Written by John Reinan, Asheville Watchdog.
A heritage of minimal urban planning has West Asheville on the cutting edge today.
As cities around the globe look for ways to rein in automobile culture and make themselves more pedestrian-friendly, West Asheville has found an unexpected answer: Forget about sidewalks and make people walk in the street.
Through a combination of culture, topography, and poverty, West Asheville’s neighborhoods were built largely without sidewalks. And while city planners are working on pedestrian improvements for major thoroughfares such as Haywood Road, they acknowledge that neighborhood roads without sidewalks are unlikely to get them any time soon.
That’s OK with residents, who can be seen at all hours walking dogs, pushing baby strollers, and jogging amid cars, trucks, and SUVs navigating the narrow streets. It works pretty well, they say.
“There are isolated incidents [with vehicles], but for the most part, it’s pretty good,” said Kyle Bergemann, who moved to the area from Boston about four years ago.
As Bergemann recently made his way up Herron Avenue with his girlfriend, Megan Parker, and Ellie, their standard poodle, a muscular Dodge Challenger crept along behind them, engine rumbling as it waited for an opening to pass the trio.
They stepped aside and the car eased on by, a ballet enacted hundreds of times a day.
“I think it’s fairly safe over here,” said Ken Miller, a lifelong West Asheville resident who regularly walks and runs on neighborhood streets. “I think it’s safer than in North Asheville or downtown.”
Still, pedestrians need to protect themselves, he added: “I’m super careful not to pass in front of cars unless I’m sure the driver sees me and is waving me across.”
What’s a woonerf?
The Dutch word “woonerf,” meaning shared streets, is a design concept that’s been catching on with transportation planners over the last decade or so. In a woonerf, the street is shared among pedestrians, bikers, and vehicle traffic. Wall Street in downtown Asheville is an example of a shared road.
“With woonerfs, you can blend the transportation methods,” said Ben Gooden, founder of Los Angeles-based Citygreen Systems, a design and consulting firm. “Vehicles know they have to move slow, because there’s a speed restriction. Also, there are all these measures to warn them. You’ve got people moving around, you’ve got trees planted.”
That’s a distinction between a true woonerf and what passes for it in West Asheville. Woonerfs include elements specifically designed to impede and direct traffic flow, such as bollards, trees and dining areas. But West Asheville’s neighborhood streets do display features lending themselves naturally to what engineers call “traffic calming.”
The roads are narrow and vehicles are usually parked along the edge, further narrowing the traffic lane. Rollout trash containers and delivery vehicles are frequently in the street. Often, there’s room for only one car to get through, forcing drivers coming from one direction to wait while vehicles coming the opposite way slowly weave through.
West Asheville’s streets aren’t in a grid, another aid to traffic calming. Many streets run for no more than two or three blocks before hitting a jog or a “T.” There’s not enough distance for vehicles to get up a good head of steam.
“The streets are tiny,” noted Stephanie Monson Dahl, the city’s urban design and place strategies manager. Rather than a grid, she said, “West Asheville has what I would call a web. All these streets are connected.”
The city has added and upgraded sidewalks along major streets such as Sulphur Springs Road, and plans pedestrian improvements on Haywood Road. But the neighborhood streets are likely to stay as they are, said Jessica Morriss, assistant city transportation director.
“These older, historic streets are never going to be anything else,” Morriss said. Sidewalks are “extremely expensive” to build, she said, with a price tag of $1 million per mile or more.
Accident reports back the residents’ perception of safety. According to North Carolina Department of Transportation records, there were 12 pedestrian fatalities in Asheville in the five years from 2017 to 2021. Nine of them occurred on federal or state highways, such as Patton Avenue or Interstate 240. Two of the fatalities were listed as occurring on local streets, with no addresses given, while the location of the final fatality was listed as unknown. A map plotting the fatalities appears to show none on West Asheville neighborhood streets.
That’s not surprising, Morriss said. Pedestrian incidents, here and elsewhere, are far more likely along large, busy roads.
“Pedestrian deaths and serious injuries are highly correlated with vehicle speed, roadway width … and lack of safe crossing opportunities,” she said.
Why the lack of sidewalks?
West Asheville was originally a streetcar neighborhood, and many residents a century ago didn’t have money to spend on cars. Vehicle traffic was concentrated on a few busy streets and many other roads were basically country lanes.
And after the city’s finances imploded in the Great Depression, sidewalks were far down the list of priorities for the depleted public coffers.
“Asheville was virtually bankrupt from 1929 on and really couldn’t afford that type of thing,” said Dan Pierce, a West Asheville native and history professor at UNC-Asheville. In addition, Asheville’s zoning laws were “haphazard” or non-existent in the early days, and didn’t require sidewalks. [The city now requires them for developments of 20 or more units.]
The city’s mountainous terrain doesn’t lend itself easily to a street grid, he added, making for the web of roads that help keep vehicle speeds down.
After World War II, a newly affluent America fully gave itself over to car culture, said Tab Combs, a research associate in the Department of City and Regional Planning at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“A lot of the outward growth in the postwar era was all about cars,” Combs said. “Like, why would we walk when we have a perfectly good car?”
Southern cities also are more likely to be built without sidewalks, she added, particularly as many of them experienced their most rapid growth in the car-centric postwar era.
“It’s not uncommon in our southern neighborhoods to not have sidewalks,” Combs said.”There’s definitely a regional thing. I have quite a few friends from the Midwest who are confused – like, why are there not sidewalks?”
Meanwhile, West Asheville residents will embrace their identity as streetwalkers.
“Everyone is familiar with it,” said Dakotah Seiler, walking his dog Dewey on a recent summer evening. “You can tell the people who live in the area – they’ll smile and wave.”
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Reinan, the newest member of our team, was a reporter for seven newspapers from Alaska to Florida. He was part of a team awarded the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Email [email protected].