Life in a sprawled-out city built for cars means I have to drive to get to Charlotte’s next Open Streets 704 festival, whose goal is to encourage people to drive less and walk and bike more.
The popular and free Open Streets 704 events are twice yearly, spotlighting how city streets can be much more than conduits for cars. The next one is 1-5 p.m. April 28 in the NoDa, Optimist Park, Villa Heights, Belmont and Plaza Midwood neighborhoods.
About 4 miles of city streets will be closed to auto traffic to let people on foot, bicycles, wheelchairs, skates and who knows what else take over the pavement. Loaner bikes will be available for free from the bike-share company B-Cycle. Along the route, you’ll find music, art, yoga, cooking demonstrations and kids’ activities.
Open streets events take place all over the U.S. and the world. The first big-time one, Ciclovía de Bogotá, started in 1974 in Colombia and has grown to 75 miles of streets on Sundays and holidays.
Charlotte’s not quite there yet. We’re a big place with big needs, and retrofitting is expensive. A 2015 assessment by the Charlotte Department of Transportation found that 50% of the city’s thoroughfares and smaller streets still lack sidewalks.
The city is slowly improving things for bicycling and walking, averaging 14 miles of new sidewalks annually since 2014. From 2008 until 2018, the city painted 40 miles of bike lanes, and CDOT got $4 million in this year’s budget to support its bike program.
Sidewalks matter, but so do other things
One misconception about walkability is that it’s only about sidewalks. Sure, they’re important, but you have to incorporate somewhere worth walking to (land use). And safety (pedestrian crossings, slower traffic speeds). And some measure of comfort (shade, buffers from traffic).
Given all that, walkability isn’t easy to measure. One widely accepted metric is Walk Score®. It uses a patented method — notice that ®? — and assesses proximity to amenities like stores. It also assesses attributes that make an area more walkable, such as population density, block length and frequent intersections. (It doesn’t measure pedestrian amenities including sidewalks or crossings.) Then it rates areas from 0 to 100: 90-100 is a “walker’s paradise,” down to 0-25 as “car-dependent.” There’s also a Bike Score and a Transit Score.
Among the 141 U.S. cities of 200,000 or more that were rated, the average is 49. Charlotte? We rate 25.9.
How do our Open Streets neighborhoods rate?
Probably not coincidentally, Open Streets 704 takes place in some of Charlotte’s most walkable neighborhoods outside of Uptown. A quick look at the Walk Score® for this year’s Open Streets neighborhoods shows:
- Thomas Street in Plaza Midwood: 71.
- Belmont Street in the Belmont neighborhood: 60.
- North Davidson Street in Optimist Park: 37. (That may change when the Optimist Hall food hall opens nearby off of Parkwood Avenue.)
- NoDa: 68.
How do other Charlotte neighborhoods rate?
Some neighborhoods more typical of Charlotte’s 20th-century development patterns:
- My house, between Cotswold and SouthPark: 10. (“Almost all errands require a car.”)
- Aldersgate, a retirement community on Shamrock Drive in east Charlotte: 21.
- Vernedale Road near Eastland in east Charlotte: 9.
- Off Sharon View, near Olde Providence Tennis Club: 1.
- Reid Park Academy on West Tyvola Road: 17.
- Two sites in University City between Prosperity Church and David Cox roads: 2 and 17.
As you make your way along the Open Streets festival route, whether you’re pedaling, marching, sashaying, cartwheeling, rolling or just strolling, remember that Open Streets organizers want to encourage residents, voters and taxpayers to support walkability and biking in the Queen City. To open Charlotte streets to more than just cars will cost more than a few public dollars. Voters’ voices to elected officials can make a difference.
So maybe in a few years, fewer of us will have to drive to the festival that wants to get us out of our cars.