Dr. Traffic

Navigating Charlotte’s I-485 can be cumbersome

Cars on the new section of I-485 at the I-85 interchange just after the final section of Interstate 485 opened in June. The highway's first section opened in 1990.
Cars on the new section of I-485 at the I-85 interchange just after the final section of Interstate 485 opened in June. The highway's first section opened in 1990. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Here’s a pop quiz on Charlotte’s beltway, better known as Interstate 485:

You’re in Huntersville, which is north of Charlotte. You’re driving south on Interstate 77. You plan to take I-485 to Matthews, in southeast Mecklenburg County. Will the sign for the inner loop to Matthews say north or south?

You’re probably thinking that’s an easy question. Well, the sign says north.

Go ahead, read the question again. Check the map.

OK, checking the map doesn’t actually help you with this question. It does make clear the problem David Queen of Concord has with the directional signs on the 67-mile loop. Matthews is south of Huntersville.

Queen has asked NCDOT to explain this hooey. Why does the sign say north?

Here’s what NCDOT said: The signs are not wrong. They read that way to cut down on confusion – at places where other roads tie into the system.

“When we talk about directional orientation, it also helps to think of the loop in terms of its location to where center city Charlotte is,” said Jordan-Ashley Baker, a spokesperson for NCDOT.

This idea might be easier to understand if you know more about the navigation system in place on I-485.

Think of center city Charlotte as the middle of a clock, Baker recommends. North is, of course, at 12 o’clock, and south at 6. If you’re traveling clockwise, you’re on the inner loop. Counterclockwise ... now you’re on the outer loop.

You’ll see three cities named as destinations, to help you decide which way to go. Those are Huntersville, Matthews and Pineville, which is southwest. It helps to know where these are on the map.

Initially four directional signs were a part of the loop’s navigation system – north, south, east and west. That changed seven or eight years ago, Baker said.

“At that time, we were getting a lot of complaints and calls that the system was confusing, that having all of those cardinal direction points was just too much,” she said. “We moved to a north-south designation exclusively.”

It’s true, there are transition points at the north and south ends that highlight the limitations of a two-direction navigation system on a loop, Baker concedes. The signs might be more confusing within those transition points.

The first is between the I-77/N.C. 115 and Prosperity Church Road interchanges on the north side. That’s where the sign for Matthews says north. The second is between the Rea Road and U.S. 521 interchanges on the south side.

Outside of those areas, the signs read as you would expect.

In the end, what I hear Baker saying is that a navigation system for a loop is just more cumbersome than a system for a highway that’s a straight line.

Drivers complained when the system included four directions, and they complain now that there are two. When in doubt, find your center and stay focused on a destination.

Karen Sullivan: 704-358-5532, @Sullivan_kms

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