Friday, August 21, 2015

What in the world is wrong with North College Street?

Street view, from Google Maps, of North College at Eighth Street, which tops the city's high-accident list
This year's list of high-accident intersections in Charlotte is up, and guess what. Once again one-way streets uptown are atop the list. Here's the Charlotte Observer's article. Notice, in the photo, the pedestrian ambiance (or lack thereof) along North College Street at Eighth Street, the No. 1 high-accident intersection.

See complete 2015 list as well as previous years. Note: it's computer-generated and factors in the amount of traffic as well as the number and severity of accidents.

My observation this year is the same as two years ago, when I wrote about this report: One-way streets in and near uptown dominate the list. Is that a reason to switch more to two-way streets?

But Charlotte Department of Transportation officials disagreed with my thinking. Engineer Debbie Self, in charge of CDOT's traffic and pedestrian safety programs, pointed out in 2013 that of the 150 intersections in uptown Charlotte, the majority involve at least one one-way street and most are not on the high-accident list. About North College Street in particular, in 2013, Self wrote:

"College Street in the areas of 7th, 8th & 9th Streets has been on the HAL [high accident list] for many years. It’s been hard to pin point a single underlying cause. Angle crashes account for about half of the crashes at College and 7th, 8th and 9th. CDOT will likely consider reflective back plates at the signals as a mitigation given our successful reduction in crashes at 5th/Caldwell."   [CDOT had attributed the 2013 decline in accidents at Fifth and Caldwell to the installation of the back plates.]

A peek at recent years' high accident lists prompts these questions: Why keep this as a high-speed one-way street through the heart of your downtown?  And since its high-accident intersections have comparatively light traffic, what is going on?

Some observations: 

I walk along North College a lot, going to and from the UNC Charlotte Center City Building, and the rest of uptown. (At least, I did. Ninth and Eighth streets have been blocked for almost a year from construction of the light rail tracks.) So where are the cars involved in 2014 accidents coming from, especially at Eighth Street? My guess is they're going to and from surface parking lots near the rail line, which have not closed. If you're pulling in or out of a parking lot, you are not driving quickly. So it's likely some accidents are caused by speeding drivers on North College Street mixing with motorists turning into lots or onto Eighth Street.

North College is a major, one-way artery through uptown just one block from, and parallel to, the main uptown street, Tryon Street, where flocks of pedestrians, bus and delivery trucks as well as some timed-to-slow-you traffic lights combine to make speed impossible. But North College comes to us from the street-as-highway school of traffic design. Head north (the only direction you can) from the light at Seventh and you go down a slight hill, encouraging you to speed up. There is no light at Eighth Street, because it is a tiny little street -- actually I love its narrowness, which adds a sense of historical quaintness -- with little traffic. In a car one might just blow past it altogether. I imagine a lot of motorists do just that.

If you're on Ninth Street, it's hard to see what's coming on College. If you're tempted to turn right on red, ignoring the sign banning it, you might well get slammed into by a car zipping up College Street.

The No.3 high accident intersection is one block north, North College at Ninth Street. (Google Maps)
Meanwhile, with the opening of the UNC Charlotte building and growing numbers of uptown residents, plus more bars and nightlife, more people are walking even on this rather unpleasant street -- a street decidedly not designed for pedestrians.

Further, this area is only a block from two light rail stops (Seventh Street and the to-open-in-2017 Ninth Street). The area should be notably more pedestrian friendly. But with back-of-curb sidewalks, a lack of street trees for several blocks and surface parking lots way too prevalent, it isn't.

Solution? CDOT can't alter property lines or force land owners to stop tearing down older buildings and replacing them with surface parking lots or force them to develop the property if they don't want to. So CDOT is left with the standard toolkit for traffic-calming: traffic humps (not bumps, but humps you can glide over at 20 mph but not at 40), stop signs (ugh), traffic circles, more on-street parking. What about a bike lane? No, the cars will not be able to travel as fast. But this is one block off main street in a city of 800,000. Slower is OK.

Or, might I suggest, turning it back into a two-way street?

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Cool 1945 map shows plenty of passenger rail into uptown Charlotte

In the category of "Found while looking up other stuff" I came across this amazing map of 1945 Charlotte, and all the passenger and freight rail lines that fed uptown. It's from a 1945 Chamber of Commerce brochure, and you can find it, too, on the website of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission.

It's a little difficult to tell from the cute drawing how many of those rail lines carried passengers as well as freight, but the Piedmont and Northern to Gastonia was an electrified passenger rail - today we'd call it commuter rail.

The line is still used. It runs west and northwest from uptown Charlotte near the NFL stadium, through the Wesley Heights neighborhood, then crosses the Catawba River and goes through Mount Holly, Belmont and into Gastonia. The N.C. Department of Transportation owns much of the right-of-way, except for an important segment beyond Wesley Heights and the river, which is owned by CSX. (See final paragraph of this report.)

The old Southern Railway passenger terminal was on West Trade near what's now the Greyhound Bus station, but it was demolished years ago. The 1895 Seaboard Air Line depot, between North Tryon and North College streets - depicted on the 1945 map as S.A.L. RR now the Urban Ministry Center.

Rail junkies may enjoy this 2008 map of the N.C. rail lines, which lists ownership of the segments.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A chat with the godfather of Charlotte's streetcar

Driver Danny McQueen on Tuesday, awaiting a carload of dignitaries to launch Charlotte's streetcar. The historic replica streetcars now in use would be replaced during the expansion phase with modern streetcars. Photo: Mary Newsom
Before Tuesday morning's ribbon-cutting that launched Charlotte’s new streetcar, it seemed appropriate to check in with Ron Tober. It was Tober who originally proposed adding the streetcar to the larger transit plan for Charlotte. One might even dub him the godfather of the streetcar idea.

Tober was the Charlotte Area Transit System CEO from 1999 to 2007 – the longest-serving CATS chief to date.  The original transit plan, crafted before the 1998 voter referendum that OK’d a transit sales tax, did not include a streetcar. It roughly sketched five corridors: South (now the Lynx Blue Line), North (the still unfunded commuter rail to Mooresville), Northeast (being built as the Blue Line Extension), Southeast (envisioned running roughly down Independence Boulevard), and West possibly to the airport and possibly not.

Other than the South corridor, where the city already owned rail right of way, and the proposed extension to the northeast, it was left unclear in those early days which corridors would get bus rapid transit and which would get light rail. That did not sit well with east and west Charlotte neighborhood championswho clamored for rail service, not bus rapid transit.

In 2004, Tober proposed a streetcar to connect east and west Charlotte. It would run in rails along Beatties Ford Road, through uptown, and out Central Avenue to Eastland Mall, which at that time was open, he reminded me Tuesday morning. The streetcar idea was adopted into the 2006 transit plan update.

Some background: The newly opened 1.5-mile streetcar segment is not funded with the county’s half-cent sales tax for transit. That money goes to the Blue Line, the Blue Line Extension and to run the bus system. Not enough revenue has come in to pay to build more of the 2030 transit plan. (See New CATS chief faces funding questions.) The first streetcar leg was built with a $25 million federal grant and $17 million in funds from the city of

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Highways - loosening our collective belts

The first vehicles drive down the final leg of I-485, June 5. Photo: Nancy Pierce
Even as the national discussion turns toward whether we are overbuilding highways, based on inflated state traffic numbers, in North Carolina those questions are rarely heard. Last month the state's largest city, Charlotte, population 800,000, where I live and work, saw the June 5 opening of the final leg of its loop highway.  It's called Interstate 485 but it doesn't touch another state, or even another county.

When the road was first discussed in the 1960s, the idea was to open more land for development, because in these parts, the growth-is-good mindset has not had much nuance to it. While the local news media saw headlines such as Last I-485 segment will be boon to locals, we at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, where I work and direct the website, decided to look deeper.

We've published some interactive maps that show just how much of the county's development has been shaped by the outerbelt highway here. A couple of images are reproduced below but find the interactive and zoomable versions at this link.

 In coming weeks we'll map population growth and traffic counts at the interchanges.

Obviously this is a fast-growing metro area, and growth was going to arrive regardless of where we put our freeways. The questions were: Where was the growth going to go? Can the highway capacity keep up with the demand created by the new development?

 The answer to the first question is now obvious. The growth flooded to the highway, leapfrogging closer in areas that even today lack for investment.  Would even more growth have leapfrogged into adjacent counties without I-485, or would the lack of the highway access have kept the development closer to the core? Who could tell?

The answer to the latter question remains unclear, although I certainly have my doubts. Even before the final link of the loop opened June 5, last December the first leg of the highway, which opened in the 1990s, was expanded from two to three lanes each direction, at a cost of $83 million.

It's still clogged.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Another lesson from Caro: the importance of robust local news coverage

One less obvious lesson of Robert Caro's The Power Broker (which I wrote about last week) is about the value of old-fashioned, shoe-leather local reporting in exposing corruption. Several of his most powerful sections recounted the neighborhood deterioration caused by the Gowanus Expressway and the blatantly destruction to families and the Bronx from the Cross-Bronx Expressway. His anger at the lack of on-the-ground news reporting from the multiple New York newspapers of the time seemed to leap off the pages at me.

Today, in my city of Charlotte, local news reporting is a fading art, because of the destruction of the revenue base for city newspapers all over the country.  Worry, if you want, about the New York Times (which back in the day appears to have ignored most of what Caro was writing about), but I worry a lot more about the hundreds of newspapers in cities like Charlotte, Raleigh, Portland, Charleston (which just won a Pulitzer), Kansas City, Fort Worth, Biloxi, Cleveland and so forth. If you live in one of those places, it's your local newspaper that has aspired to cover the community well and in-depth. (Are they perfect? Of course not. But who else is better positioned to noticing what is happening on the ground, and following a story that takes months or years to ooze along and that includes no murders or car wrecks? TV reporters? Please.)

Digital news significantly lowers the entry-cost for a news operation. No presses, no paper, no delivery. For years now, conventional wisdom among the chattering classes who observe the news media has been that hyper-local news sites have a built in audience and a built-in revenue base, if they can offer good content and their community is affluent enough.

Last week, a couple of excellent hyper-local, online news operations near Charlotte folded. and its sister covered their communities with serious, well-reported journalism. The community of Davidson, home to Davidson College, predates its surrounding suburban communities and possesses a historic and specific sense of itself as a "place," not just a suburb. The founder and editor, David Boraks, knew his communities and knew his business.  They are affluent places with plenty of disposable income. But online advertising was not sufficient to pay reporters -- even reporters of the species so familiar to journalism: young, inexperienced, smart and energetic. He did not pay himself much, if anything.

If a freeway were destroying a neighborhood in Davidson, Boraks and his staff would have been write there, chronicling it.

He folded. Online advertising and reader donations (he never put up a pay-wall) did not bring in enough money, even after nine years.

Traditional in-print newspapers have seen serious declines in advertising revenue, which has been their major income stream.  Online advertising has not picked up the slack. The Charlotte Observer has seen round after round of layoffs and buyouts, as have most newspapers in the nation.

If he were alive today, I'm fairly sure Robert Moses would be delighted at this turn of events. 

Friday, May 29, 2015

More lanes in Houston, and longer traffic times

Here's a great example to buttress the point I made earlier today, in "Highways, congestion and a power broker's lessons." Which was this: Since at least the 1930s planners have known that adding highway lanes does not reduce congestion, but rather counter-intuitively seems to increase it.

As reported by Thursday by Angie Schmitt in,  a Houston Tomorrow analysis of driving time on the I-10 Katy Freeway found it took 51 percent more time to get from downtown to Pin Oak on the newly expanded, 23-lane freeway than it did in 2011 right after the new lanes opened. An expansion project that ended in 2010 cost $2.8 billion-with-a-B which was $1.17 billion-with-a-B more than its original price tag.

Coincidence: The Federal Highway Administration's 2012 list of projects that details the cost of the Katy Freeway also lists the Monroe Bypass, with a due date of 2016. Better get hopping on that one, guys. Or better yet, don't.

Jay Crossley of Houston Tomorrow concludes: "Traveling out I-10 is now 33% worse - almost 18 more minutes of your time - than it was before we spent $2.8 billion to subsidize land speculation and encourage more driving."

Highways, congestion and a power broker's lessons

Frontispiece of The Power Broker maps Moses' roads, bridges, parks and playgrounds. 
The headline in this morning's newspaper could not have been more appropriate for the day I have to, at long last and reluctantly, return to the UNC Charlotte library my copy of Robert A. Caro's The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.

I checked it out in September 2013. It's roughly the size of a cinder block and just as heavy, and the librarians graciously let me keep renewing it, since apparently no one else wanted the tome. Which is sad. Published in 1974, it should be required reading for anyone studying public administration, transportation, planning, urban studies, political science, sociology and journalism. I finally finished it a few months ago but after so long it felt almost like a family pet and I didn't want to part with it.

The headline today: N.C. DOT says Monroe Bypass construction has started. The article by Steve Harrison notes a lawsuit over the project is still active, and it could well be stopped for a second time.

As it happens, one of Robert Moses' faithful techniques for getting money for his projects was to start work on them