University City

N.C. 49 revisited: A Charlotte country road or urban highway?

N.C. 49, UNC Charlotte’s namesake boulevard, is having an identity crisis.

Like adolescent angst, it’s mostly just growing pains: hopeful sometimes, awkward sometimes and, not infrequently, funny. Unfortunately, it can sometimes be dangerous, too.

In University City, N.C. 49 is called University City Boulevard. The university’s front entrance is on N.C. 49, decorated by a Maginot Line of hulking brick phone booths set parallel to the traffic lanes. Meanwhile, there are still no adequate sidewalks or crosswalks linking the campus to the housing in College Downs and the shopping area at N.C. 49 and Harris Boulevard.

This stretch of the highway has seen its share of pedestrian accidents over the years, including fatalities. It’s not exactly the poster child for walkable communities and inspired urban design reflective of a major university that is home to both a significant architecture school and an urban institute.

N.C. 49 is a state highway, one of just a handful across the country that keeps its same number even when it crosses state lines. From its northern end in the Virginia town of Crewe, Va., Highway 49 threads south to the North Carolina border, passing through Mecklenburg County, Va. (making it the only road that goes through Mecklenburg County twice, in two different states).

Crossing the border at Virgilina, N.C., Highway 49 rolls southwest through Piedmont farm country, past Asheboro and Concord. Once beyond UNC Charlotte, the road passes the uptown bank towers and sweeps in front of Bank of America Stadium, then continues south to Lake Wylie. There it becomes S.C. 49, and it finally ends its 325-mile ramble in Watts Mill, S.C.

In spite of that impressive odyssey, maybe part of Highway 49’s problem is envy.

Though N.C. 49 may have captured the moniker "University City Boulevard," its sometimes-partner and sometimes-parallel rival on the other side of campus – U.S. 29 – upstages it at every turn. U.S. 29 – not N.C. 49 – is the entry point for UNC Charlotte’s new football stadium, and U.S. 29 is home to much more extensive commercial development (although the sidewalks are no better). U.S. 29 is, after all, a federal highway more than 1,000 miles long linking Maryland to Florida.

Not to be outdone, N.C. 49 has highway aspirations, too, leading to a second set of dangers, this time for drivers.

The road makes a depressing run through the slurbscape of strip malls and abandoned farms between UNC Charlotte and Harrisburg. (Careful! The 35 mph speed limit here is strictly enforced.) Then it settles into an attractive glide through rolling hills and fields of hay and corn. Here N.C. 49 is divided, with two lanes on either side. You can imagine easily enough that you are driving a quiet stretch of Interstate 85.

Only trouble is, you aren’t. Every so often, out of nowhere, there’s a stoplight. It’s an invitation for accidents.

I know.

On the way back from the farm just a month ago, while sitting at a stoplight at N.C. 49 and Zion Church Road, I was rear-ended by an SUV doing a reported 50 mph. My pickup truck was totaled, but I fortunately escaped with my life and, hopefully, little lasting damage.

This corner has been the location of other accidents, some fatal, over the past five years. There are no obvious signs or flashing lights warning of an intersection with a stoplight, a safety feature you often see on rural highways.

First things first: Along with budgeting for monumental university entrances and the like, let’s fund such simple things as sidewalks and warning signs that help us stay safe.

A postscript: My late, lamented pickup, a vintage Ford Ranger, was a birthday present in early April from my wife and family. The original owner was my wife’s mother, the celebrated children’s writer and Charlotte native Betsy Byars. Betsy wasn’t using it much, so it got passed along to me, full of stories and good vibes.

That truck saved my life by absorbing the huge impact. It also taught me that a farmer really needs a truck.