If You Build It, They Will Come
And they’ll want an easier way to get around
Charlotte is facing a sea change in how people like to get around, and that is bringing accommodations to the city's landscape to make it easier to get out of your car for trips through town.
"This new generation wants to play by walking or biking, and not take a car," says Vivian Coleman, a Transportation Planning Program Manager for the city of Charlotte DOT, in the Charlotte Real Estate Talk podcast with Scott Pridemore and Mike Hege. She points to the surge in popularity of dockless bikes and scooters making their way around town, Rail Trail along the Lynx tracks in South End, and explosion of apartments along light rail lines as proof.
Coleman says younger workers -- the "Millennials" we hear so much about -- are moving to Charlotte because of the climate, the economy, and job opportunities. In a chicken-or-egg circle of city planning, it means Millennials follow the public transportation infrastructure when choosing where and how to live -- without cars -- and then the city follows up by adding more infrastructure to accommodate the communities they've chosen. More often, that means more attention to transportation options besides roads.
A great example of that? The Lynx light rail in South End, which has spurred growth and development to a once-blighted industrial area of post-war factories. Developers built apartments and neighborhoods, businesses opened up, breweries moved in and made the area "cool," and now more amenities like greenways and traffic adjustments are being made to accommodate the growth. A "circle of life" for city planning, so to speak, but with less emphasis on cars than ever before.
"We're definitely seeing that. Rail Trail in South End is the model," says Coleman, about the walkway that connects South End and Lower South End (LoSo) neighborhoods along the light rail line. "Millennials are taking advantage of that." Coleman says that kind of high-density living just outside the urban core even has a new name: "Surban," for its mix of urban features that aren't in the city, but not like the suburbs, either.
And transportation planning follows these growing areas that pop up because of... transportation projects. The same thing is beginning to happen along the Lynx Blue Line Extension north of Uptown, in neighborhoods like NoDa and University City. City planning, and the money for it, follows the growth. More than ever since the 1940’s, the planning and the money is diversified to include transportation options other than car travel.
A new bond will call for $75 million of transportation improvements in Charlotte, and $4 million of that will be for bike and pedestrian passages. Think sidewalks, greenways, and safer bike lanes -- amenities that are scoring as top priorities in survey after survey given to residents, says Coleman. Those options, when coupled with better public transportation like light rail and commuter rails to outlying cities in the region, give residents more options that allow them to leave their cars at home and enjoy shorter commutes.
"It's about building an inclusive community, so that transportation choices are available for everyone," says Coleman. City planners look at other cities to get ideas, too. The Atlanta Beltline has revolutionized that sprawling city's growth and recreation, says Coleman, adding millions of dollars of economic impact as people build businesses and homes along the converted former rail line.
That brings us back to those greenways around Charlotte, says Coleman. There is "overwhelming support to build trails, faster," she says. Mecklenburg County is lagging far behind its own plans to build them, but they are getting renewed attention. The city of Charlotte is pitching in for some areas that are part of the Cross-Charlotte Trail, known in shorthand as XCLT. That path for bikes and pedestrians -- from University City through uptown and down to Pineville -- is part of the larger Carolina Thread Trail that weaves through 15 counties in the region.
The connectivity is a vision that makes Coleman, a landscape architect by training, smile. With dozens of people a day moving to Charlotte and the surrounding area, the infrastructure needs to keep up, she says. Greenways and other bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly roads and paths accommodate the growth.
"It's not just a place for visitors to go, but great amenity for our residents," she says.