greenway?” They are asking about a pedestrian and bicycle transportation corridor being considered as an alternative to Tunnel Road between Black Mountain and Asheville. The Greenway is still in the planning stages. The Metropolitan Planning Organization just funded a study to put plans in place and make recommendations for implementation. After a series of public comment meetings on the rough draft, the final draft should be finished in the next couple months. The proposed greenway would enter Warren Wilson’s property from Owen Park and from here make its way to Azalea Park. While the riparian corridor is the obvious location for the Greenway, it is not the only one. Warren Wilson College will have the final say in the location of the Greenway, if we even allow it on our property.
Clearly, since they ask me about it in conjunction with my internship, students acknowledge the Greenway as a transportation alternative. However, one of my friends apparently does not completely understand the concept of transportation alternatives. My friend asked me how building a greenway would reduce CO2 emissions. When I pointed out that trips made on the greenway without the use of fossil fuel would replace trips made by car on Tunnel Road, my friend countered that “it’s not an either or situation, it’s an and.” My friend is an environmentalist. He believes in sustainable forestry, and feels that to disturb the Warren Wilson forest to build a greenway would be anti-environmental. My friend doesn’t recognize that bike lanes lead to less traffic, or that many citizens can’t afford the cost of driving a car (estimated $9,000 a year.) However, my friend is right: the Greenway would affect our campus and the ecosystems that it passes through.
At the President’s dinner last fall, littering was a concern raised over the proposed greenway. While this concern no doubt has its validity, I wonder to what degree it results from inexperience with greenways. Biking along a few of the greenways in Asheville, I encountered no litter. Another stretch of green way that I’ve encountered has often been filled with it though: the roadside. Litter seems to be the product of disenfranchised citizens and drunk drivers, not dog walkers and bicyclists.
Litter won’t be the only consequence of sharing our river trail with the greater community though. For me, it is the most spiritual place on campus. The river belongs to us; it belongs to everyone. The river connects our campus community to the rest of the world, a constant reminder of our responsibility to the rest of the world, and the world’s responsibility to us: we must deal with whatever occurs upstream, and everything that we do effects the river and everyone and everything downstream.
When I asked the Landscaping Crew boss Tom LaMarelia about the Swannanoa Valley Greenway, he expressed his fear that it would turn us into “Warren Wilson Park.” He felt that the higher usage would effectively destroy the river as we know it, with picnic spots carved out every few yards, the natural beauty marred; the peace destroyed. I can imagine it too. The thought scared me so much I tried not to think about the Greenway for a couple days after I talked to him. Would things unfold the way he suggested? When I go just past our property’s edge to where the river trail continues into a six-foot wide semi-paved trail in Owen Park, I don’t see carved out picnic spots. In fact I see very little that differs from the river on our own property, even in this park developed on a retired brown field. I don’t see regional tourists, but locals. Of course, building the Greenway would open the door to greater usage of the river corridor: that would be the point. It will take courage and commitment to share our rural beauty with the rest of the world; it will take creativity to ensure that we preserve that beauty for everyone.
Everyone might not be worthy of the beauty we have to offer. Security was a concern raised at the president’s dinner and shared by many students that I’ve talked to as well as Tom LaMarelia. Tom said his door doesn’t lock and he hopes he never has to fix it. The river trail already is a source of conflict: When a close friend of mine was skinny-dipping, a man undid his pants in front of her to expose his erection. Warren Wilson is not a bubble; no wall keeps the world out that the greenway will breach.
A paved right of way already bisects our community. Studies have shown that 100% of pedestrians hit by vehicles traveling at speeds over 30 miles per hour die either on impact or from complications do to their injuries. The Warren Wilson Road speed limit is 35. Warren Wilson road brings more danger to campus than hulks of speeding metal: a man with a loaded gun on the passenger seat beside him was arrested last year on campus.
I hope we allow the greenway through campus, and I hope we choose to do so for reasons that cannot be fully quantified and staked out. While I’m excited at the prospect of a safe, ecological, and equitable way to get to Asheville and Black Mountain, I’m more excited by the political opportunity that the Greenway presents. The Greenway will test our community’s values, and forces us to consider difficult questions about what it means to be a good neighbor and part of a movement. As nature disappears around us, can we hoard this place to ourselves like a stock-trader waiting for the price to go up?
If the river isn’t ours to hoard, is it ours to share? Ought we to protect the ecosystems of our campus from the added stress of the Greenway not for our sake, but theirs? The morality of the decision boggles my mind. I let my gut decide. My blood. My jaw. My fist. My heart.
When we finish the greenway, I hope we find out it was a pointless threat to biodiversity. Tunnel Road looks like Detroit’s deserted too-wide highways, built for no longer viable automobiles, and we can simply slap down a line in white paint and call it a bike lane. I hope, but hope is not enough. As a community claiming to be shepherds of the environmental movement, we have to take a stand on transportation, the number one cause of climate change in the number one nation causing the problem (per capita).