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OPINION: Road Widening Is Never the Answer

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A picture of Charlotte's city skyline, below which drivers pass a construction project on I-77. This op-ed argues that Charlotte City Council should focus on a wide range of transit choices rather than widening roads.
Charlotte City Council should focus on a wide range of transit choices rather than widening roads. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Mecklenburg County’s population is growing rapidly, and the transportation system isn’t keeping pace with the needs of the people who live and work here. 

With the city pursuing a $13.5-billion transportation plan, there’s been much discussion locally around how that money could be best spent to make the most impact, including through road-widening projects. However, numerous examples from metropolitan areas across the country tell us that simply widening roads is not a long-term mobility solution.

Although traffic congestion may decrease for a few years after a road-widening project, experience both here and in other cities shows that within a few years of widening a road, vehicle traffic volumes increase and soon the road is congested again.

The current pace of incremental investment in the transportation network coupled with rapid population growth puts us on an unsustainable trajectory of high traffic congestion, poor air quality, unattractive economic conditions for attracting and retaining talented workers, and unsafe streets for our most vulnerable residents.  

The good news is that there is a clear plan to create a safe and equitable transportation network. Last year, Charlotte City Council adopted the Strategic Mobility Plan with a goal for half of all commute trips by 2040 to be made by a means other than a single-occupancy vehicle, through walking, biking and taking public transit. 

In a presentation to council members last year, Charlotte Department of Transportation staff shared that Charlotte would require almost twice its existing road capacity if our current transportation trends continue. Failing to invest in transportation choices would worsen an already inequitable situation for people who do not drive, which is approximately 30% of our population. 

Many of our major streets were built without sidewalks, pedestrian signals at major intersections or bike lanes. Our existing streets are in need of maintenance and investments that will make them safer and more accessible for people of all ages and abilities.

Owning or being able to drive a car should not be a prerequisite for having a great quality of life and access to opportunities. A personal vehicle can be a valuable tool for reaching jobs and daily destinations, but the high cost of transportation  — 21% of income for the median Mecklenburg County household — creates a financial burden for many residents who live in car-dependent areas. 

Safe, efficient, reliable transportation choices help connect us to jobs, education, housing, health care, healthy food options, recreation, the arts and each other.

We founded the Charlotte Regional Transportation Coalition three years ago because we recognized the need for neighborhood and community organizations to have a voice in how transportation decisions are made. 

We want to see a transportation system that is centered on the principles of equity, connectivity, affordability, dignity, environmental justice and sustainability. Funding and financing decisions must be through a transparent process that is clearly explained to the public.

We need fast, frequent, reliable and walkable public transportation. We need safe streets for walking and riding bicycles. We need a complete countywide greenway network that connects people to the destinations they need and want to reach. With a new dedicated local funding source, all of these investments should be accelerated during the time that future rail transit projects are being planned and designed. 

Residents deserve to be able to determine how we want to travel. Our streets are our largest shared public space. Widening existing streets and building new ones will not solve our mobility problems or help people who don’t drive. Let’s make space for all people on our streets by investing in a way that supports each person’s ability to choose how they want to travel — whether by car, bicycle, walking or riding public transit. 

Mobility needs do not start or stop at city or county boundaries. As the Charlotte region moves forward with plans to keep our residents and workers moving, a deeper dialogue among counties in the region is necessary to discuss how to implement the Connect Beyond regional mobility plan. 

This letter was written collaboratively with input from the members of the Charlotte Regional Transportation Coalition’s steering committee: Maureen Gilewski (CharlotteEAST), the Rev. Janet Garner-Mullins, Gerry Kingsley (Central Piedmont Sierra Club), Patricia Campbell (Far East Neighborhood Coalition), Steve Yaffe (Montclaire and Bike/Ped Coalition of York County), Meg Fencil and Hope Wright (Sustain Charlotte).


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One Comment

  1. Aren’t people stuck in traffic on inadequate roads, roads in dire states of repair and roads constantly under construction actually the ‘most vulnerable’ considering they are the actual users of the roads?

    Aren’t roads capable of adequately handling volume by definition more safe, efficient, and reliable?

    Is government coercion really a choice? Or is it more accurately the removal of choice via fines, restrictions, bans, taxes, tolls?

    Your ever-lengthening series of buzzwords mean nothing to the millions of drivers, personal and commercial, who are attempting to get from A to B in the quickest manner possible. In London that may be the Tube or the DLR. In Charlotte it’s the surface roads and highways.

    Declaring a categorical as in ‘never the answer’ and then working backward from it is a logical fallacy and a lazy form of rhetoric. Conflating wants with needs is another lazy rhetorical gambit, especially when a group with a agenda compiles the list of wants.

    The Charlotte metro area can arguably be defined as a circle with a radius 40 mi long starting at midfield of Bank of America Stadium:
    40 mi north is Statesville and the I-77/I-40 interchange
    40 mi west is Shelby NC and almost Gaffney SC
    40 mi east is Norwood/Lake Tillery
    40 mi south is Lancaster SC

    The circle’s area: 5,026.55 sq mi. That is slightly less than the entire nation of Montenegro in Europe. It is 200 sq mi more than the entire state of Connecticut. It’s not just the City of Charlotte. It is especially not the central portion of the City of Charlotte. It is not just Meck County. It is a huge, diverse (one of your favorite words) region. Walking is a non-starter. Public transport is and would remain inadequate in reaching all the portions of that vast area.

    Residents deserve to be able to determine how we want to travel? Of course. But that means you don’t get to ignore, reject or oppose those residents who want adequate road capacity – especially if their economic activities produce the tax revenue that makes ANY transportation spending possible. And they do.

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