Have you ever tried to actually get somewhere in Charlotte on a bicycle?
Sure, there are plenty of shaded greenways and quiet streets to get in a cycling workout. But what about using a bike as transportation, to get to work or to go shopping or to get from one part of town to another?
The result: Frustration.
Greenways meander with few destinations. Sidewalks are crooked and unsafe when they’re clear enough to ride on. Few streets are rated by transportation planners as conducive to biking, so sticking to safe streets means dozens of extra miles and frequent checks of Google Maps.
But the biggest one of all is a lack of connectivity. Bike lanes end abruptly, with seemingly no logic to them.
“We call them ‘orphan bike lanes,'” says Shannon Binns, executive director of Sustain Charlotte. “The big thing we need in Charlotte is a network.”
In the last half-decade, the city of Charlotte has paid increasingly more attention to bicycle transportation. They’ve hired somebody to oversee a bike program full-time, and drafted three iterations of plans. For the first time this year, the City Council approved money dedicated solely to bike projects — $4 million worth per year built into the budget.
But Charlotte still finds itself at a disadvantage. In a 2016 survey, 62 percent of Charlotteans said it was difficult to bike around the city.
Is it too late to fix?
A piecemeal approach
By any account, Charlotte is late to the game. Cities like Minneapolis have been designating bike lanes since literally the 1800s.
But the first mile of striped bike lane in Charlotte wasn’t created in 2001. That same year, a joint city-county Bicycle Advisory Committee was created.
In 2008, Charlotte adopted what’s known as a “complete street” policy, where all new roads are supposed to include space for a bike lane. Since then, Charlotte has mostly added bike lanes in bits and pieces as its resurfaced streets or built new ones, when they’re large enough for dedicated lanes.
The complete street policy is not always followed, and the city did not allocate any money specifically to bike projects, instead trying to address it through larger road improvements.
That’s led to a patchwork of bicycle lanes spread across the city, in disjointed chunks a mile long or less.
Today, Charlotte has about 90 miles of designated bike lanes — less than 4 percent of the 2,400 miles of city-maintained roads. Nearly all of the bike lanes are unprotected, meaning there’s no physical barrier between cars and bicycles.
It’s relatively easy to get around older, inner-ring neighborhoods like Dilworth and West End. They have a more robust grid system of streets that let people travel on less-busy streets.
But once you get farther out, neighborhoods were built around the automobile, funneling commuters to major roads that are harder to take a bike on.
“It’s easier to get around Charlotte by bike than a lot of people assume, but it depends on where you are,” said Adam Raskoskie, chairman of Charlotte’s Bicycle Advisory Committee. “The way we’ve built these over the years, we’re missing some crucial connections.”
As Charlotte has boomed in the past half-decade, the city has increasingly paid attention to fixing these problems. The centerpiece was a May 2017 report called Charlotte BIKES.
It surveyed residents on what’s standing in their way of biking more often, finding that the majority of Charlotteans are interested in cycling but concerned about safety. It set goals of making biking easier in all parts of Charlotte and zeroed in on some engineering tactics that makes bicycling seem safer — like cycle tracks separated from cars by a median.
“What we’ve learned in the last 10 years is that most people don’t feel safe being separated from a 2,000-pound moving piece of metal by a strip of paint,” Binns said.
While Charlotte is accustomed to reports that don’t go anywhere, this one did set a framework for the next phase of progress. Some of the more tangible goals:
- Construct 10 new miles of bicycle facilities per year, including at least 2 miles of bike lanes buffered from the road.
- Implement five new “conflict zone” per year, most notably the green-painted crosswalks.
- Install 10+ publicly accessible bike racks each year.
City Manager Marcus Jones followed it up in this year’s budget. Charlotte approved $4 million to implement the Charlotte BIKES plan this year, the first time the City Council has designated money specifically for bike projects.
One of the most impactful priorities is creating a map identifying gaps in bike corridors by the end of 2018. Then around $3.3 million per year would go toward closing those gaps.
“We’re at the start of a paradigm shift in how we think about bicycle planning,” Binns said.
Still, the pace of change can be glacial.
Case in point: the Uptown Cycle Track.
The city of Charlotte has been looking at putting bike lanes along this corridor since at least 2013. In summer 2016, Sustain Charlotte launched a petition campaign to push the City Council toward approving it.
The city held a series of public meetings in late July to get feedback on potential designs for the project.
A few quick wins.
That said, bike advocates are hoping to use the $4 million per year to create a few quick wins, noticeable improvements that will get people excited about the future of biking in Charlotte.
Other changes will take longer. At 2 miles of buffered bike lanes per year, it will take decades to catch up with cities that have been working on this for longer. And closing gaps won’t be immediate.
“It’s going to be choppy,” said Elizabeth Swanzy-Parker, vice chairwoman of the Bicycle Advisory Committee. She said there also needs to be attention paid to how big new roads should be built and what developers are required to do with new construction.
Still, there’s hope that Charlotte will be able to fix its cycling problems.
“I don’t think we’re too late to the game at all. We’re kind of in the same category as a lot of cities in the Southeast with a lot of growth,” Raskoskie said.
“We do have some catch-up to do, but I definitely think it’s possible.”