Charlotte is way behind on mass transit and walkability. Here’s what we can learn from Denver and other big cities

Bike lines in Ottawa

This is the first of a two-part series on what Charlotte could learn from similar cities to address variety of issues facing the city. Today’s article focuses on transit, biking infrastructure and the pedestrian experience. The second article will focus on issues of culture, urban green spaces and affordable housing.  

Charlotte is a city on the rise. If you are a fan of internet “listicles,” it would seem Charlotte is becoming one of the country’s leading cities. Most of these lists center solely around the growth of the magical age group known as “millennials.”

There’s much more to becoming a leading urban center than attracting young affluent people. While Charlotte grows there are tons of characteristics in which the city continues to lag behind its peers. The population keeps exploding but certain items, like transit, bike infrastructure and the pedestrian experience haven’t kept up.

When it comes to these topics, the city could learn a thing or two from other cities. Here are three approaches Charlotte could learn from other cities that have successfully addressed transit, biking and pedestrian issues currently facing Charlotte.

Improving transit using Denver’s FasTracks initiative as inspiration

When it originally opened in 2007, the LYNX Blue Line was a pioneering project for a city Charlotte’s size. In the 10 years since, other peer cities took note, built up their own transit networks and began to surpass Charlotte.

In March, Charlotte will open the extension of its sole light rail line. When it opens, the Blue Line Extension will add 9.8 miles, bringing the total distance of the light rail to over 19 miles. The line will reach out toward University City, linking two of the most robust employment centers in the city, along with NoDa and a half dozen other growing Charlotte neighborhoods.

Charlotte’s only other rail line is the City LYNX Gold Line Streetcar. While it currently feels like a novelty or tourist attraction, its next addition will bring the total length up to four miles, add an additional 11 stops on the West and East sides and introduce a new rolling stock of modern streetcars. Phase Three will add an additional six miles, but in my opinion, should not be a transit priority, as 10 miles is an uncomfortably long streetcar line. Charlotte’s bus infrastructure is fairly robust, but works on a wheel and spoke system that needs help, and buses have a built-in stigma, as compared to fixed rail.

Currently, only three of Charlotte’s largest employment centers, Uptown, University City and Novant Health’s Presbyterian campus, are linked by fixed rail transit. There needs to be a less drawn out plan to fund the connection of Ballantyne, SouthPark, the airport, the future River District, the Lake Norman area and Matthews.

The Charlotte metro is expected to grow to over three million people in the next 12 years, and the city needs to start building out its transit infrastructure today, not multiple years from now.

The best example of buckling down and building out a robust transit system in a short time is Denver and its FasTracks initiative. Beginning with a referendum in 2004, the city voted to take on $4.7 billion in debt and intended to build 121 miles of new commuter and light-rail tracks, 18 miles of bus rapid transit lanes, 57 new rapid transit stations, 21,000 park-and-ride spots and agreed to turn Denver Union Station into a world class intermodal facility.

Union Station in Denver

The FasTracks program was funded by a 0.4 percent (four pennies on every $10) sales tax increase, federal new starts funding and public-private partnership. In the end, the project ballooned to nearly $8 billion because of material cost increases and a major dip in sales tax caused by the 2008 downturn.

It seems like a huge price tag, but I think if you establish special tax districts adjacent to the future and current train lines, you can utilize value capture and tax incremental financing to help fund and maintain future transit options. These methods would slightly raise property taxes for the developers and residents with the closest access to future or current transit. Maybe not the easiest thing for Charlotteans to stomach, but necessary for a city expected to grow by over one million people by 2040.

Improve bike infrastructure using Ottawa as inspiration.

It’s no secret, Charlotte is a beautiful city with tons of nature, great weather and a lush tree canopy. Most months, it’s a great place to be outdoors and there’s a rapidly growing bike community. Thanks to the development of greenways, the rail trail, road diets and the roll out of more bike lanes, Charlotte is starting to become an easier place to ride your bike. Unfortunately, it’s still rather perilous and tons of places are inadequately connected.

To combat safety issues, Charlotte has finally started testing separated bike lanes in Uptown and there is an ongoing effort by the city and Center City Partners to drastically improve bike infrastructure, as can be seen with the Charlotte Connects initiative.

What Charlotte needs to improve the most is perception of urban biking. Most Charlotteans, especially those on four wheels, seem to treat bike commuting as a farce, a trend, a phase. Seeing the orange and lime bikes littering every surface of every corner of Uptown, Plaza Midwood and South End is a running joke that does nothing but mar the perception of biking in Charlotte.

When Ottawa, the national capital of Canada, set out to change the perception of biking, it had an issue Charlotte will probably never face, more than seven feet of snow a year. Ottawa Bike Lanes Project, a non-profit founded by a couple with a videography and social media background, utilized witty and informative public videos to combat the issues. In a CityLab article about Ottawa getting over the winter troubles the couple said, “Creating a positive message around cycling is a really important component to not only getting people onto bicycles, but also in promoting infrastructure.”

Bike lines in Ottawa

Charlotte must utilize creative ideas to promote the environmental and health benefits of urban biking, and change people’s perception.

Improving the pedestrian experience using Columbus, Ohio as an example.

In 1994, Charlotte hosted one of its first ever marquee national events, the NCAA Final Four. Uptown was so office-park-like, so devoid of energy, so dead after hours, that the city staged a four block “Street of Champions” using abandoned buildings and open parking lots to manufacture a vibe the city just didn’t have.

Nearly 25 years later, Uptown is finally on the cusp of becoming an 18-hour destination (people have to sleep at some point), instead of the eight-hour destination it once was. Pockets of unprecedented activity are popping up along Camden in South End and South Tryon in Uptown. These nodes aren’t all that far apart and there needs to be an initiative to connect everything together.

You could easily string together a cohesive multidistrict walk called perhaps “Queen Charlotte’s Mile,” starting from the reimagined Atherton Mill, turning onto Camden, before heading onto South Tryon and eventually ending north of uptown in Optimist Park. Along this newly branded corridor, street front retail would be required and developers would be encouraged to recruit a mix of restaurants and retailers. Charlotte has big dreams for retail, but the plans I’ve seen lack cohesion – retailers rely on each other to be successful.

Queen Charlotte’s Mile map

On the South End side, you already have the aforementioned Atherton Project, Asana’s Design Center redo and the rest of its assets, dubbed “the Design District,” Cousins’ new tower on Camden for DFA, Beacon’s Railyard project, a number of adaptive reuses and an Alliance Residential proposed apartment building with street level retail. In Uptown, there is already Lincoln Harris’ Legacy Union and Crescent’s Ally Center, both adding large amounts of street level retail and activated open spaces. Crescent’s project, in particular, adds an element of “placemaking” that will be unparalleled in Charlotte. From there, it’s just about linking the districts to one another in a cohesive manner.

One place Charlotte should look to for inspiration is Columbus, Ohio’s High Five. This area has a huge student population, unlike Charlotte‘s Center City, and should be followed when it comes to properly linking communities together.

The Cap at Union Station in Columbus connects the downtown area with Short North, the city’s arts and entertainment district.

High Five linked Columbus’ five most distinct districts, University District, Short North, Arena District, Downtown and German Village, along its common connector, High Street. Columbus even overcame a sunken highway added in the 1950s by capping over it with 26,000 square feet of retail flanking High Street. They instantly linked together two neighborhoods that were torn apart in the name of moving people quickly to the suburbs. The project only cost $10 million and the interstate’s impact on the area was thoroughly mitigated.

Photos: Diedra Laird, Clayton Sealey, Som Architecture, Bike City, Great City, Charlotte Observer file, Columbus Underground


  1. I hate to burst anyone’s bubble but similar debates have been occurring since I came here almost twenty years ago. A major difference is that Charlotte rubber stamps everything that developers want. A group of us even went to a city council meeting about 15 years ago to plead that some remaining land be set aside for parks etc. Our pleas were dismissed of course. Now Charlotte is facing stiff competition from other cities for corporations such as Amazon. WE CANNOT COMPETE REGARDING CERTAIN QUALITY OF LIFE ELEMENTS SUCH AS A GOOD PARKS SYSTEM, RECREATIONAL TRAILS, WALKABLE STREETS, and SAFE BIKING LANES/TRAILS network.

  2. I agree JJM. Charlotte does not have a vision of what it wants to be. 40 years ago, Indianapolis started on a process of wanting to be the Amateur Sports Capital of the World. Using that game plan, it is now working on being the technology and bio-science capital of the Midwest, which is part of the reason they are on Amazon’s shortlist. Indianapolis also has sidewalk, parks, mass transportation and bicycle lane issues, however there is a plan in place to start addressing these issues or has been addressing these issues for the last 10 years.

  3. Oh JJM, get with the program. Charlotte is the crown jewel of this great nation. It has nothing to learn from “how they do things up north or west for that matter”. Other cities should learn from Charlotte. Bicycles and walking and what not are for secular liberals, poor folks and not what jeebus would want. Why he would want you to drive an Audi from Charlotte Audi because the fake voice who voiced God says so.

    Seriously, I was born here, lived elsewhere that is a favorite to land HQ2 and they do get all these things largely right and came back last year. It took little time to see the glaring issues and a little more time to understand Charlotte either does not want to get it or is intellectually incapable of getting it regarding quality of life beyond making sure there is a bland, beige apartment complex for us all… and plentiful fee/cheap parking for your family cars.

    Regarding bike infrastructure, both my city of residence at the time and Charlotte both put out a future plan report for x miles of bike infrastructure and to be named the best Bicycle City in the nation by 2016. My city of residence added several hundred miles of state of the art bike infrastructure and was named best Bicycle City in the nation in a biking listicle. Meanwhile, Charlotte has laughably few bike lanes and is spending 2 years to “study” which street should have a bike lane in uptown Charlotte. I went to one City Council meeting and laughed at what exactly they were studying – bike lanes are functional and have been for years in many cities. Just pick a street and build the darn thing.

    Oh and the Blue Line was not a “pioneering project” in 2007. Salt Lake City had a superior light rail transportation network in operation in 2002 just to name one.

    Charlotte is just a Baby Atlanta that will continue to develop like the 1980’s and never get it.

  4. Road expansion also needs to be considered. Park Rd. Is a nightmare, and if businesses keep building right off the road, there’s no way to expand the road to accommodate the increased amount of traffic. I fear we’re on the path to becoming like Seattle in terms of neighborhood streets becoming “main” roads, and horrific bottlenecking because the city didn’t plan properly for the amount of growth.


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