Thursday, November 15, 2012

Rail matters: the South End lesson

A local television station yesterday did a short feature on the South End neighborhood in Charlotte. If you click here, you'll see my colleague Bill McCoy, the director emeritus of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, describe how the area has changed. As just about anyone i Charlotte could tell you, a huge transformative event was the launching of the city's first light rail line, the Lynx Blue Line, in 2007.

The Ashton apartments in South End. Photo: David Walters
Nov. 24 marks the five-year anniversary of that launch, so a little retrospective is fitting. But it's also important to know that South End was reviving before 1998, the year Mecklenburg County voters passed a half-cent sales tax for transit and we all knew, finally, that we'd get a light rail line. Three important lessons:

1. Zoning and design matter.  The city created transit-oriented development zoning categories to allow and encourage the form of development that best serves public mass transit: walkable and mixed-use, and denser than single-family-only residential or office-only or industrial-only. You'd think that would be a no-brainer, but many cities made the mistake of launching rail transit in 1980s and early 1990s yet did not change development codes. What they got was not much transit-friendly development.

2. South End's development was sparked before the 1998 transit vote by a small-time, volunteer trolley run. So it was the hope of light rail, and a modest little rail ride, rather than mass transit service itself, that was key.

The nonprofit Charlotte Trolley volunteer group launched a historic trolley car ride down some railroad tracks the city had bought because the city hoped someday it might use them for light rail. This trolley run (not a streetcar; it didn't run in street) was barely a mile and didn't even cross I-277 and go into uptown. Yet it was enough to encourage developers. It didn't hurt, of course, that the former industrial area later dubbed South End abutted uptown as well as the prosperous Dilworth neighborhood. By the time the Lynx launched in 2007 plenty of transit-oriented development had already occurred. Alas, the historic trolley run itself was booted from the line by a combination of federal safety regulations and a Charlotte Area Transit System revenue crunch after the 2008 financial crash. Beloved old Car 85 awaits a new neighborhood with which it can work its magic.

3. This is last, and most important: It was not adding public mass transit that sparked the development. It was adding rail transit.

Proof? For years, city bus No. 12 has traveled up and down South Boulevard. Yet the area languished until the spark from the old trolley coursing on the rails. Why didn't the bus spark development? Because rails mean permanence. A regular old city bus can be rerouted. Few developers would peg their future to a bus route.

The city says it wants to help other languishing areas (can you say "Eastland Mall"?). City council members should remember the lessons of South End. If you want developers to commit, then the city should commit to rail. 


Anonymous said...

Well, you convinced me, Mary. Can't argue with all those facts and figures you included to support your argument that a streetcar is all the city needs to revitalize the area around the Eastland Mall.

One question, is the absence of a streetcar what caused the area surrounding the Eastland Mall to languish?



Anonymous said...

I don’t think you have spent much time examining the economics of the Blue Line. It roughly takes $25 million per year to operate and maintain, it cost $561 million to build and it takes in only $3.5 million per year in fares. Using accepted accounting practices and the city’s ridership numbers, that means taxpayers subsidize each ride on the Blue Line by just over $20. If the $1.16 billion extension goes as much over budget as the South Line (130%), taxpayers could end up subsidizing the extension by over $70 per ride. NOT SUSTAINABLE. Despite the fact CATS has raised bus fares substantially, and buses are the form of public transit that can negotiate the windy streets of most poor neighborhoods, CATS deficit has ballooned since the Blue Line started operations. Light rail is one of the few services progressives support that subsidizes the commutes of the rich (uptown office workers) at the expense of the poor.

Light Rail is Green? There are numerous studies that show most cars consume less energy per passenger mile than light rail, and they use as models light rail systems that have higher average occupancy rates that our light rail.

Development! Professor David Hartgen of UNCC concluded if you throw out development that would have happened without the light rail, and growth the city subsidized to move from other parts of the city to around the light rail, growth actually due to the light rail is only 13% of what the city claims. Ask the owners of the Texas Road House and Sonny’s Bar-B-Q who owned thriving restaurants at the southern anchor of the light rail. After the Blue Line opened their business dropped off so much they were forced to move. Light rail is intended to take people into the city, not the other way around. I’ll be glad to take anyone on a tour of the “development” that never occurred, but was promised, along South Boulevard.

Take a close look at the population density maps available from the Charlotte Chamber. You will see the most anemic growth in Mecklenburg County is in and around Charlotte’s uptown where a disproportionate amount of our taxes go. The most rapidly shrinking area is the “Wedge” that has supplied Charlotte with roughly half of its tax revenues. This pattern is typical of the beginning of the decline of cities that have been managed for several decades by progressives: like Detroit, Newark and St. Louis. Progressives first rob the upper class until they leave, then they rob the middle class because they have no choice, and finally they are left with the poor and that have no money to rob.


Jay P.

Susan said...

"Because rails mean permanence."

I'm writing my public history thesis on Charlotte's public transportation history up to 1960, and I've found in my research that this perception about rail-based transportation has existed in the city for nearly 100 years. When the Chatham Estates streetcar stopped running between about 1918-1920, the residents of that area preferred to hitch rides with people rather than take the jitney buses (forerunner to today's motor buses) that moved in to service the area. In a February 1919 letter to the editor in the Observer, Piedmont Park resident Jake Newell said that area commuters to the downtown business district "“take their stands along the way and look so yearningly and pleadingly at all autoists who pass that they are generally taken in and landed at the square.”

Anonymous said...

Household density is a better metric than populaton. That's because per capita income is more strongly correlated with smaller households.

And the change in tax base is a better metric than the current value. If you draw an oval around Uptown and South Park, you find that this lopsided core had much better appreciation than even fair Ballantyne.

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