Toward a More Sustainable Charlotte

I just flew back from Charlotte, North Carolina and obviously my arms aren't too tired to blog. This week there are a lot of exciting things happening in the Queen City. While there I had the privilege of serving as a panelist alongside local officials and transportation experts. The panel was entitled, "Moving Charlotte Forward: Toward a More Sustainable Future".

Fittingly, the panel was organized (and moderated) by Shannon Binns, executive director of the organization Sustain Charlotte. Alongside me were a city councilman, an architect/planner, an urban design professor, and a business executive. A video of the well-attended and informative panel discussion can be found here. The gist of the topic was how Charlotte -- home of the NASCAR museum! -- can become a little less reliant on cars by investing in public transportation.

Here are some of the highlights of the information I shared:

Charlotte ranks 13th amongst the fastest-growing U.S. metropolitan areas. It's the largest city in North Carolina, with a project regional population growth in excess of 30% between 2010 and 2030. (This followed a 44% growth rate between 1990 and 2010.) Between 1996 and 2007 the growth rate of VMT (vehicle miles traveled) in the area was 29%; the projected VMT growth rate from 2007 to 2030 is a whopping 47%.

In Charlotte, congestion is a major problem -- and it's a growing one. Residents there are facing longer commute times, costing them on average $876 per person per year in wasted fuel and lost time. Today the average resident drives about 20 miles per day (versus 11 miles per day in 1982).

All that driving contributes to Charlotte's ranking as the 10th smoggiest city in the nation, according to the American Lung Association, causing an alarming number of respiratory illnesses including asthma attacks. All that development has shrunk Charlotte's tree canopy by 50% since 1985. And all the paved road surfaces also contribute to water pollution problems -- one-third of local surface waters are considered "impaired" by EPA and 84% of streams in Mecklenburg County are considered unsafe for swimming.

Investments to increase travel options -- rail, bus, bikes, walking -- offer a solution to the transportation challenges the city faces. It's simple: more choices, less traffic, better Charlotte!

The city does have a popular light rail system that enjoys very high ridership. But it's more like one line rather than a "system." There are ambitious plans to expand beyond the LYNX line, a 10-mile stretch of light rail that opened in 2007 after voters here approved a sales tax. (It cost $462.7 million to build, of which, the federal government paid half. It costs $2 to ride, and $4 for a round trip. An all-day pass costs $8.)

The LYNX does more than just move people around — it’s been held up as a model for transit projects around the country. However, Mayor Anthony Foxx -- who has made sustainability a priority in transportation, energy, health, water and green space, since he started his term at the end of 2009 -- recently said, on transit, "we're stuck." 

As it is, Charlotte has the third shortest public transit network in North America. Transit there covers only 0.09 miles per square mile of area (versus an average of 1.1 miles in the 27 largest cities in the U.S. and Canada.) As a result, only about three out of every 100 workers in Charlotte use public transit, bicycle or walk to work (versus an average of 13% in those 27 cities).

Despite these challenges, overall there is a positive outlook on transit amongst the public and local officials. People there love their existing transit line and there are plans to grow it. Streetcars are coming soon and possibly commuter rail at some point in the future. Above all, there seems to be broad awareness of and support for the need for policies and practices that will expand transportation options and ensure sustainable development.

NRDC is eager to pair our policy expertise with local outreach, education and action in a campaign to reduce driving in and around Charlotte to alleviate traffic congrestion, decrease air and water pollution, reduce carbon emissions, and improve the health and quality of life for the good folks who live in the Queen City.