Charlotte is listed among the nation’s worst cities for pedestrians in several 2014 rankings, but city officials are hoping to change that in 2015 with a bigger investment in sidewalks and other safety measures.
A study by Smart Growth America, released in the December issue of AARP Bulletin, ranked the Charlotte-Gastonia-Concord metro area as the 10th worst in the country for pedestrians. Mecklenburg led the state with 159 pedestrian fatalities from 2003-12, the period covered, and Wake County placed second with 122.
A few months earlier, the national pedestrian rating system Walk Score gave Charlotte the lowest ranking in the country for a large city.
Charlotte resident Tiedra White, who lives near Albemarle Road, would agree.
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“Walking around is good, crossing the street is horrible,” White said Tuesday.
Charlotte’s ranking in such studies isn’t new. Several high-profile accidents in 2012 – including fatalities involving two children off Tyvola Road, and a Wells Fargo banker uptown – raised questions about pedestrian safety.
But with increased funding for the 2015 fiscal year and a new initiative called Charlotte Walks, the Charlotte Department of Transportation is predicting better safety in the future.
“We’ve come a long way in the last 10 years,” said Debbie Smith, engineering and operations assistant division manager for the Charlotte Department of Transportation. “We’re really stepping up and becoming a walkable community, and people are demanding that by their choices – where they live, where they shop.”
In November, voters approved a bond referendum for city improvements that included $15 million for sidewalks and pedestrian safety. Some of that money will be spent to build new sidewalks in areas that don’t have them.
But officials also intend to use some funds to make existing sidewalks safer. That means setting sidewalks further away from the road and ensuring that pedestrians can cross streets safely. One area where such changes are taking place is along rapidly developing South Boulevard in the South End area.
“Rather than getting out there and building miles and miles of sidewalk, we’re focusing on a complete street environment,” Smith said. “It’s not just how are they walking along the street, it’s how they are getting across the street.”
Experts say the city’s low safety ratings are a result of its sprawling design and because most of the city’s development has been recent, coming in an era when driving is the norm. Older cities are more compact and designed with walking in mind.
This year’s Walk Score report found that uptown – particularly areas with streets laid out in a grid, including Center City and the First and Fourth Wards – is relatively safe for pedestrians, on par with more walkable cities such as Boston and Philadelphia.
Older neighborhoods such as Dilworth and Elizabeth also fared well.
But the further one gets from uptown, the worse the outlook is for pedestrians, with some suburban areas scoring in the single digits on a 100-point safety scale. The Sunset Road area west of Interstate 77 north and Providence Plantation near Interstate 485 in south Charlotte are two such places.
“There are certain spots where there should be a crosswalk and there’s not,” SouthPark resident Jeremy Grant said Tuesday, adding that she frequently sees people jaywalking because there is no crosswalk nearby.
Neighbors have united in some areas to demand safer streets and sidewalks. Along South Boulevard, residents have been asking for improvements since 2005. Now, many are worried about more traffic with a Publix supermarket, a new apartment complex, a 60-acre mixed-use development planned nearby.
The city received no bond money for sidewalks in 2012, so the $15 million approved in the 2014 election will be put to good use, Smith said. Building new sidewalks, creating crosswalks and improving walk signals are all high priorities.
Collaborating with the police department to crack down on speeding is also a goal.
Smart Growth America ranked North Carolina the ninth most dangerous state for pedestrians.
“The most dangerous regions tend to be those that grew in the post-war period, mostly through rapid spread of low-density neighborhoods that rely on wider streets with higher speeds to connect homes, shops and schools – roads that tend to be more dangerous for people walking,” stated Dangerous By Design 2014, Smart Growth America’s most recent report.
The report said 1,683 people died while walking in North Carolina from 2003-12. The dead include about 120 children younger than 15 years old.
Nationally, more than 47,000 pedestrians died during that decade, the organization reported.