A crossroads for Charlotte

The Observer editorial board

The Gold Line street car during a test run along Elizabeth Ave. near Presbyterian Hospital in early July.
The Gold Line street car during a test run along Elizabeth Ave. near Presbyterian Hospital in early July. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

A new study on the evolution of transportation systems in more than two dozen U.S. cities tells us several things we already knew about Charlotte, and one that many of us perhaps overlook.

TransitCenter, a New York City-based think tank focused on transportation, set out to study forward-thinking transportation planning in American cities.

Given all the squabbles over the new Gold Line streetcar uptown and planned toll lanes for Interstate 77 near Lake Norman, Charlotteans might be surprised to find their city on the group’s “most-innovative” list, along with Chicago, New York City, Denver, Pittsburgh and Portland.

What did the study, unveiled this week, tell us that we already knew? That the Blue Line light rail system was a shrewd investment, given how it has reshaped the way we think about the interplay between transportation choices and residential growth patterns.

Also, that the big banks and other corporations drive major public transportation investments around here.

What did it tell us that we might have overlooked? The relative absence – compared to the other cities – of grassroots activists and everyday citizens at the table when major transportation decisions go down.

Why is that important? Because corporations tend to focus on major infrastructure projects – such as light rail – which boost business prospects.

What they might spend less energy thinking about are the finer-grained elements of transportation, like the walk-ability and bikeability of streets. Thus, we wind up with tons of new light-rail-inspired residential development in South End, and growing worries that South Boulevard can’t safely handle all the new pedestrians that come with it.

Charlotte “has these stand-alone state of the art (transportation) examples,” study author Shin-pei Tsay told the editorial board. “I think the next stage for Charlotte is connecting these things together and recognizing it’s not the delivery of the technology, it’s a focus on the people” who use it.

This is a critical juncture for Charlotte, transportation-wise. The streetcar could revive inner-city neighborhoods, or prove to be perhaps the city’s biggest embarrassment. Interstate 77 still needs widening to the state line. And the Charlotte Area Transit System seeks billions to complete transit corridors to the north, south, east and west of uptown.

Shannon Binns, head of the nonprofit Sustain Charlotte, told the board that during debates about the Gold Line, and more recent planning meetings for stations along the Blue Line Extension, government and business leaders did most of the talking.

It’s time for more grassroots activists and citizens to join this critical discussion.