Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Walkable rating - We're not last!, a cool site I plugged a year ago, looked at 2,508 neighborhoods in 40 cities. Charlotte didn't do too well. That's a euphemism. Charlotte was in the basement: No. 38 out of 40. (Cherry, Fourth Ward and Downtown Charlotte were rated our most walkable neighborhoods.)

The site measures walkability with a walkability checklist which assesses stuff such as whether a neighborhood has a discernible center, mixed-use development, sidewalks, traffic that doesn't go too fast, narrow streets (calmer traffic), parks and public spaces, etc. The software used for measuring is based on Google maps, U.S. Census data, Zillow neighborhood boundaries and Yellow Page information, and it assigns values to locations such as schools, workplaces, supermarkets, parks and public spaces based on how near they are to an address. (Based on some comments I saw elsewhere, the software has some glitches.)

USA Today had a piece
on the list, noting the bottom three: Charlotte, Nashville and Jacksonville, and the Huffington Post had a short blurb on the Bottom 10 as well.

Why is Charlotte so un-walkable? It's hard to find just one villain; there are several. The part of the city built before World War II (as in Cherry, Fourth Ward, and downtown) is much more pedestrian-friendly. After WWII, traffic engineers and planners embraced some theories, based on the ideals of Modernist architects such as Le Corbusier, that have proven to be ill-suited for urban life. The federal government was in thrall to the automakers and began subsidizing auto travel with vast new highways while shrinking subsidies and passing laws that hurt rail transportation.

Single-use zoning was considered modern and progressive -- yet another reason not to let yourself be blinded by an idea just because it's labeled "progressive." The traffic engineering profession promoted neighborhood layouts that didn't have connecting streets.

In addition, elected leaders in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County rarely did anything that developers didn't like, such as require sidewalks to be built or require subdivisions with lots of connecting streets, or require subdivisions to connect to the subdivision next door. Neighborhood activists fought street connections -- witness the silly closure of East Kingston in Dilworth. After all, if you live on a street that doesn't connect you understandably prefer the lack of traffic to what you'd have with through streets. Private comfort for a few trumped street networks that would have benefited the greater community.

The city's transportation department in recent years has pushed admirably for more pedestrian amenities, and it's making progress, although the rate is slow. Retrofitting the mistakes of 50 years will take money and time -- lots of it.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

After WWII, traffic engineers and planners embraced some theories, based on the ideals of Modernist architects such as Le Corbusier, that have proven to be ill-suited for urban life.

Right, let's blame it all on the Swiss. Or perhaps we can blame it on the French for inventing the steel-belted radial tire, which makes fast automotive traffic much cheaper, easier, and safer.

What you seem to forget, or maybe you're just blowing it off, is that automobiles and road networks have made a huge contribution to the ability of American cities to grow. Cars make moving from point A to point B much faster than was previously possible, so you can spread out and more people can move in and live in new houses that you build. Spreading out means that people can have more choice in where they live. They can have bigger lots, and bigger homes. And they can have total flexibility in where they work and shop. This has worked well in the past for cities like Charlotte, which lack any natural physical barriers which might force them to densify.

Of course, it is still possible for us to have sidewalks and walking paths for those who want to walk from place to place. I don't recall seeing anyone advocating that walking is a bad idea.

But it seems to me that you would be happier living in an anthill or a beehive like New York City or Tokyo, where people are jammed together like sardines. Charlotte will never be New York City, or Tokyo, or London, no matter how much money you throw at the "problem" of our fair city being spread out.

~ LMA said...

Anon: It would be nice, though, if we could walk to the market, etc. in our own sections of our "fair, spread-out" city without worrying about being turned into a grease spot because there's no sidewalk for us to walk on. That doesn't count the fact that to cross most of Charlotte's major thoroughfares on foot -- at virtually any time of day -- is tantamount to a suicide mission.

Jim said...

I live one mile from HT, several restaurants, Target, and a movie theater. Between my subdivision and the market, there is about 100 feet of sidewalk, and a crossing of 485 with no room for walking. The city says there are NO plans to put in a side-walk.

Anonymous said...

Jim and others,

You should move to a different neighborhood! You can't possibly think that the taxpayers have a duty to provide you with sidewalks and whatnot AFTER YOU BOUGHT THE HOUSE! Did you not look at the neighborhood or think about that when you signed the contract or accepted the conveyance of the deed? Caveat Emptor! The wonderful thing about this country is that you have freedom to move wherever you wish as long as you can afford it. The nice thing about this city is that almost anything you want is available.

Anonymous said...

You should move to a different neighborhood! You can't possibly think that the taxpayers have a duty to provide you with sidewalks and whatnot AFTER YOU BOUGHT THE HOUSE!

It is the job of city government to ensure that the community has adequate infrastructure for all our needs. Just as the city should be expected to add a lane to a congested road, it should be expected to add a sidewalk where there should be one -- that's what we pay them for and it's why we have taxes to fund sidewalk construction.

The fact that Charlotte is being panned in national newspapers should send a signal that these issues are more than local. Everyone who picked up a USA Today now thinks of Charlotte as a place that can't keep its own house.

Anonymous said...

^^^^Which is interesting, given that people in the rest of the country can't keep their houses AT ALL, which has unfortunately been much to our detriment from a financial standpoint.

Anonymous said...

Anon 8:25, I agree. The government is subject to whatever whims we come up with, whenever we come up with them. I don't need to mention that there should be no increase in taxes to cover these projects.

The fact that some of these areas survived without sidewalks for years and decades is beside the point. If USA Today says we need something, then who can argue? The fact that I decided to buy a house in the middle of a suburban sprawl, with no pedestrian access is everyone's fault but mine, and they should stop what they're doing and fix it this second.

Anonymous said...

On the contrary, almost every city I have visited is better than Charlotte at maintaining proper infrastructure. Even in cities like Chicago, where the facilities can be incredibly dirty and outdated, there is at least an acknowledgement that little things like public transit and building codes DO matter.

In Charlotte, there is a strange mentality to defend even the most flagrant shortcomings, as if people WANT city government to fail to do their job.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

look we either have rails to trails or light rail will be fine ; At this point Id do a golf cart down a path to work all the way downtown.

Anonymous said...

On the contrary, almost every city I have visited is better than Charlotte at maintaining proper infrastructure.

Infrastructure isn't sexy. And usually it is not shiny. Politicians nowadays want their names to be associated with sexy, shiny things like light rail lines and arenas and NASCAR Halls of Fame. They don't want to be associated with boring, drab things like good roads and sturdy water mains and street lights that actually work.

Our local politicians just take the above to an illogical extreme. Since they obviously have no intention of changing their behavior and continue acting like a college freshman who was given a credit card "for emergency use only", the only solution is to vote the bums out of office in November. And that includes pols of both parties who don't get the difference between wants and needs.

Anonymous said...

I understand that Charlotte has a program to retrofit sidewalks to the 1960s neghborhoods between uptown and the city limits. You put your 'hood's name on a list.

Problem is, it takes three years from time of approval to actual completion. That seems way out of line.

Surely there must be a way for local officials to escalate that program.

Anonymous said...

Somehow I get the idea Charlotte is emphasizing walking on greenways over walking on sidewalks.

Does that mean you get into your car and drive to a greenway and park to walk? Seems like a strange way to promote walkability, because few of the areas where the current greenway work is focused have connecting sidewalks through those neighborhoods.

Anonymous said...

Dilworth is another very walkable neigborhood--there is no need to own a car, with easy walking access to Doctors, dentists, attorneys,2 grocery stores,a vet, 40+ restaurants,small boutiques,dry cleaners, wine shop, banks, parks, coffee shops, sporting good stores,etc. There is also good public transit-3 bus lines--for when you need to go further away. Though not perfect (what is?) walkscore gives an excellent indication of a neighborhood's walkability and we used it recently to help find an apartment in Dallas, TX, which amazingly had more neighborhoods with higher walk scores than in Charlotte.

Tom said...

I think part of the problem is that, outside a few central neighborhoods, Charlotte is SO suburban by nature that it's hard to find an efficient role for sidewalks.

For instance, the east side of the city desperately needs more sidewalks -- on a daily basis you can see women rolling strollers in traffic, old men trying to get a wheelchair through knee-high grass, or children riding bikes on a 4-lane highway. Even bus stops are located in spots without sidewalks or benches, making it that much tougher on those who rely on public transit. It's appalling if you really open your eyes to the day-to-day misery these people have to deal with.

But the problem is that almost every neighborhood on the east side was designed to be an auto-oriented suburb. Very few streets have a mixture of homes and businesses. Residential areas sometimes stretch a mile or more away from the nearest business or bus stop. And of course there's the problem of spacing, with houses on 1/2 acre lots and businesses surrounded by parking-lot prairies.

So what's the city to do? You can't really build walking spaces efficiently, and all things considered there are bigger problems on the agenda (more police would be a great start). It seems like a problem without a ready solution... perhaps a warning to those who still support the unmitigated sprawl of University City.

Ray said...

I agree, Tom.

Simply putting in more sidewalks doesn't make a community more walkable (although it helps). Walkablility has to do with the design and density of a neighborhood. You can have all the sidewalks you want, but if your house is 2 miles from the nearest grocery store/coffee shop/bookstore, chances are that the average Charlottean will hop in his/her car rather than walk for 30 mins each way.

The real question is, where do we go from here? Do we continue to increase our dependence on oil by continuing to spread out, or do we focus on recreating our city in a way that allows for additional modes of transportation (public transportation, walking, biking, etc.) Clearly, there's no easy, short-term solution; it's a question of what we want this city to look like in 20-30 years...

Tom said...


Suggestion for your next blog topic: Is it possible to "retrofit" a suburb, particularly the middle-ring suburbs that are struggling, to be more connected and urban? Can a 60s-style neighborhood be made to behave like a 30s-style neighborhood?

Anonymous said...

I used to live in Texas, in a town which had no sidewalks at all in some areas. It was sad. The idea of "going for a walk" was literally a non-starter. I now live in an area in Charlotte that has no sidewalks. There is a greenway I can walk on, and also actually get somewhere on, so that's nice.

Anonymous said...

"The fact that some of these areas survived without sidewalks for years and decades is beside the point."

Wow this blog did not bring out the brightest did it. Those area that most of these people are speaking about around 485 were farm and dairy land years and decades ago so the cows did not need the sidwalks. I am not one to advocate the gov't providing everything for us, but now that the city has approved roads and subdivisions it is irresponsible to not build the new areas and make them walkable.

James said...

A couple of thoughts:

1) For a neighborhood to be walkable, you have to have something to walk to. This includes having mixed-use developments and restaurants, shops, and residential close to one another. Think Southend and No-Da over the last few years.

2) Pedestrian bridges at key intersections. For those of us who don't want to play live-action Frogger.

3) Continue with the plans for expanding the greenways.

4) Multi-modal transportation. Like to walk, bike, and use transit, often all on the same trip. We need to focus on increasing walkability around transit stations. Example; Mallard Creek Rd. between WT Harris and Sugar Creek has several dangers spots for pedestrians. If we increase the walkability on this road, we can increase the ease of walking to the future Derita North Line station.

sexy said...