Can Charlotte overcome its love of roads?

The following was published in the Charlotte Observer on April 18, 2015:

BY ELY PORTILLO

“Walkability” and “mixed use” are hot buzzwords right now in development, as urban planners look to cut down on sprawl, long commutes and the big roadways that dominate much of suburbia.

But in a city like Charlotte that loves its cars, is overcoming “Big Asphalt” – the term some urban planners are using for the sprawl mindset – a realistic goal?

At a forum in Charlotte this week, a dozen architects, engineers and urban design students decried Big Asphalt and called for a return to smaller, more manageable streets that embrace pedestrians and bikes as much as minivans and SUVs.

Their goals sounded admirable and even common-sense. Who doesn’t like a place where you can walk around instead of sit in traffic?

Then, one woman voiced the biggest obstacle to reaching the goal of less sprawl and parking lot-dominated landscapes – a bigger obstacle than the expense of retrofitting existing streets or building more public transit, in my opinion.

“I hate big surface parking lots – except when I need to park my car,” said the audience member, speaking at Charlotte’s monthly Civic by Design forum.

Despite some of the steps Charlotte has taken toward a “little asphalt” mindset – think reducing the number of East Boulevard lanes, the streetcar, the Blue Line extension and more bike lanes – this remains largely a car town.

Many of the big-ticket projects people want in our community are roads.

When big rezonings such as the Waverly and Golf Links mixed-use developments on Providence Road come up, neighbors raise traffic concerns and developers respond by agreeing to widen roads and add lanes. Independence Boulevard is being widened, and Interstate 485 is almost complete, looping the city after more than 25 years of construction.

And the recent uproar over an unused extra lane on I-485, which planners decided earlier this month not to open until it can be used as a toll lane in several years, shows there is plenty of appetite for more asphalt.

But that hasn’t stopped people like those at the Civic by Design forum from hoping for less sprawl. Their ideas would be a radical re-envisioning of American cities.

More roads aren’t the solution to traffic and sprawl, they say. More roads are the cause.

“It’s the extent to which we’ve laid asphalt that’s the problem,” said Robert Steuteville, with Better Cities & Towns, who joined the meeting by Skype from Ithaca, N.Y. “It’s not just a product of sprawl, it’s a creator of sprawl.”

They know that it won’t be easy selling a New South boomtown like Charlotte on actually shrinking roads. (Ever hear anyone say “I wish Providence Road were smaller”?) But they have several points they hope will make an impression on the community and transportation planners:

▪ Less sprawl could attract more companies and boost the local economy: This argument hinges in part on millennials, who, the reasoning goes, want to live in less sprawled-out locations where they can walk, bike or take public transit to work. That means companies that want to relocate will seek out more urban, less traffic-choked cities so they can attract top talent in the coming years.

▪ Sprawl is bad for the environment, they point out: According to UNC Charlotte’s Keeping Watch program on water quality, a quarter of the land in Mecklenburg is covered by impervious surfaces. Much of that is our roads. That leads to an estimated 2.4 billion gallons of water runoff for every inch of rainfall, washing sediment and pollution into our waterways. And that’s in addition to the air pollution driving generates.

▪ Creating tightly connected grids of smaller roads, akin to the layout of older cities such as Charleston and Boston, can actually reduce traffic, Steuteville said. That seems counterintuitive, because the solution to congested roads would seem to be adding more road capacity. But, Steuteville and other “little asphalt” advocates argue, bigger roads attract more cars, and congestion builds again. Instead of giving cars one or two major arterial paths everyone is obliged to take, providing a wider array of smaller paths would disperse traffic, they say. Imagine the difference between an overflowing storm drain where all rain is funneled to vs. the trickle of water naturally sinking into the ground.

While many of the ideas at the Civic by Design forum sounded good, they also gave me pause. I have family in southeast Charlotte, a 30-minute drive from where I live, and if widening Independence Boulevard would cut that time even five minutes, well, that sounds pretty attractive to me – even if it’s not a long-term solution to sprawl.

I suspect plenty of other Charlotteans share that sentiment. And in a city without many alternatives to get around besides a car, convincing people that smaller roads are better could be a tall order.

But Tom Low, a member of the Charlotte Planning Commission and director of the Civic by Design forums, sees plenty of opportunities to make Charlotte’s streets more appealing to people and less sprawl-prone. Many of the newest mixed-use projects already go a step in that direction, locating people’s homes near offices and shops instead of in far-flung suburbs.

And with just a little planning, Low said even traffic-snarled thoroughfares such as Beatties Ford Road and Central Avenue could be transformed to look more like Queens Road, with wide, grass- and tree-filled medians.

Said Low: “It’s that kind of dreaming we need to keep pushing forward.”