University City

Small steps needed to help those crossing streets

The woman with an armload of bulging plastic bags from Walgreen's stands in the summer heat at the corner of North Tryon Street and W. T. Harris Boulevard.

She keeps a nervous eye on the two school-aged kids beside her, as they stare at the river of cars rushing past.

They look bewildered, with good reason. How can they cross the street? There aren't any crosswalks.

The light changes, and I've got to make my turn. I glance in my rearview mirror, wondering what they will do.

It's a shameful but undeniable fact. Tryon and Harris, the closest thing to a central crossroads in the University City, has no crosswalks at all, not so much as two stripes of white paint to guide pedestrians across the busy intersection.

In 2007, Charlotte City Council unanimously approved the University City Area Plan, envisioning Tryon and Harris as a hip urban model of pedestrian friendliness and safety.

Yet today, four years later, the corner of Tryon and Harris remains unfriendly to pedestrians.

UNC Charlotte's campus is isolated by a wide and foreboding moat of busy roads, about 5 miles in length. Designated pedestrian crossings remain primitive, few, and far between.

When Mark Felton, host of the PBS series "America's Walking," visited Charlotte, he stood with local residents outside the University City Regional Library. Felton stretched out his arm to point across to the shops and restaurants inaccessible on the far side of Harris.

"How can you get over there?" he asked us. "There's no pedestrian access: No bridge, no underpass, not even a crosswalk. So, right now, you and I can't get there. Neither can university students. How can those businesses really thrive?"

On the opposite edge of campus, there are no designated crosswalks to link UNC Charlotte's new recreational sports complex with the main campus and student apartments. To use them, students risk a jaywalking ticket, if not getting hit by a car. I wonder, how does dodging traffic affect Darwinian selection? Might be a thesis in that.

Pedestrian connections at the new campus entrance on University City Boulevard have improved a bit recently, as have the crosswalks from campus across Tryon Street to the Starbucks and Bloom.

But overall, on both these major thoroughfares, pedestrians still must contend with a pretty dreadful situation. Long sections have still have no crosswalks or sidewalks. The few crosswalks that exist are poorly placed to serve walkers and businesses, and most are anything but state-of-the-art. My favorite is a "piano keys" crosswalk on University City Boulevard reminiscent of the Beatles' Abbey Road album, and probably just about as old.

There is still no safe and convenient way to cross the street from the University to Jackson's Java, our local independent coffeehouse, and the neighboring supermarket, bicycle store, and restaurants, shops and services

Kate Houck, a UNC Charlotte senior in anthropology, works the espresso machine and serves ice cream at Jackson's.

"The University and everyone is always promoting health," said Houck, "but how can we live healthier when we can't walk anywhere?"

Many of Jackson's patrons walk to the coffeehouse, Houck said, especially international students. But they have to take their chances crossing the street, or go out of their way. Houck lives close by and would like to walk to work, but finds it dangerous and inconvenient to have to make her way through the weeds beside busy traffic. She contrasts the situation with Sydney, Australia, where a pedestrian bridge over a busy highway connects the university campus with a thriving arts district.

These are hard economic times, but money isn't the issue. Charlotte's Department of Transportation is spending $650,000 on a sidewalk project leading north from campus along University City Boulevard.

This project seems like a step in the right direction, but in spite of the generous budget (including UNC Charlotte's contribution of $50,000 for decorative bricks), it does little to address the University City's fundamental pedestrian issues directly across from the campus.