The Charlotte streetcar: Y’all got it wrong.

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Op-Ed from Erin Chantry, a LEED AP ND, CNU-A Urban Designer and Planner with Stantec’s Urban Places Group in Charlotte, NC. With a BA in Architecture, an MA in Urban Design, and an MS in Urban Planning, Erin writes at helmofthepublicrealm.com.

Last week, I beamed with pride for my city of Charlotte as Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, and our mayor, Dan Clodfelter, cut the ribbon to begin the CityLynx Gold Line streetcar service.

I’ve lived and visited where there are streetcar lines, and often longed for an America where tracks once crissed and crossed our cities.

I have always appreciated the past and the lessons it teaches us – I grew up in a neighborhood built around the streetcar, as many of our most loved neighborhoods were. I’ve seen the transforming qualities that streetcars can bring to the built environment in cities like Seattle, Portland, and Tampa. I was beyond excited and on cloud nine.

Then in the week following I’ve cringed at the press, the media getting it all wrong, and conversations I’ve overheard making fun of it: it’s too expensive, it doesn’t go anywhere, it’s too slow, and it’s a nuisance. There are people who will never support the streetcar, as they oppose most projects that use tax money to build public projects… but I realized there are many people out there who would support it, if they just understood it better.

streetcar-phase-2 charlotte

It’s easier to understand the streetcar when you look at it as a strategy for economic development instead of an efficient mode of transportation.

If you look at it just from a transportation perspective, which is easy since the streetcar is technically a mechanism that will get you from point A to point B, it doesn’t appear to be efficient compared to your car (right now at least… as the city grows, parking and traffic will become more of a problem).

Yes, the streetcar travels at 16 mph and at this stage only travels 1.5 miles. And while you can still catch a delicious dinner at Carpe Diem before taking the line to a Charlotte Hornets game, the CityLynx Gold Line is really about integrating parts of our city together that have long been divided, and bringing economic development where the market has been dragging for decades.

It has been proven in cities all across America that private investment follows public investment in rail. Whether it’s light rail or a streetcar, investors know that the route isn’t changing once the tracks are laid.

We’ve seen it happen in Charlotte. All of those apartments in the South End? It’s because of the light rail. South End has been one of the most vibrant and sought after neighborhoods in Charlotte since the light rail’s announcement in 2000. Since its opening in 2007, it helped the neighborhood brave the recession with continued investment along the corridor.

Now, we are seeing the same thing happen in NoDa with the anticipation of the Blue Line Extension opening in 2017. Projects are popping up in the historic arts neighborhood, which hasn’t seen any new construction in years.

Is this what progress looks like?

A video posted by Charlotte Agenda (@charlotteagenda) on

In the first phase of the streetcar, we saw restaurants and offices open up on Elizabeth Avenue, despite the road in front of it being closed for months – usually a death wish for any business.

At the streetcar opening ceremonies, Secretary Anthony Foxx touched on some of these points, along with a call to action for Charlotte to be a leader in this country – even at the cost of ignoring politics coming out of Raleigh. “You can’t ignore Raleigh, but I can,” was met with roaring applause. He’s right – the three intentions of the streetcar, as listed below, will do so much for our city and is money well spent. A challenging journey lies in front of us, but its benefit is much greater than the political opposition and land mines along the way.

In short, here is what Charlotte’s streetcar can achieve:

(1) The streetcar creates a market where there isn’t one

The Charlotte streetcar will extend to the West side of Charlotte to Johnson C. Smith University, a historically African-American University, in its next phase due to open in 2019.

It will continue through Uptown, traverse under the I-77 overpass, long acting as a barrier separating black from white since its construction, and through the Historic West End. In a later phase it will continue farther west, all the way to the Rosa Parks Transit Center past I-85.

It will also travel east, through Eastway to the old Eastland Mall redevelopment site. Both of these areas of Charlotte haven’t seen investment in decades. Charlotte has grown primarily in the North-South direction.

Developments have popped up along the Providence Road corridor and I-485 interchanges to the south, while towns by Lake Norman, Huntersville, Cornelius, and Mooresville, have boomed in the last few decades.

Along with this growth has come millions of investment in infrastructure and public services.

Little effort has been made to tie together east and west in our city. Because of this, parts of these areas are in a state that paving roads and building sidewalks will never help them climb out of. We need a catalyst – something that will spur an influx of private investment to revitalize and turn our city around.

The streetcar is that catalyst that creates an East-West axis that will integrate and celebrate our historically diverse population and their neighborhoods, extending investment in Uptown, Elizabeth, and Plaza Midwood to more neglected parts of the city. Even beyond encouraging redevelopment, the streetcar line is doing what is right. It’s bringing us and our city together.

Charlotte NC Streetcar
(2) The streetcar encourages the type of development that these neighborhoods need

The light rail is more efficient getting people places because it is able to go faster. It goes faster in part, because the stops are farther apart. Light rail has been huge in getting people in and out of downtown. In the South End especially, we have seen an area (a 1/4 – 1/2 mile radius from the station) that is very walkable with supporting pedestrian infrastructure. People live here and commute on the light rail to Uptown for work or entertainment.

Station areas further out are mostly park and ride stations, with less connectivity and block network to support transit-oriented development.

The light rail has its place – it alleviates commuter traffic, creates less pollution, and allows us to contribute less of our built environment to car-oriented facilities. And while the light rail works in many Charlotte locations, the streetcar is a catalyst that can create continuous dense and walkable development built around unique and active public infrastructure. Because it is slower and operates in the street instead of on a separate track, it can stop more often and be better integrated into the pedestrian infrastructure.

Despite the media’s portrayal leading up to the streetcar’s opening, and the freak accident that happened this past weekend, pedestrians and cyclists can easily and safely mingle with the streetcar.

Sources: first trolley car collision on Eliz ave (or cause) – unclear on details – out on jog and came across via @lzbarrett A photo posted by Charlotte Agenda (@charlotteagenda) on

The result is continuous and overlapping nodes of walkability that attract mixed-uses, commercial, entertainment, and residential uses.

This is the most appropriate for the east-west streetcar line since the majority of neighborhoods that need revitalization are within a mile or so of Uptown. The West End especially, is an area where its existing historic and walkable areas should be preserved and enhanced. With the streetcar travelling along one of its main neighborhood corridors, it will encourage a huge increase in pedestrian activity, while preserving the unique character.

(3) The streetcar maximizes the infrastructure we have

It costs $6 million a square mile to build a four-lane road in a suburban environment. For the cost of the first phase of the streetcar in Charlotte at $37 million, we could have only built about 6 miles of streets.

When you look at a development like Ballantyne, it has way more than 6 miles of roads that need to be maintained every year. Additionally, new fire stations, more police officers, and other public services are invested in for a huge amount of urban sprawl in Charlotte.

Instead, the streetcar route is already supported by existing infrastructure and public services. Private investment along the line will increase the tax base in these areas, better supporting the services that protect them. With fewer roads built, the city will have less of a drain on their resources to maintain a growing amount of infrastructure.

Existing roads, utilities, and services, especially in the East and West sides of Charlotte that the streetcar will connect and transform, will easily support the amount of development in Charlotte for decades. And it will do so without needing to further expand our boundaries – and paying a hefty fund to do so. So while people complain about the cost of the streetcar, it is no different from the city pumping millions into sprawling road networks and maintenance to support sprawl. Except that it makes a heck of a lot more sense.

New friend Randa, who knows how to drive this thing…

A photo posted by Charlotte Agenda (@charlotteagenda) on

So for all of those who don’t quite get the streetcar, hopefully now you do. Questions of its safety after the accident this past weekend and political controversy in its implementation, are minute in importance compared to what the project has the ability to achieve for our communities and Charlotte as a whole.

I invite you to watch as this streetcar line helps to transform our city – it already connects our bus and light rail systems, healthcare and education facilities, entertainment, and small businesses. I can’t wait to see what the future holds, especially for the parts of our city that have been long forgotten on the other side of the I-77 overpass.

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