Influence Pedalling

COSTUMED MEMBERS OF ASHEVILLE ON BIKES PREPARE TO SET OFF ON  LAST FALL’S  HALLOWEEN FUNDRAISING RIDE, CO-HOSTED BY NEW BELGIUM BREWING  (PHOTO BY MARC HUNT)

Asheville’s bicycle lobby gives new meaning to “wheeling and dealing”

One evening last December there was a gathering in the Cloud Room of Wedge at Foundation, the trendy venue at Wedge Brewing Company, in the heart of Asheville’s trendy River Arts District.  It was a ticketed affair at $40.00 a head, which included, besides Wedge beers, a selection of wines plus “small bites” from “rustic chic” Farm Burger restaurant and also from iconic organic supermarket Earth Fare.

The occasion was Button Up for Bikes, the wrap-up event for the annual giving campaign of Asheville on Bikes — an organization that in a dozen years has grown from a loosely formed association of bicycle enthusiasts into a full-blown nonprofit  corporation with a six-figure operating budget and enough political clout to have a direct influence on Asheville’s public transportation policy.

To some Ashevillians, Asheville on Bikes is a large and enthusiastic club devoted to bicycling as a hobby, as exercise, and as a means of alternative transportation.

To others, AoB is “the bike Nazis,” a well organized group that has gotten too big for its Spandex britches and attained quasi-political status with enough clout to bend city council to its agenda at will.

AoB’s stated fundraising goal for “Button Up” was $60,000.  That would partly refill the club’s coffers after it spent $162,000 of its own money last fall on an experimental “tactical urbanism” redesign of Coxe Avenue that received the blessing of Asheville’s city council.  (See below and also https://enquiringminds.media/tactical-urbanism-meets-street-art/  )

The group’s December gathering also capped a year of highly successful lobbying and planning:  It had led the charge for the city’s adoption of plans for a “road diet” that will reduce a part of Charlotte Street from four lanes of car traffic to three, so as to add wider bike lanes.  And it credits itself with having spearheaded public resistance that stopped cold the state Department of Transportation’s plan for widening congested Merrimon Avenue.  Altogether, 2018 was a banner year  for AoB in terms of membership, money, and missions accomplished as it pursues its stated goal of “establishing a full-fledged ‘bike culture’ in Asheville.”

                                              THE INTERSECTION OF CHARLOTTE AND CHESTNUT STREETS.  FROM THIS POINT NORTH TO EDWIN PLACE, 

                                              A PROPOSED “ROAD DIET” WILL REDUCE CHARLOTTE STREET FROM FOUR CAR LANES TO THREE IN ORDER TO ADD BUFFERED BIKE

                                              LANES ON EITHER SIDE.  ASHEVILLE ON BIKES  LOBBIED HARD FOR THE PROJECT (EVEN BORROWING THIS PHOTO FOR ITS          

                                              FACEBOOK PAGE) AND CLAIMS CREDIT FOR CITY COUNCIL’S ADOPTION OF IT.  (PHOTO BY ROGER McCREDIE)             

       

Furthermore, AoB maintains, its 2018 accomplishments were merely the latest additions to a proven track record of bike-life “advocacy.”  According to its website, AoB also “played a role in the defeat of HB44, a poorly written law that sought to limit a NC city’s ability to add bike lanes by adding an unnecessary state level approval process,” and also “led the #VoteAVLBondsYES campaign, which proved successful in helping secure the passing of Asheville bonds to fund bike and pedestrian projects.”  

Critics may question the degree to which AoB has influenced those cases, but one thing is clear:  in a city full of activist groups, AoB has emerged as arguably the best organized, best funded, and most effective. 

The Apostle Mike

Asheville on Bikes is the brainchild and life’s work of Mike Sule, who came to Asheville from Elsewhere in 2006. Shortly thereafter he made a pilgrimage to the hipster Mecca of Portland (Oregon, not Maine).  There he had a road-to-Damascus experience, whereby he was told to go even unto all the world and preach the gospel of bicycles as the answer to everything from traffic gridlock to lack of diversity.

It was Sule who gathered together the founding members of Asheville on Bikes; who shepherded the fledgling organization through its 501 c 3 process; and who has become its public face, spokesperson, and chief fundraiser.  (One of AoB’s fundraising tools is a thing called “Giving Tuesdays,” a gimmick Sule apparently borrowed from The Kiski School, his prep school alma mater in Connecticut.)

                              

ABOVE: MAP OF COXE AVENUE SHOWING THE BLOCK THAT RECEIVED ASHEVILLE ON BIKES’ DO-OVER.  BELOW: LOOKING NORTH ALONG COXE AVENUE.  A LINE OF “ARMADILLO” STREET MARKERS OFFSETS THE WHITE-PAINTED “MULTI-USE” LANE THAT WAS CREATED BY PRIVATE BIKE CLUBS, WITH CITY COUNCIL’S PERMISSION.  THE NEW LANE USED TO BE PARKING SPACES;  NEW PARKING SPACES WERE PUSHED CENTERWARDS ON BOTH SIDES TO MAKE ROOM FOR THE MULTI-USE LANE.  THE MURAL HAS LARGELY WEATHERED AWAY (SEE BELOW); THE ARMADILLOS REMAIN.

Bikes-n-Beer … Bikes-n-Beer … Bikes-n-Beer

They are the yin and yang of Asheville coolness.  Bicycling and beer consumption (sometimes simultaneously) go together like Ernie and Bert or peanut butter and jelly.

In 2013, like a conjunction of planets, two events coincided that firmly established bikes-and-beer as the Asheville lifestyle ethos:  AoB became a duly registered 501c3 nonprofit and New Belgium Brewing came to town.

New Belgium, in fact, owes its very name to the personal adventures of its founder, Jeff Lebesch.  In his youth Lebesch pedalled through Europe (on a bike with “fat” tires) sampling local beers. He later named his brewery and its flagship product, Fat Tire Amber Ale, in honor of that experience.

By the time New Belgium was ready to move to Asheville, it had a ready-made core sales demographic.  Asheville on Bikes, by its own reckoning, numbered close to 400 members.

‘Tactical Urbanism’ and Friends in High Places

Asheville on Bikes has always enjoyed a cozy relationship with city government.  (Former City Manager Gary Jackson rode with Asheville on Bikes, as does former city councilman Marc Hunt.) So last fall, when AoB decided it wanted to use a stretch of Coxe Avenue for an experiment in bike-centric transportation, that was fine with city hall.

The project, undertaken in the faintly militant name of “tactical urbanism,” involved installing bike lanes on both sides of Coxe between Buxton and Burton Streets, adding planters and shrubs, and placing plastic “armadillo” mini-stanchions between the bike lanes and the street.  AoB then painted the street surface bright blue and added large, stylized, orange-and-yellow butterflies, a design that could not be discerned from street level but looked impressive from, say, the top floor of the Public Service Building.

The first hard rain — which occurred a few days after the street mural’s completion — caused large chunks of dried paint to flake off the street surface and run into storm drains, thence straight on to the French Broad River.  This caused a public outcry to which AoB responded by sending some members with brooms and dustpans down to sweep up some of the detritus.

The mural is still visible but now greatly faded, begging the question as to whether AoB intends to retouch it (as was hinted at some time ago on the club’s website) clean it up, or leave it to the city and the elements.

AOB’S STREET MURAL AS IT APPEARS TODAY

Virtue Signalling or Sure-enough Crusading?

Asheville traffic, many commentators have pointed out, is not constantly and liberally laced with cyclists taking their lives in their hands as they attempt to navigate traffic arteries arrogantly hogged by motorists.  “There are plenty of marked bike lanes,” one said.  “They’re on every major street in this town.”  Nor does Asheville resemble cities of comparable size in Europe and Asia, where automobiles are a luxury and bicycles vastly outnumber them.

Nevertheless, AoB’s appeals for funding and public support are often couched in terms of us-against-them, or of bringing about nothing less than a two-wheeled revolution.

“This is our loving ask,” says AoB’s website:  “Give us your money so we can put it to work changing Asheville forever. Your financial support is vital and our tactical urbanism projects are big ticket items for our non-profit. Giving to Asheville on Bikes is something you should do if you like causing change – we are taking real action right now to improve Asheville’s public spaces.”

Well, say followers of the story, you can’t get much more direct than that.  AoB says it will continue to fundraise in both the private and the governmental sectors, using the triple mantra of egalitarianism, energy conservation, and environmental stewardship.

“A lot of these folks really do see themselves as crusaders, not just people who like to ride bikes,” says one former traffic engineer.  “They aren’t kidding.  They see themselves as trying to save the environment by getting everybody out of cars and onto bikes.  To them it’s like a religion.”

(Cue “Let the Church Roll On.”)

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