Our region is on the cusp of becoming one of America’s great metropolitan areas. Residents and visitors alike can feel it in the air. Our region pulses with vibrancy, energy, and a “can do” spirit that has put us on the map as a terrific place to call home, and to do business. With our population on the rise, now is the time to ensure that our continued growth will actually grow our economy in a way that doesn’t compromise our quality of life.
We face some real challenges on that front. Similar to other metro areas that have largely grown up in the midst of a car-centric lifestyle – such as Los Angeles, Houston and Atlanta – Charlotte’s population expansion has spread development across the landscape with little regard for distances, replacing forests and farmland with not just buildings and homes, but also miles upon miles of roads between them.
Traveling those roads has become more time-consuming and costly, with traffic congestion already troublesome for many of us. One out of three workers in our region now spends more than 30 minutes getting to work each day, and the average number of miles we drive has nearly doubled, from less than 11 miles per day in 1982 to over 20 today. Unless we act quickly, our commuting hassles could turn into a congestion crisis.
All that driving leads to more air pollution, too, making Charlotte the 18th smoggiest city in the nation, according to the American Lung Association. This makes it an increasingly unhealthy place to live, especially for senior citizens, children, and people with heart and lung conditions like emphysema, bronchitis and asthma.
More driving also means more fueling, which leads to greater dependence on oil. A newly released analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reveals that Mecklenburg County has the fourth highest oil consumption per person in the nation. With rising gas prices, and few good alternatives to driving, we have little choice but to spend more of our income at the pump.
Traffic congestion, smog, and our high oil consumption are big problems we need to fix. Fortunately, we have the ability to reverse these growing threats to the vibrancy and health of our region. The solution? More transportation choices – so we aren’t so dependent on cars for getting to the places we want to go. The people who live here prefer investments in transit over roads by a margin of 2 to 1, according to a survey of Mecklenburg residents released last month also by NRDC. Over 70 percent also said they felt they had no choice but to drive and wish they had other options.
Yet having more choices requires investments that diversify our transportation system, not just increases the number of roads.
Now here’s the great news. Expanding our choices by investing in transit is also better for putting people to work: a 2010 study by Smart Growth America found that money invested in public transit produces jobs far more efficiently than money spent on roads – nearly double the job-months. For every $1 billion invested in public transit more than 16,400 job-months were realized, while $1 billion in roads spending resulted in slightly less than 8,000 job-months.
There is more great news: we already have a transit plan for the metro area. If we fund it, the 2030 Transit Corridor System Plan will consist of 25 miles of commuter rail, 21 miles of light rail, 16 miles of streetcar, 14 miles of bus rapid transit and an expanded network of buses and other transit services. That plan just needs to be put into action – the sooner, the better. The recent announcement that the federal government will pay half of the costs to extend the Blue Line to UNCC is terrific, but how we’ll fund the rest of the 2030 plan has yet to be decided. This is worrisome.
Given the long list of benefits (better health, reduced travel times, lower costs), and the fact that the people who live here not only want more choices, but have also expressed a clear preference for investing in transit, the time to invest in our transit system, and ensure we carry out the robust plan we have created, is now.
On behalf of everyone living in our region today, as well as our children and grandchildren – whose lives will be directly affected by our decisions today – Sustain Charlotte thanks our elected leaders for their decision to extend the Blue Line. Join us in encouraging them to continue making these investments in our future.