Charlotte demands better-connected streets

Charlotte, North Carolina, popula- tion 580,000, is one American city that is shifting toward a new urbanist framework for streets and roads. “Transportation choices is one of five focus areas for the City Council,” Danny Pleasant, deputy director of the Charlotte Department of Transportation, told the CNU Transportation Task Force in November. “City Council,” he reported, “has bought into connectivity — more streets; also bike and pedestrian connections.” The shift can be traced partly to awareness that traffic congestion is less evident in the denser, pre-World War II segment of the 258-square-mile city than in its more sparsely connected postwar areas. In the postwar sections, “you have to travel on major thoroughfares,” observed Norman Steinman, manager of the city’s transportation planning division. “Transportation adequacy” is becoming a major issue, Steinman said. Residents of the rapidly growing metropolis are concerned, he said, about “how to accommodate the next half-million people.” He noted that by the end of 2006, the city hopes to receive funds for a new light-rail transit line authorized by the voters. The city intends to have denser networks of streets and blocks around the rail stations, and expects to calculate “connectivity scores” for the station areas. Charlotte has come around to a philosophy that “the safety, convenience, and comfort of cyclists, pedestrians, transit users, motorists, and the surrounding community will all be considered equally when planning and designing streets,” according to a paper prepared last July by Steinman, Tracy Newsome of Charlotte DOT, and transportation analyst Reid Ewing. The city has adopted methods that call for “stakeholder involvement” in the design of streets. The city’s street design guidelines recommend the length of block for each of five street types: parkways, boulevards, avenues, main streets, and local streets. Main street blocks, for example, are not to exceed 400 feet. Local residential streets should have blocks 400 to 600 feet long. In 1995, the city again began requiring sidewalks. However, existing cul-de-sacs are being connected to a grid “very slowly,” according to Steinman, ”Folks are pretty scared of connecting up,” Pleasant agreed. “The middle part of the city will be difficult to connect again.” Nonetheless, Pleasant expressed optimism about the direction the city is taking. Of his own department, he said, “We’re transitioning to be more of a smart-growth organization.”
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