How Charlotte Is Tackling Traffic Congestion
It’s mid-August. Vacations are winding down. School — real, in-person school — is getting ready to start. And uptown’s big banks and other employers are making plans to recall thousands of workers into the office for the first time in a year and a half.
In other words, it sounds as though a lot more traffic is about to descend on Charlotte’s streets — triggering fresh thoughts of “can’t something be done?” as drivers sit in gridlock.
Often, when the topic of Charlotte traffic arises, city leaders quickly pivot to talking points extolling the importance of offering more choices — enhanced bus service, more bike lanes and, of course, light rail. Those could help ease the burden by taking people out of cars, eventually.
But in ways that might seem small and under-the-radar, Charlotte is also taking steps to improve traffic flow around the city, in ways that could benefit those of us stuck in traffic today while waiting for the big plans of tomorrow to materialize.
Understanding The Problem
Like every major city, Charlotte suffers from traffic. By the numbers, we’re not as bad as other cities our size. Charlotte is the country’s 15th-largest city. Our average commute time — 27 minutes — ranks us as No. 30, according to census data. A study this year by Inrix, a transportation analytics company, ranked us No.32 in the country for traffic congestion. So given Charlotte’s size, the good news is we could be worse.
Charlotte collects a lot of data, needed to assess growth and traffic patterns. And the transportation department uses the data to compile a list of the city’s most congested intersections. When it comes time to spend money, that can help inform where the resources should go.
The city’s “Congested Intersections List” contains 31 intersections that have “high congestion in both the AM and PM peaks.” You’ll see that the majority are in south Charlotte. Four are on Fairview Road. Four are on Providence Road:
City officials explain that so many are in south Charlotte because the area is a huge retail and employment destination.
“SouthPark is our second-largest employment area in Charlotte, next to uptown. It’s a huge employment district, and so that alone generates a lot of traffic,” says Ashley Landis, the Charlotte Department of Transportation’s (CDOT) planning and design deputy division manager. “You’ve got retail, you’ve got doctor’s offices, you’ve got restaurants. You have a lot of destinations there, so when we think about trip generation, that’s huge trip generation, just SouthPark alone.”
So what are the options for making it all better?
Transportation experts think about improving traffic in a few different ways: There’s ensuring that existing streets are operating efficiently. There’s adding capacity, like building new roads or widening existing ones. And then there are outside forces, like shifting societal trends and public transit, that could take some pressure off cars.
Let’s take these one by one:
Making The Most Of Existing Streets
It might not sound important, but with limited options to improve traffic on its street network, Charlotte has to squeeze the most out of its existing streets. If you had potholes all over the place, for instance, that would slow traffic and make congestion worse. (Charlotte was recently ranked No. 8 out of 20 major cities for having the best-maintained roads in center cities.)
Another part of this — and one that prompts a lot of discussion and occasional bellyaching — is coordinating traffic signals. In other words, traffic lights should be coordinated so the most drivers at any given time are hitting multiple green lights, which can produce a euphoric feeling while also having the benefit of keeping traffic moving.
“That’s a question I get a lot,” says Nathan Conard, CDOT’s transportation systems manager. He says the city studies the data and adjusts the timing of traffic signals every two years, which is more often than other cities. And it’s working to implement a program called Automated Traffic Signal Performance Measures, a set of data analytics tools that examine traffic counts and then “spits out information to engineers like us that would give us some actionable measures on things that we can do to make some improvements with our signal timing.” It would improve the coordination of traffic signals because it could spot trends in real time.
Adding More Room For Cars
One obvious way to clear the way for more cars is to build new roads or widen existing ones. But that’s not always easy, or even desirable, planners say. Widening streets would require buying land along those streets, which could be expensive and in some cases encroach toward homes and businesses. With so much of Charlotte already developed, adding new streets near existing bottlenecks would also cost a lot of money and probably need to cut through existing neighborhoods or business centers.
“Widening is a tool. That is not something that is off the table — it can certainly provide some congestion relief,” Landis says. “There is a point where we cannot widen our way out of congestion, nor is it beneficial for other modes of transportation, because every time we widen the road, it becomes less friendly for bicycles and pedestrians. We’re trying to strike a balance.”
Most of the bigger projects are handled with bond money approved by voters. For instance, last year, voters approved bonds that will extend Bryant Farms Road from Elm Lane to Rea Road “to provide a critical east/west connection in the Ballantyne area,” according to city documents; and a section of Beatties Ford Road in west Charlotte is being widened from two to four lanes with money from 2010 bonds.
Voters also approved money last year for $14 million worth of “congestion mitigation” in Steele Creek, University City and south Charlotte. The city hasn’t determined exactly where all that money will go and is working to identify locations. The first two projects with that money will help improve two intersections: Steele Creek Road at Shopton Road West (adding northbound through lane) and Steele Creek Road at Sam Neely Road (adding southbound right turn lane). Both are in the design phase.
“As a whole, the program is centered around finding some quick-win, low-cost, high-impact-type projects,” Landis says. “They are smaller scale things … that we can do that really will help traffic and help congestion and start providing better travel.”
Changing Transportation Habits
As you probably have read, Charlotte is making a big push to encourage alternate forms of transportation, which would help take pressure off the roads. It is installing dedicated bike lanes, encouraging bus riding, expanding greenways and, of course, is pushing for a transit plan that includes a new light rail line from Matthews to Belmont.
Driving remains the overwhelming favorite: Of Mecklenburg County’s 596,000 workers, 83% commute by car, truck or van; 2.9% take public transit; 2% walk and 0.1% bike, according to 2019 census figures.
The pandemic has at least temporarily altered driving habits. Before the pandemic, about 10% of workers in the county worked from home. When COVID-19 hit and government leaders ordered people to stay home, traffic plunged by about 50% in late March and early April 2020, according to figures from Inrix, which tracks mobile phone data. It bounced back to about 90% of normal by July 2020 and virtually to normal by March of this year.
But the city says their numbers show that there have been some shifts in driving patterns. Instead of having sharp peaks in the morning and afternoon commute times, “we’re starting to see that a little bit more flat,” Landis says, probably because of more flexible work schedules. Numbers also show more people using greenways and bikes than before the pandemic, she said. It’s unclear how long these trends might continue, or whether they will lessen once workplaces return closer to normal.
The city is also working to encourage different development patterns in hopes of shortening commutes. One of the key goals of the 2040 Comprehensive Plan, which the City Council adopted this summer, is to create “10-minute neighborhoods” — areas in which living, working and shopping can coexist near each other, instead of requiring long trips.
That’s a long-term fix. For now, brace for more traffic ahead.