Reality Check: Could a 'road diet' on Charlotte Street delay emergency responders?

    Buncombe County Emergency Services Director Jerry Vehaun says they respond to hundreds of calls in the Charlotte Street area every year. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

    It's a traffic trend that's popping up in cities of all sizes all across the country.

    It's called a road diet and it involves eliminating traffic lanes to make room for bike lanes.

    The city of Asheville is planning a road diet for a section of Charlotte Street near downtown, but some are worried about the how it would affect drivers, bikers and emergency responders.

    The plan

    Currently, there are two lanes in each direction in this section of Charlotte Street, from Chestnut Street to Edwin Place. The proposal would mean one lane in each direction plus a middle turning lane and a bike lane on either side.

    The budget for the project is $1.25 million and upon final approval. The city says work would begin this fall.

    The Federal Highway Administration says a road diet can decrease the number of traffic accidents by 19 to 47 percent.

    There was a public meeting on Feb. 19 to discuss the plan, and the city said it will share the results of that meeting some time this spring.

    Todd Okolichany, director of Planning and Urban Design for the city of Asheville, said the road diet will "improve conditions for all users of the roadway including drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists."

    A study shows the proposal would add 10-15 seconds to the drive time in this area.

    The city is still awaiting final approval.

    The concerns

    At 75, Charlie Clogston is still a dedicated cyclist. These days, he rides at home or in spin class, but he used to log thousands of miles every year on the road.

    He lives in North Asheville, and the Charlotte Street road diet plan caught his attention.

    "I was very concerned that it would really do more harm than good," Clogston said.

    You would think a cyclist would support a more bike-friendly route. But Clogston believes the proposal will not improve safety, but instead delay life-saving response.

    "There's 25 opportunities to have cars in the left turn lane blocking emergency vehicles," Clogston said.

    We found out this is a major worry for Buncombe County Emergency Services Director Jerry Vehaun, as well.

    "Yes, I was surprised. To me, you only have this one main artery here," Vehaun said.

    Buncombe County Emergency Services Director Jerry Vehaun says they respond to hundreds of calls in the Charlotte Street area every year.

    Vehaun believes ambulances will get caught up in more traffic and will have fewer lanes to pass cars blocking the route.

    "It's just going to slow the response down for people who need assistance, whether it be a fire, law enforcement problem or EMS," Vehaun said.

    City's response

    But the city sees it much differently.

    "The data we have seen, again from the Federal Highway Administration, suggests that response times for emergency vehicles can actually get better," Okolichany said.

    The Federal Highway Administration said road diets provide a more predictable and practical path for emergency vehicles and don't slow responders.

    Its study also shows road diets lead to fewer traffic crashes.

    The city says the plan will make the half-mile stretch of Charlotte Street safer.

    Okolichany said that's the goal on Charlotte Street -- to keep drivers, bikers and walkers safer.

    He said emergency vehicles will have plenty of space to get through.

    "With a road diet, we are really just repainting, restriping lines on the road," Okolichany said. "The actual width remains the same, so cars have the ability to maneuver into a bike lane and allow emergency vehicles to pass by."

    Local biking organization Asheville on Bikes fully supports the plan. The group has even posted a statement detailed why it thinks the proposal is needed on their website.

    Have road diets worked elsewhere?

    We wanted to see how these projects have played out in other cities.

    In Seattle, city officials said the switch improved safety without causing backups.

    While a Wall Street Journal article called the road diet fad "deadly," saying more pedestrians are losing their lives in Los Angeles where traffic lanes were reduced.

    Back in North Carolina, there have been dozens of road diets implemented.

    In Durham, the lane reduction on the 15-501 Business Corridor received mix reviews. Some business owners said it lead to more congestion and a more dangerous roadway.

    In Charlotte, deputy director of the city's Department of Transportation Dan Gallagher said there have been about 20 road diets.

    The changes have taken place on smaller and bigger streets, including East Boulevard, which runs close to downtown.

    The city of Charlotte has implemented 20 road diets and believes they have all been successful.

    Gallagher said the two-mile stretch of East Boulevard now sees fewer serious accidents, lower speeds and no issues with EMS being delayed.

    He said each road diet project is different but believes they can improve safety and create a better environment for bikers and pedestrians.

    This issue was so controversial here in North Carolina, where a bill to ban road diets in 2015 failed.

    A study by the Federal Highway Administration shows road diets decrease the number of accidents by about 6 percent.

    News In Photos

      Loading ...