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‘Roads' talk won't get us anywhere

Mary Newsom
Mary Newsom, associate editor of the Charlotte Observer, has been writing about growth, development, urban design and urban life since 1995. Write her at The Observer, P.O. Box 30308, Charlotte, NC 28230.

Politicians do it.

Journalists do it.

Business leaders and community activists do it.

So would everyone please stop?

Stop talking about “road projects” and “money for roads.”

Stop saying, “More money for roads and less for transit” – and stop saying, “More money for transit and less for roads.”

I have two problems with the way we talk about “roads” around here.

First, Charlotte is a city now. In a city you have streets, boulevards, avenues and lanes. “Roads” are what you have outside a city, in rural areas – the kind of lovely places this region used to be filled with.

But like it or not, we are a city now. We should seek city solutions to our city problems. They don't talk about “roads” in SoHo.

Here's why terminology matters. If you call Charlotte's streets “roads,” what you'll probably envision is something like N.C. 51 between Pineville and Matthews, or maybe Independence Boulevard, heaven forbid. Those thoroughfares may be good for suburban traffic (or not, but that's another column), but they are not good for creating city neighborhoods. They aren't welcoming to kids on foot or bikes or parents pushing strollers, to runners or skateboarders or people walking the dog. They and the development they attract almost never let you stroll along, window shopping – one of the great urban pleasures. Our city “roads” are typically engineered so traffic zooms at 50 mph, regardless of the speed limit.

One reason I think we in Charlotte aren't more precise about what we call our paved routes is that we have thoroughly debased terms that used to mean something. A true “boulevard” would attract boulevardiers strolling between the cafes, and flaneurs (“a person who strolls about idly, as along the boulevards”). Now envision Independence Boulevard or Harris Boulevard. Ugh. If Billy Graham Parkway is a “parkway” then I'm Miley Cyrus.

Or consider “lane.” Runnymede “Lane” is a thoroughfare that turns into Woodlawn “Road.” Sharon “Lane” plows into Sharon Amity “Road.” No wonder we're confused.

So let's start talking as if we're a city, not still abiding in the countryside this region used to be.

Second, to say “roads” when we really mean “transportation” narrows our thinking. Consider the very real problem of traffic congestion. Most politicians say, “We need more roads.”

Maybe we do, and maybe we don't. But if we can start to think and talk about the problem as “transportation,” we open our minds to more kinds of solutions.

To assume that the solution to congestion is “roads” – that is, putting down pavement in new places – is like assuming all health problems should be treated with surgery or drugs. Those are good tools, when appropriate, but a good doctor doesn't ignore the options of prevention, exercise, diet and daily habits.

“Transportation” means auto and foot traffic, bicycles, planes, trucks, trains, buses and streetcars. Call it “transportation,” and you're already thinking more broadly.

You might conclude it's smarter and more effective to spend money on traffic management tools or pedestrian bridges across creeks, instead of pavement. You'll probably stop viewing transit as the enemy of roads and start thinking about how the rules that govern development affect transportation, not “traffic” or “transit.”

If you just think “roads,” you're thinking about pavement, not about the infinitely complex ways transportation and urban design and city growth are meshed together.

Just talking about “roads” won't, in the end, get us where we need to go.

Mary Newsom is an associate editor at the Observer, mnewsom@charlotteobserver.com or P.O. Box 30308, Charlotte, NC 28230-0308. Read her blog, The Naked City, at www.marynewsom.blogspot.com.

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