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WFAE reporter David Boraks explores how the way we live influences climate change and its impact across the Carolinas. You also can read additional national and international climate news.

Charlotte transportation plan has a big goal: getting us out of our cars

Parkwood Avenue Bike Lanes Ribbon Cutting - Photographer David Flower (6).jpg
David Flowers
/
City of Charlotte
A rider uses the bicycle lane on Parkwood Avenue in Charlotte. 

As state and local leaders look for ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow global warming, they're taking aim at some big targets: transportation and electricity production. North Carolina's challenge is this: Can we bring ourselves to change the way we do things?

The state is in the midst of a year-long process to develop a state carbon reduction plan for electricty, the state's second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. And North Carolina is pushing to electrify transportation, which generates more carbon than any other source both statewide and nationally

But when it comes to transportation, it's not just about getting more electric cars on the road. It's also about getting more cars off the road and getting people to use other modes of transportation. That means walking, biking or riding public transit.

The city of Charlotte has come out with the first draft of the Strategic Mobility Plan to do just that, and it has an audacious goal: reduce one-person vehicles to half of all transportation trips by 2040. (For comparison, the plan says that before the COVID-19 pandemic, about three-quarters of Charlotte residents commuted by driving alone.)

"It's important," said Shannon Binns, executive director of environmental group Sustain Charlotte. "It's really a vision for helping Charlotte residents more easily get around the city without having to drive."

Binns said he's been advocating for the 50% goal, which is similar to one adopted in Austin, Texas, in 2019. It's also based on the mix of travel modes that would be required in 2045 to maintain current road travel times around Charlotte. (See page 9 of the draft.)

Goals, policies and actions

The Strategic Mobility Plan is a 162-page document filled with data, policy proposals and suggested actions to help meet the city's climate goals and 2040 Charlotte Future Comprehensive Plan.

033020 I-77 Express.jpg
David Boraks
/
WFAE
A rider gets off a Charlotte Area Transit System express bus in uptown Charlotte.

The city's main external climate goal is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions across the community to 2 tons per person annually by 2050. As of 2019, it was 11 tons. Cutting car trips will be an essential ingredient in any solution.

As a side effect, the city says, reducing car trips will bring less traffic, safer streets and healthier air.

"Continued reliance on travel by car limits our ability to address equity, affordability and environmental goals, while also impacting safety, public health, and congestion," the plan says.

The plan offers another reason for promoting alternate modes of travel: Road construction has limits.

"While we have historically widened streets and roadways to add vehicular capacity, space constraints, costs and competing community priorities are leaving fewer places where widening roads is viable or desirable. We simply cannot build enough vehicle capacity to accommodate our growth," the plan says.

Mobility ambitions will require funding 

The plan is ambitious. Charlotte-area residents love their cars. And while rail ridership is up, bus ridership is down, even as the economy has recovered from the pandemic. Meanwhile, as WFAE has reported, there's a counter-argument among transit critics who say more cars are the solution, not the problem.

To increase public transit ridership, the city will need to invest more in its transportation and transit systems. That could mean adding transit lines, improving bus service, redesigning streets and intersections to accommodate bicycles or adding greenways. All this will need federal, state and local money.

City leaders have proposed a $13.5 billion regional plan to improve and expand the Charlotte Area Transit System, but that's currently in limbo. A 1-cent sales tax increase would pay for it, but it looks like a required ballot referendum won't happen this fall as originally hoped. But for anything to happen, we'll need money.

"Residents will also need to support continued investment in our mobility infrastructure and embrace new ways of travel," the plan says.

Learn more about the Strategic Mobility Plan

The city invites comments on the plan via the web or by email charlottedot@charlottenc.gov. And officials will hold two virtual public meetings: one at 6 p.m. May 26 and another at noon May 31.

A public hearing for the Strategic Mobility Plan is scheduled during the June 13 City Council business meeting, followed by City Council consideration for adoption on June 27.

Read the plan and find links to the public meetings at charlottenc.gov/smp.

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David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.