Friday, February 17, 2006

A cure for Charlotte streets

Sometimes I think I’ve plopped into an alternate universe. Can it be the Charlotte Department of Transportation giving PowerPoint presentations on the importance of making city streets welcoming to pedestrians and bicyclists, as well as cars?

Ten years ago, if I’d heard that it would have meant I’d fallen, cracked my head on a rock and was hallucinating. Back then CDOT acted as if “transportation” meant only “motor vehicles.” Sidewalks, if built at all – and they weren’t required on many subdivision streets – were a stingy 4 feet wide and hugged the curb, right next to 50 mph traffic. Bicycle lanes? Why bother? Nobody rides bicycles in Charlotte! To “improve” transportation efficiency you just made all intersections wider and – if possible – added lanes wherever you could afford to (which, thankfully, was too expensive to do everywhere).

In a few spots, like where rich and/or politically influential people lived, the city proved it was “neighborhood friendly” by forbidding turns onto those sacred streets or even flat-out closing off streets. (Example: East Kingston at Euclid in Dilworth.)

So Tuesday night, at the “Sweet Streets” presentation – part of an ongoing monthly lecture/program series called Civic by Design at the Levine Museum of the New South – it was almost other-worldly to hear CDOT planner Tracy Newsome and her boss, Norm Steinman, CDOT’s planning and design manager, list changes they’re proposing to the city’s street-design standards. No, this isn’t asphalt quality or storm drain engineering. It’s about how wide or narrow streets need to be, how wide and how far from the street sidewalks should be and the importance of short block lengths and having plenty of street connections. Would you believe me if I said I think Jane Jacobs would approve?

What Newsome (no, we’re not related) and Steinman and their boss, CDOT Deputy Director Danny Pleasant are pushing is pretty much the whole philosophical approach that I and plenty of other people in town have wanted the city to adopt for years. The project’s bureaucratic name is the Urban Street Design Guidelines. They’ve been in the works at least four years – my first notes on the subject say April 2002. One early draft came out in 2003. The city’s Web site has the current draft.

Why haven’t they been adopted yet? One possibility: There’s been plenty of pushback from developers, who don’t like it whenever city rules get tighter and who specifically have complained about shorter block lengths (i.e., more pavement required, and in some cases developers may not be able to get as many lots onto a subdivision site) and about wider, 8-foot planting strips – which Newsome and Steinman say are needed if you want street trees to survive and grow. In response, CDOT has already loosened the proposed block-length requirement.

Another possibility: The city manager’s staff – as always – frets that developers will whine, City Council members will listen to the developers and the staff will acquire even more scar tissue. Well, it has been known to happen.

The CDOT folks Tuesday night said the proposals aren’t being offered for adoption yet, in order to go through yet another mind-numbingly bureaucratic review process (my words, not theirs). I figure that will take months.

That’s stupid. Adopt the street design guidelines. Now. They’re good, they’re badly needed, and they will make our city better.

If you want to pushing this much-needed improvement onto City Council’s agenda, let your council members know. Tell them you support the Urban Street Design Guidelines and want them adopted now. And if you’d like to be notified of the monthly Civic By Design forums, please notify Tom Hanchett at the Levine Museum of the New South.


Anonymous said...

Who cares what developers feel. I say it's about time they focused on connectivity, bike lanes, and sidewalks! (curbs are badly needed to - I have never seen city streets without curbs)

Anonymous said...

I perfectly happy to make the streets more pedestrian and bike friendly.

Having stated that, lets get lawmakers started passing the tennis shoe tax, the bicycle tire tax, the annual inspection fees for bikes, mandatory bicycle education and licensing, bicycle license plates, and then lets send the cops out to start writing up violations on pedestrians and bicyclists to raise revenue for the city.

Until then, the roads are bought and paid for (and then some) by the nauseating amount of fees and taxes imposed on the evil automobile.

What we really need is to complete I-485, and the buikd an I-585 and an I-685 in the outer rings.

THAT would make Charlotte a 'big city' that all the Atlanta-wannabees have been dreaming about.

There has been no single greater boon to the growth of Charlotte that large, wide, high-speed conduit known as I-485.

Light rail will flush $500 million down the toilet, while the 99% of the rest of us continue to beg for more roads.

Anonymous said...

If you feel that light rail is a waste of money, than you are a moron.

Anonymous said...

>>If you feel that light rail is a waste of money, than you are a moron.>>

Ms. Newsom?

Is that you??

Ever read the statistics from the national transit database on mass transit?

Try going to Wiki-pedia ( and look up 'charlotte mass transit'?

There has been no greater dereliction of duty in this community than the failed mass transit system.

Hundreds of millions down the toilet for a system that statistically is used by less than 2% of the people.

Only to get worse when the light rail opens.

Ron Tober is the highest paid fat cat in city government and runs one of the most ineffective and wasteful systems of any city our size in this country.

Society continues to become more mobile, more unpredictable, and less reliant on the 'commute' to get to work.

Fixed transit lines are a throwback to the 1960's and make no sense for a modern workforce.

The reason we are building this is that same as every other city. The people in office get HUGE campaign contributions from asphalt companies and building contractors and get the tax payers to pay for it.

But why let facts get in the way of a good ideology?

Anonymous said...

Are you willing to pay for light rail?

A round trip on the light rail will COST about $26 (thats according to CATS estimates, which have been in the past, lets just say 'optimistic').

Oh yes, RIDERS will actually pay FAR less. We working folks will pay the difference.

If you think its a good idea, then charge $26 for a round trip and see how many people use it.

Like Maryland, St. Louis, Denver, Dallas, and Portland, this will down as one of the dumbest things we have even done.

I found a quote from a Denver city counsilman who was commenting on its city's asinine quest for 'world class' status (sound familiar)

'A world class folly does not make you a world class city.'

Check the status of St. Louis right now. Their light rail project was run by the same company that is doing ours.

Massive cost overruns, lawsuits, corruption, and voters turning down an extension to the line.

Anonymous said...

I think this roads plan is great idea. Why not build a bike path to run along SIDE the light rail?

You would already have a number of built in righ-of-ways, and it is pretty much a straight line.

Charlotte is so warm for so much of the year that riding bikes just makes sense.

Perhaps one or two days of the week, the city could even make certain roads leading into Uptown 'bicycle only' to get people to try it out.

Maybe make Randloph or Providence closed to car traffic and just bikes on Friday or something.

That would be great.

Rick said...

First of all, it's a lot more fun if people put at least a first name by their posts. In my opinion, anonymous opinions, don't matter much. It's like having a conversation with yourself.

To start off, I am not a mass transit opponent. I carpool at least a couple times a week to save money. I approve of HOV lanes, and I like riding a bicyle on occasion. However, there are much better ways to solve Charlotte's transportation woes than rail lines.

Here's why commuter rail is such a waste of money in a growing area like Charlotte. First, it's success requires government to control growth in order to put businesses and homes close enough to the planned rail stops to make them useful. This type of control is untennable. As we've seen already, developers have the ability to simply move their developments to more accomodating counties. It will also be a continuous fight against existing neighborhoods who do not want rail, new urbanism, and high-density growth in thier areas. See the recent rezoing fight with the Gandy Communities and the Spring Park, Davis Lake, and Davis Ridge neighborhoods. The neighborhoods at least partially won this fight. Second, in the words of Ron Tober (transit guru) Uptown Charlotte will need about 100K jobs by 2025 to make mass transit work. That will require a growth rate that is about DOUBLE what has happened over the past 20 years. Realistically, that's probably not going to happen.

In a rare instance among opinions on this subject, I am actually going to propose workable alternatives rather than just rant. Even more unusual, my alternatives are NOT to simply build more roads. I can go into the reasons behind that in another post. busses to be specific.

One thing CATS does do well is provide express bus service. If you've ever seen one of the 77X busses coming down from Huntersville, you'll notice that most rare of sights...a FULL city bus. How many express busses could be bought for a few million dollars? A few dozen. Where could large developments be placed with easy access for express busses? Anywhere. Who would ride them if they came close enough? People like me who carpool some already.

Here's a second idea. Encourage knowledge workers and information technology workers and their employers to allow people to work from home one or two days a week. These people live in the subhurbs in houses on culdesacs because they like it. Take them completely off the road, rather than trying to control their lives by packing them into densly packed appartments they don't want, next to rail lines they don't want, and paying taxes they don't want.

Just my 2 cents worth...


Mike said...

"I think this roads plan is great idea. Why not build a bike path to run along SIDE the light rail?"

Guess what? THEY ARE. Shows just how much you know what you are talking about. If your going to be against something, atleast know about it. I guess for most of you, widening roads is the answer. Well, have you ever been to Atlanta or LA? Has it worked for them? Nope - they have the worst traffic in the country. Mass transit isn't a quick fix, it's long term. It offers an alternative, and it helps shape the way a city grows. It has nothing to do with FORCING people to live there, because people actually WANT to. Condos and apartments are selling out fast - both downtown and elsewhere. Nobody is making people buy anything and nobody can - WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?! Anyways, there is so much private money being invested along the rail line as we speak, the line isn't even open yet, and I can assure you that more projects will be announced. And did you just quote Portland and Dallas? Their rail lines have been nothing but a SUCCESS. You, and many other anti-transit people have no idea what the hell you are talking about.

Sam said...

Commuter rail will be successful in Charlotte - why? Because it is already spurring development and there are no guanrantees that it will even be built yet! Antiquity in Cornelius, Bryton in Huntersville, Eastfield Station in Charlotte, Vermillion in Huntersville, Davidson's NC73 small-area plan, the Lowe's Campus in Mt. Mourne which will eventually have 8,000 employees, is right near a planned train stop, etc etc. The line hasn't even started construction yet, and these projects are already planned out, under construction, or built. Yeah, what a FAILURE! Give me a break...

Anonymous said...

The only thing I don't like about the urban street guidelines is the shorter block lengths regardless of where the creeks are. I think any creek, perennial or otherwise, should trump the need for short block lengths. Creeks should have ped/bike crossings, but vehicle crossings should be limited and not necessary where there are creeks. Also as a bicycle commuter I need long stretches of roads without street crossings to feel safe and get up any speed. Why not have these (parkways) run along the creeks and have minimum crossings?

Anonymous said...

Regarding taxes on bikes: Do I get a refund on my vehicle taxes for the time I spend bicycling, walking or bussing around town?
That said, I am more than happy to buy a license for my bicycle as long as I know it will be spent on bike lanes and paths.

Anonymous said...

I think one of the most important aspects of the Street Design Guidelines is the change to 8' planting strips in new subdivisions which will allow a tree canopy to be created. Today the current requirement is only 4 feet which is not enough to have large maturing trees in. Part of the beauty of our older neighborhoods is the large planting strips with large oak trees forming a beautiful tree canopy. In our new neighborhoods there is no tree canopy and no space to plant trees because the 4 foot planting strips are too small. As for block spacing, wouldn't it be nice to be able to walk around the block or actually connect to some of places you want to walk to...kudos to Mary for helping to advance the Street Design Guidelines.

Anonymous said...

I am afraid the new urbanists are being led by the nose by politicos who really are not at all interested in urban renewal or community.

Lets rundown hows this works.

Q: What do politicians need to get elected and stay elected?

A: $$$

A: Support of the business community.

Many of the most prominant supporters of any poltician, regardless of party, are going to use their cash and their influence to get their guy (or girl) elected.

Guess what they want in return? Lots of taxpayer money to fund their pet projects.

The Mary Newsom's of the world might delude themselves into thinking they influence development in the inner city, but it's just more developers wanting some free handouts and favorable projects so they can cash in.

If McCrory and company did not deliver the tax breaks and incentives (reminder: develop is happening on the south blvd line because of tax policy and tax incentives, not 'because of light rail') they developers and other movers and shakers would just back some other candidate who would.

That is true at virtually all levels of politics in the 21st century.

Lastly, transit users represent a financial drain on government, whereas automobile users represent CASH FLOW to government.

There is no policitian in his right mind who favors REDUCTION in auto use. They make TONS of money off of it.

Additionally, cars FUND mass transit. So if you were even successful at removing people from cars and putting them on busses or choo-choo trains, you would eventually run uot of money because mass transit does not generate any (quite the oppostite).

My suggestion: scrap the entire CATS system, take the $100 million per year in tax subsidies it currently receives (more like $180 million in 2004), and use the money to build something we can actually use, like schools.

Only 1.7 percent of people in greater Charlotte use mass transit, wo nobody would even notice (oh, except Ron Tober might have to try to get another job earning $200K per year while running a bankrupt operation-good luck).

Anonymous said...

>>>I am more than happy to buy a license for my bicycle as long as I know it will be spent on bike lanes and paths. >>>

No no no. We will tax your bicycle and spend the money on new soccer fields for my kids out in the suburbs.

Since we currently tax BILLIONS from motor vehicle owners and spend it on every other project under the sun that has nothing to do with cars.

South Carolina has spent money on ROADS.

Miss Newsom and the rest of the urbanist barn bats need to take a stroll down Johnston Road and look at the new PRIVATE SECTOR construction being done by Citibank, HSBC, and Lending Tree to name a few.

I'll give you a guarantee: After Wachovia and BofA are done wringing every last drop of cash from McCrory, they will head south too.

As with anything, follow the money.

Anonymous said...

"If McCrory and company did not deliver the tax breaks and incentives (reminder: develop is happening on the south blvd line because of tax policy and tax incentives, not 'because of light rail') they developers and other movers and shakers would just back some other candidate who would."

What are you talking about? Thats completely FALSE. Charlotte isn't going to be a boring, small, burnecky town anymore, so get over it. I have never seen a city where so many of its citizens are against everything (other than single family homes, which create more problems, NASCAR, and church) and want the city they live in to fail...

Anonymous said...

>>>What are you talking about? Thats completely FALSE. Charlotte isn't going to be a boring, small, burnecky town anymore, so get over it...>>>

Finally we are at the root of the problem.

Its 'city envy'.

Your rhetoric tells me that you are one of those that would erect a giant fish tank or a hall of fame or whatever the fad of the year is, if you think it would make you a 'real city'.

Charlotte IS a real city, and most of us who live here GET IT already. You do not.

If you would like some insight into what is going on, watch the 'Monorail' episode of 'The Simpsons' where the town council is duped into installing a monorail.

That is what is going on here.

Your blind quest to shed the small twon redneck image at any cost has resulted in:

-Being buped into building a Bobcats arena and handing it over to a private business (who laughed all the way to the bank)

-Being duped by NASCAR into giving them tons of cash

-Being duped by the arts and sciences council for $150 million, so their CEO can earn $300K a year for running a non-profit

-Being duped by the companies who sell trains and build light rails into the south blvd line.

My biggest complaint??? How do I GET IN ON THE ACTION???

What can I tell McCrory he needs next to be 'just like New York' and get him to pi$$ away more taxpayer money.

Any ideas would be appreciated.

Anonymous said...

"Being duped by NASCAR into giving them tons of cash"

I hate NASCAR, and I think that is a waste of money. I'm all for the Arts and Science Council, the Arena (which has done nothing but good for the city), and I am pro-transit. It has nothing to do with being like NY, Chicago, etc, or comparing Charlotte to anywhere else. It's about making Charlotte a better place to live. I don't know about you, but culture, things to do, and alternatives to traffic are some of the things that equal a better place to live (I am not bringing up schools because this has nothing to do with schools. And sorry, but money for education comes from a completely different source than money for roads, transit, arenas, art museums, etc, and one cannot be used to pay for the other. When will you people understand that?) And I never said Charlotte wasn't a "real city." I was saying that it is time to move on to bigger and better things - the small town mentality doesn't work anymore.

Mary Newsom said...

Mary here: I love the spirited back-and-forth going on in the comments. For the record, I didn't make the moron comment. If I post any comments, I'll identify myself.

Rick said...

Mike and Sam,

I think you both missed my point. Or, maybe you didn't. I did notice, that like most people blinded by light rail, you didn't address the other faster more workable alternatives that I mentioned - greatly expanded express bus service or telecommuting.

First of all, I said nothing about a bike path next to the light rail. If they are going to build it, then they might as well pour a little more aspault for a bike path.

Second, all of the condos being built downtown are irrelevant as a positive arguement FOR light rail. Wouldn't you agree that most of those people probably already work downtown, and therefore will NOT be riding light rail, commuter rail, or carpooling.

Third, thanks for the Lowe's campus example. It is a prime example of the kind of poor thinking I'm talking about. There may at some point be 8000 jobs there. That's fabulous! However, unless people live within an easy walk or possibly a short bike ride of a station on the South side of Charlotte, they will most likely NOT be taking the commuter rail out to Mooresville. Why? They will be going against rushhour on I77. It will be a lot quicker to drive. Unless of course they live on the South side of Charlotte, and would have to deal with getting through town. Becauset they must live near another station, that goes to my point of "forcing" people to live places. So, again I strongly believe government WILL have to force people to live near rail to make it work. They WILL use zoning and corporate welfare incentives for developers to do this. With the Lowes example, your real potential pool of rail commuters is something considerably less than 8000 for this job site. Using the 8000 number is terribly misleading.

Anonymous said...

People are misguided in thinking light rail is driving development on south blvd.

Developers chase cheap land to develop, and favorable tax and incentive policy.

The land on south blvd has been dilapidated for some time, big time developers acquire it at a steal, then get some favorable tax policy and incentives from the city to build on it.

Any new development will certainly make some bucks for developers (good for them) but not provide anything more than some new chain stores and strip malls.

Are you going to take the light rail to Lowe's and pick up some lumber and a new frig?

Doubt it.

Light rail will serve a VERY small number of monday-friday commuters, many of whom just switch from the bus to the train (proven in every city that has put in light rail).

Baltimore calls their light rail 'the white snail' since it is so embarassingly slow.

Anonymous said...

Come on folks, Mary's article had nothing to do with light rail. The article was about the City's proposed Urban Street Design Guidelines which would improve the City's "weak" standards to create better local and thoroughfare streets. Improvements to street design issues like planting strips and creating interconnected street networks has a lot to do with improving Charlotte's quality of life for existing and future residents.

Anonymous said...

Back to street design. I suspect the same supporters of wide sidewalks on both sides of roads with planted strips are involved in the "environmental" movement to create cleaner storm water for improved water quality.

5'W sidewalk x 2 sides of a road = 10' strip of impervious concrete surface for 1 mile (5,280 lf)=52,800 sf divided by 43,560 sf per acre = 1.21 acres of concreted surface. Additional mandated imprevious area not very water quality friendly.

The lost art of the right hand knowing what the left hand is doing.

Anonymous said...

For Rick,

Demonizing and wishing harm to those of different opinions is entirely too prevelant today and is a major reason for poor government. A rational exchange of ideas seeking solutions is not possible. So not surprisingly some of the prior topics in Mary's Blog had name calling occur more frequently than presenting facts. Bloggers wishing other Bloggers harm from medical waste, among other things, in place of debate. Means I'll participate in exchanging thoughts, ideas and opinions but as Anonymous.

A lack of control in one area usually demonstrates a lack of control overall and I choose not to be a potential victim of that lack of control.

Dottie Coplon said...

I attended a meeting at the Morrison Library,about the proposed improvements and I must say, I was as amazed as Mary Newsom to hear these ambitious ideas for Charlotte neighborhoods and future development.

Imagine being able to walk without fear of being hit by cars speeding by on the road right next to the sidewalk; 8-foot planting strips where trees can grow; bike trails that are safe for riders; shorter block lengths, and just generally a more pedestrian-friendly city.

The Urban Design Guidelines should be adopted without further delay. These are the things that make a city have some class.

Anonymous said...

>>> hear these ambitious ideas for Charlotte neighborhoods and future development...

The biggest issue I have with Newsom and company is that they look at Charlotte through the lens of the 1980's.

They still call the South Park are 'South Charlotte' when south Charlotte is really Ballantyne.

There is just too much focus on the ring inside 277, and that is just not 'Charlotte' anymore.

If they continue on the track they are on, they will repeat the mistakes of virutally every other city that has gone through this.

Increased taxes, badly run schools, and oppressive government regulation will eventually drive Wachovia and BofA out into the suburbs or into Fort Mill.

New businesses will just leap frog straight there.

Oppressive anti-sprawl measures will mean average working families who want a cul de sac and 1/3 acre will just go to outlying counties.

All you will ahve left are a few ultra-rich who believe in uptown, and the masses of poor inner city folks who can't move.

It's a vicious cycle that we have already begun.

All that tax-subsidized development on south blvd or uptown (yes, much of it is tax subsidized) is only a drop in the ocean to what is going on in the outlying counties and suburbs.

Just wait until South Carolina eliminates it property tax and the mass exodus will accelerate even more.

Anonymous said...

To the person that is worried about sidewalks creating impervious surface, are you for real? Do you think a City that will have a million people by 2030 shouldn't have sidewalks on both sides of the street? How comfortable is it to take a walk around the block when there are no sidewalks? Maybe a better way to cut down on impervious surface would be to reduce the number of parking space required by 10% given that there is far more impervious surface dedicated to parking vehicles than created by having sidewalks 1' wider than they are now. How do you look at yourself in the mirror making ridiculous arguments like that...let me guess your a developer and what this is really about is you don't want to have to pay to build sidewalks. Thanks for looking out for the long term interests of City residents.

chilton said...

A couple of points. According to the 2004 American Community survey of Mecklenburg County, about 6.4% of commuters either use mass transit, walk, bicycle, etc. Increased viability and accessibility would likely increase these numbers.

As for the free marketeers, most studies indicate that gas taxes fail to pay for pavement. Should we scrap roads because they don't pay for themselves? No, they are a public good. Perhaps if the market was properly pricing gasoline (including externalities), more people would support multi-modal transportation.

Anonymous said...

To the person not worried about impervious surface. Never was it said not to look at reduction in impervious surface at any level.

What was said is that storm water has become a controlling concern for types, styles and methods of development. Don't believe it research the Phase II Storm Water issues at the Mecklenburg and now State level since Senate Bill 1210 was invalidated. Storm Water Regulations are mandating reductions in impervious surface at a time when others, such as yourself, are demanding mandates for additional, significant, impervious surfaces from things such as side walks and also from higher density developments typically labelled New Urbanism.

I never made a value judgement as to whether the side walks were good or bad. I never made a value judgement as to whether Stormwater Control as advocated was good or bad for "water quality". I simply expressed concern over the dichotomy, incompatibility and direct opposite direction of the mandates.

As for being a Developer who won't pay for sidewalks that is irrelevant. No Developer pays for sidewalks as you mean. Economics 101 says that increased costs of manufacturers and suppliers are passed on to consumers through higher prices.

Economics 102 -in the short term if a Developer makes 10% over his costs then he makes more money from increased costs. 10% of $150.00 is more than 10% of $100.00. But as sales prices rise the market size shrinks. More people have $100.00 than $150.00 so long term rising prices and shrinking market size is detrimental.

We, the buyers and renters are the ultimate "payers" of these mandated costs. Therefore we all must be informed, make sure the right and left hand of regulations and mandates work together so we not someone else make the value (price+quality+benefits=value)judgements.

Anonymous said...

Some corrections to some bad info here:

1) Cars pay for the road (bureau of transportation statistics, Feb 2005) to the tune of a $2 surplus per 1,000 miles traveled.

2) Passenger 'rail' is THE most burdensome form of transit on government, consuming $118 per 1,000 miles traveled (same source).

I love the 'sidewalks' crowd claiming that wider sidewalks will somehow reduce traffic congestion.

I think sidewalks are great, for a weekend stroll around the block with the kids. Not even a relevant topic when discussing the work commute.

Charlotte desparately needs wider, faster, longer roads with some dang TURN LANES.

You uptowners don't make any sense. You want people to come to uptown and spend money, but also want to make it as difficult as possible for them to get there.

There are no cities that have thrived without a co-existence between suburb and urban. The uptowners have such a chip on their shoulder with the 'burbs that result in just alienating the people out there into not caring what happens in uptown.

The bottom line is that as a matter of pragmatism, there is nothing at all special about uptown, and if you purposefully make it hard to access, nobody will go there.

I work uptown and often visit on weekends. The difference is staggering. Lots of 8-5, Mon-Friday, but it's a ghost town on the weekends until dinner time.

If you want uptown to succeed, you should find ways to embrace the suburbs, not wage war with them.

There are plenty of options in the suburbs, and so vacant land it would make your head spin.