Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Want to know why Charlotte traffic is bad? One reason: You can’t get there from here

The lack of a connected street grid leads to congestion.
So there I was, heading to an 8:30 a.m. meeting near UNC Charlotte. Zipping up W.T. Harris Boulevard which I note is nothing like an tree-lined boulevard you might stroll down if you were a boulevardier I saw that ahead of me, traffic had stopped.

You expect it on some Charlotte streets Providence Road, for example, or I-77 at rush hour. But usually the drive up Harris Boulevard is smooth and, if not congestion-free, at least mildly and manageably congested. Not this day. My Google maps showed the section ahead as blood-colored, meaning extreme congestion. As I sat there, or crept forward, I watched the clock, fretting that I would be late for the meeting.

I cast about mentally for ways to get around the congestion. Being fully stopped, and not having reached the Old Concord Road interchange, I looked at the maps on my smart phone in search of escape routes.

There were none. My only realistic options were to get on Old Concord Road and drive far out of my way, braving either the morning university traffic or go even farther out of my way over to North Tryon Street with its multiple traffic lights, both options likely to make me arrive even later. (I screenshot the map at right about 10 minutes later.)

The map told the story. Each subdivision was cut off from its neighbors. You could not get anywhere except on Harris Boulevard. That part of the city was developed from the mid-1980s through the 2000s, and no ordinances required a connected street grid. It was a perfect illustration of why Charlotte thoroughfares get congested so easily. Everyone has to drive on them to get anywhere. In an alternate universe or at least a city that grew up believing it would be an actual city we'd have been able to easily get around the wreck-caused mess.

Can the city do better in the future? As Charlotte works to rewrite its zoning and subdivision ordinances, pay attention to more than just density and land uses. Other than transit, one of the best ways large cities handle the traffic that comes with a lot of people living nearby (i.e., population density) is with connected street grids. Will Charlotte figure that out?