Local & State Voices

What Cambridge can teach Charlotte

I've just spent most of a year in the sensible shoes Mecca of America – Cambridge, Mass.

In three weeks back in Charlotte I've seen more stiletto-heels than I saw in 10 months in Cambridge. You'd be in traction at Mass General Hospital if you wore those things in Cambridge. It's a city where people walk – a lot. Parking is scarce and expensive; sidewalks are everywhere.

When people ask what I learned during a year studying at Harvard, it's difficult to condense all my experiences and reflections into a reply short enough to be polite. So I say, “In Cambridge the cars stop for pedestrians in crosswalks.”

I miss many things about Cambridge and Boston, including my friends. I miss the look and feel of the place. I miss the intellectual and cultural amenities, the public transit, harbor views, the Charles River, cappuccino at Peet's, lilacs in May and the prolific June roses.

But if I had to choose just one thing Cambridge has that – if I acquired a magic wand – I would bestow on Charlotte, it would be walkability.

It's wonderful to walk in Cambridge. The sights are interesting. Sidewalks, crosswalks and lights abound. Big intersections have islands and refuges.

Old town, old streets

Cambridge dates to the 17th century and grew up mostly before the invention of traffic engineers and zoning, so its older areas have narrow streets and small blocks. Retail nodes dot many intersections.

With narrow streets, parked cars and pedestrians everywhere, traffic slows down. You feel as if it's speeding to drive 35 mph. If you're on foot or bicycle, slower traffic makes you feel safer. Despite the speeds, congestion in most of Cambridge seemed not as bad as most places in Charlotte. With multiple connecting streets, you have many route possibilities. No single street carries a disproportionate load. (I drove only a few times at rush hour in Boston proper and it was, shall we say, exciting.)

And did I mention that the cars stop for pedestrians?

This was a new and unexpected delight. We Charlotteans sometimes just strode out midblock for the sheer heady thrill of seeing cars and trucks halt. No one-finger salutes. No insults. They simply stopped.

For the record, North Carolina state law also requires motorists to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks. But if you trust your life to that law you'll be a grease spot on the asphalt.

What Charlotte does better

Turnabout is fair. Cambridge was not perfect. I grew nostalgic for Charlotte, especially when we were newly arrived and finding our way around. If I were to advise the Cambridge street department, I'd recommend better signs and better street paint.

Charlotte is years ahead of Cambridge (and Boston) in installing good street signs. We'd be driving along, map at hand, arrive at an intersecting street and have no way to know what it was. Nor did the signs, when you could find them, tell you what street you were on. I will never again take for granted Charlotte's welcome green signs.

Charlotte also wins in lane markings. In Cambridge and Boston, the paint that marked lanes was mostly worn off so there were essentially no lanes. I found this freedom from decorum fun, even exhilarating. But other Charlotteans in our household found it scary and dangerous.

I don't mean to ignore some larger differences. Charlotte could use more of Cambridge's global vision, environmental concern and respect for education. Cambridge could use more of Charlotte's civic volunteerism and its diversity of political thought. The place was so relentlessly one-sided that one liberal young Democrat confided that if she stayed there much longer she'd have to become a Republican, just out of contrariness.

But for most of us, our day-in-day-out experiences are shaped less by political thought and more by the routine trip to work or the store, how the journey feels and what we see along the way. And when you can wear sensible shoes on a sensible sidewalk, it's a good place to be.