- The strategic mobility plan that Charlotte, North Carolina, recently passed seeks to reduce carbon emissions, improve equity and replace cars on the road with new transit options. Two main goals are expanding transit options to achieve a 50-50 mode share — in which half of all trips are not made in a single-occupancy vehicle — and achieving Vision Zero, the elimination of traffic deaths and serious injuries.
- Charlotte’s plan also aims to increase economic mobility, particularly for Black residents, who make up one-third of the city’s population but account for more than three-quarters of bus riders.
- While the city council approved the plan at the end of June, the city has not yet established financing for implementation, as it needs support from the state capital to levy an additional tax.
North Carolina’s largest city is seeking to become a model for technological innovation in transportation. That effort follows a 2014 study out of Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley that ranked Charlotte last out of the nation’s 50 largest commuting zones for intergenerational, or economically upward, mobility.
According to Braxton Winston, an at-large city council member who serves on the city’s transportation, planning and environment committee, the strategic mobility plan is one way Charlotte is responding, following the 2021 launch of a new citywide comprehensive plan.
Winston said the last two generations of development planning, which he calls the “deal-making approach,” have pushed Charlotte toward suburban sprawl.
“That’s created a very inequitable city and a car-dependent city,” said Winston, and it has led to an “incredible amount” of vehicular violence, he said: In 2021, Charlotte reported 72 traffic fatalities on city streets. “When we talk about equity, if you’re born in certain parts of the city where it’s inherently more dangerous to go to the supermarket or to work or to school based on your ability to have safe streets, that’s not an equitable city,” he said.
Michael Kodransky, U.S. director at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, said approaches like Charlotte’s to shift people out of cars would reduce conflicts on the road. He added that inequity in street safety was a result of the nation’s transportation history, which he described as a top-down approach in which the federal government often entered marginalized communities and built roads, often with higher speed limits. He said the Biden administration’s Transportation Department is setting a new tone.
“USDOT is working with communities to know what they need and want,” said Kodransky, referencing the recently launched $1 billion equity program to reconnect communities historically segregated by physical infrastructure. Alvaro Villagran, director of federal programs for the Shared-Use Mobility Center, called the program “reparation funds” that would work to mitigate the impact of the interstate system on nearby communities.
“That’s where having a mobility plan in place and partners in both the government and the community is a great way to leverage this opportunity,” said Villagran. With this plan, he said, “my guess is a city like Charlotte will be much better positioned to take advantage of the funding.”
Villagran said the Charlotte program follows a general trend of cities moving away from a highway-oriented or street management perspective on transportation to an integration of shared mobility options like public transit, electric vehicles, cycling and pedestrian use. The goal with having more options is to ensure accessibility across communities, he said.
Now, the challenge is integrating the accommodation of space and services to ensure pedestrians, cyclists and transit users have their needs met and have a safe space on the streets, he said.
Winston said the most radical part of Charlotte’s Strategic Mobility Plan is the shift to a 50-50 mode share, moving Charlotte residents away from depending on single-occupancy vehicles for most of their transportation needs and toward other options, like walking, biking, carpooling or using public transit.
“Business as usual leads to an unsustainable future,” Villagran pointed out. Instead of just disincentivizing cars, he said, communities need to make alternative modes of mobility realistic options for residents. Doing so can have environmental benefits as well, he said. “The other thing about addressing climate change is changing land use. Offering more mobility options encourages different types of house developments that could reduce footprints and diminish the need for wider, longer highways to accommodate housing solutions.”
To implement the changes the strategic mobility plan will require, the city will need to listen to community needs, Kodransky said.
Charlotte held neighborhood listening sessions and developed an interactive online map before launching its strategic mobility plan. While two rounds of informal focus groups engaged some 85 participants, over 60% of whom identified as Black, more than 80% of the 1,200 respondents to an initial online survey identified as White. Those who wrote the draft plan admitted that they “gained meaningful but only partial participation and engagement from … missing voices,” who included people of color, refugees and immigrants, people with disabilities, and people experiencing homelessness.
“It’s really important for the public sector to bring people on board because there’s a little bit of a crisis of believing that it can deliver on promises,” said Kodransky. “If there’s no accountability loop, if there’s no transparency with how they’re doing or public reporting on how they’re fulfilling their strategic plan, and where they’re falling behind, it reduces trust.”
Winston said the next step for community input would be identifying and prioritizing individual projects that address the plan’s goals. The plan also needs funding. While a transit sales tax funded Charlotte’s light rail project, Winston said it is insufficient for the investments needed.
“We don’t have the financing done yet, and that’s the challenge that we’re on, is what’s the best way to do this, what’s politically viable,” he said. Charlotte would need support from the state capital to levy an additional tax, he added.
Even so, Winston said the opportunity, on top of the need, to change how residents and council members looked at the built environment of Charlotte was transformational.
“We’re challenged in a good way by our growth,” Winston said, “and we’re getting the right plans in place, not only to sustain that growth, but to watch us thrive in the next stage of who we are as an American city.”