Charlotte ranks close to last on walkability
While Charlotte has become more pedestrian friendly in recent years, the city still has far to go, according to organizations that work to improve walkability.
Out of 130 cities with populations over 200,000, Charlotte is sixth from last on a walkability ranking by WalkScore, an organization that measures walkability by analyzing walking routes and the distance of local amenities.
On a scale from 1-100, Charlotte logged a score of just 26, meaning that the city relies heavily on cars, according to WalkScore.
Pedestrian projects that would help connect and create safer routes, such as the Rail Trail bridge and Belk Greenway connector, have been delayed, leaving some to question what’s standing in the way.
“We really need to concentrate on making all parts of Charlotte safer and more comfortable for pedestrians,” said Meg Fencil, director of engagement at Sustain Charlotte, a nonprofit advocating to make the city more walkable and transit-friendly.
“Pockets of Charlotte are fairly walkable, but most of those are areas close to uptown,” Fencil said. “The further you get out from the center, the more spread out things are and the wider the roads are.”
Older neighborhoods are more walkable
Tom Hanchett, Charlotte historian and creator of HistorySouth.org, agrees with Fencil. The most walkable parts of Charlotte, he said, are neighborhoods built in the early 20th century, including Dilworth and Elizabeth. A neighorhood’s walkability largely depends on when the area was developed and what Americans thought was a priority at that time, he said.
Fencil says the city could do much more to make life safer for pedestrians. Among other things, the city could install more pedestrian crossing signals at busy intersections and build more protected bike lanes.
Data from the Urban Institute at UNC Charlotte show that 265 pedestrians were killed in Charlotte from 2016 to 2020.
City officials say they are trying to change those trends. The city of Charlotte adopted programs, including Charlotte WALKS and Vision Zero, which work to improve pedestrian safety and make the city more walkable.
“Until about 15 years ago, East Boulevard was wide open, about 60-70 feet across, and drivers would hit 60 miles an hour going down that street,” Hanchett said. “The Charlotte Department of Transportation narrowed it down to one lane in each direction with turning lanes, parking, and grassy medians … Now East Boulevard is a much more welcoming place.”
Perspectives from frequent walkers
Carlos Lopez, who frequently walks in Charlotte, finds uptown, Plaza Midwood, and NoDa to be the safest areas for pedestrians.
But the city doesn’t always provide sufficient lighting to ensure pedestrians are visible to cars, he said.
“It’s important to make sure it’s well lit at night for pedestrians to feel safe,” Lopez said.
Expanding sidewalks would also help make Charlotte a safer place to walk, Lopez said.
“There’s people doing all sorts of activities on the sidewalks,” he said, “there’s people with strollers, people in wheelchairs, people running and jogging.”
Sonni Dyer, men’s triathlon coach at Queens University of Charlotte, is responsible for keeping a team of 18 athletes safe while they train daily on Charlotte streets. He finds that some parts of the city, such as Myers Park, are good for training because they offer safe routes with sidewalks. But he avoids other areas, including Uptown, because of safety concerns.
The city could make things safer for pedestrians by connecting more walking and biking routes, he said.
“While there are bike lanes, many of them simply end at intersections,” Dyer said. “Having municipal parks, like McAlpine and Boyce, is definitely helpful, especially when connected by greenway trails.”
Other Queens employees, however, complain that even in Myers Park, the speed of drivers jeopardizes those who try to walk there.
Projects in the works
Several projects — including pedestrian beacons along Sugar Creek Road, The Plaza, and Sharon Amity Road — are now in the works. A pedestrian beacon is a traffic control device designed to help pedestrians safely cross busier intersections.
“The most successful initiative is probably one that most of our residents don't know about and that is that we have a pedestrian crossing committee,” said Angela Berry, the Charlotte Department of Transportation’s traffic safety program manager. “It is made up of staff across CDOT, as well as CATS, and we review requests from residents every month for places they’d like additional crossings.”
In January, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) announced a $4.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to help Charlotte improve intersections and reduce crashes involving pedestrians. The grant will go toward installing new traffic signals and establishing buffered bicycle lanes, safe routes to school activities and a pedestrian refuge island.
“I live on The Plaza, which is a street that has a bike lane now,” Hanchett said. “I noticed that not only do cars go slower, but the sidewalks are getting pretty busy with pedestrians.”
“We’re doing things that are pointing us in the right direction, and we need to do more,” he said.
City Council has approved several projects that create safer walking routes throughout Charlotte, but two of those projects have been delayed.
The Rail Trail bridge, an $11 million pedestrian bridge that will cross Interstate 277, was originally scheduled to be open to the public in 2023. Currently, the only option for people on foot to get into the city requires routes with heavy car traffic. The bridge will link South End and Uptown, ultimately providing pedestrians with a safer, quicker route.
The project has been postponed and is now planned for completion in 2025. Originally, the bridge was supposed to be built directly adjacent to the light rail line. That plan would have been costly, so the project team now plans to locate the bridge further from the light rail. The new plan will also avoid a total closure of I-277.
Another pedestrian project, the Belk Greenway Connector, has also been delayed. The goal of the project was to provide a safe connection for both pedestrians and bicyclists from Little Sugar Creek Greenway to Irwin Creek Greenway. Construction had originally been scheduled to start in 2020, but it has not yet begun.
Favoring drivers over pedestrians
Organizations that advocate for better walkability recognize that some decisions made by the city favor drivers rather than pedestrians.
“There’s often a tension between the desire to move a lot of cars through the area as quickly as possible, and that’s often in conflict with the desire to make the streets safer for people who are walking,” Fencil said.
On Jan. 17, City Council approved a second drive-thru-only Chick-fil-A located on Randolph Road. Although this decision helps resolve the problem of traffic build up, some argue it goes against the goals outlined in the Charlotte Future 2040 Comprehensive Plan, which focus on making Charlotte more friendly to pedestrians.
There are harmful effects on the environment when cities aren’t walkable, Fencil said.
“The more spread out we are as a community and the more dependent we are on cars, the more that we have to drive to get to all of our daily destinations,” she said. “That has direct impacts on our local air quality, but it also means we’re putting more greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere that contribute to climate change.
“As Charlotte grows, and as our neighborhoods become denser, we're losing opportunities to make those communities more walkable when we just build, for example, drive-thru-only restaurants,” Fencil said. “We really need to be intentional about making zoning decisions that support the vision of the walkable city that we want Charlotte to become.”
Sam Carnes is a student in the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, which provides the news service in support of community news.