How a transformational year calls for transforming mobility in Charlotte
Ken Brown
Charlotte’s mobility transformation

For the City of Charlotte, 2020 was to be a time of renewed focus on improving mobility for all. However, a few months into the year, Charlotte, along with the rest of the world, encountered the coronavirus pandemic, and the resurfacing of outrage against systemic racism and injustices experienced by communities of color, particularly the Black community. But rather than push Charlotte's mobility conversation to the side, these life-altering and culture-shifting circumstances have shed new light on the importance of investing in transit and transportation to build a city that seamlessly connects people with the resources they need for healthy and fulfilling lives.

To explore the city's continued efforts to improve mobility, and the work of the Charlotte Moves Task Force formed earlier this year by Mayor Vi Lyles, we sat down (virtually) with Assistant City Manager and Director of Planning, Design & Development Taiwo Jaiyeoba.

What is the Charlotte moves Task Force and why was it formed?

The Charlotte Moves Task Force was established in response to the need to coalesce, so to speak, around mobility objectives as a city. On one hand, we have the 2030 Transit Plan, then we have another plan that addresses bikes and pedestrian activities, and we also have a Transportation Action Plan. Further, in the midst of all these, we have the Charlotte Future 2040 Comprehensive Plan, which is a land use plan. So, there's really not one document that talks about how you connect everyone who is not driving.

Coming out of the Charlotte City Council's Annual Strategy Meeting in January, where everybody really honed in on the fact that we need to have a major shift in our mobility network, [Mayor Lyles] established the task force of 25 members, headed by former Mayor Harvey Gantt. The plan is for them to meet between now and December and deliver something to the mayor and City Council that would be a network [of recommended transit and transportation projects] the community has really provided input on and can support for the future.

Tell me more about the group of 25 members, who they are, why they were selected and what they bring to the task force.

We went through a very detailed level of identification. The mayor herself identified a number of people who will be very helpful to serve on this task force. She also reached out to council members who identified representatives from their respective districts and the [Charlotte Regional] Business Alliance to nominate or identify a few names. We not only looked at people who are professionals in the city, but also people who are grassroots or community leaders. Everyone brings to the table a knowledge of "how do we need to make a major shift in our transportation and mobility approach in Charlotte?" This task force will be headed by Mayor Gantt, who brings a lot of knowledge, experience and understanding of these very things, and the relationships as well. So, it's a blend of different individuals.

You often refer to a "catalytic network of mobility projects" as you have talk about mobility. Can you further explain that network and how it will impact the trajectory of mobility and the future of mobility in Charlotte?

We've been using that word "catalytic" and really what it stands for is what investments can you make in our network today that can become a catalyst for economic investments that can pretty much be a game changer?

Right now, the way we've done our investment is always incremental. When you have money, you build four miles of sidewalks or five miles of pedestrian trails. Maybe you do something with a bus or not. It's incremental and it's usually very reactive. The only way to change the game, to go from incremental to a game-changing network is to have a huge investment that brings everything together. So, we're not just investing incrementally in sidewalks or trails but connecting them so there's no sidewalk going nowhere and there's no trail going nowhere. To change the game, we have to invest in a network that not only is one [transit] line from one place to another, but a line that can actually connect with other modes of transportation.

And so, investing in our Silver Line, for example, which will go from Union County to Gaston through Mecklenburg, or investing in the Red Line, which goes from uptown Charlotte, all the way to Huntersville, or investing in bus services that will run every 10 to 15 minutes rather than 30 to 45 minutes becomes that transformative network where, wherever you live, you still are able to get to where you need to go without having to stay outside waiting for the next bus to come in an hour.

This year was supposed to be, in a way, Charlotte's year of mobility. We have seen conversations in 2020 take different path and highlight inequities in our society. How does the Charlotte Moves effort touch on the ongoing conversations regarding equity?

I mean, this has been a year, right? Started with public health crises, the pandemic. And then of course, George Floyd's story definitely highlighted a major issue with regards to racial inequity in our nation. And in the middle of all of this, you're talking mobility.

There are a number of things that will be constant for us as a city going forward. Number one, we will continue to grow. Charlotte is one of those places people want to move to because when people think of density, they don't often think of Charlotte. They think of New York, they think of Chicago. They think of Seattle. They think of all these major cities. We just graduated, from 16th largest [city in the United States] to 15th by population. So, growth will be constant. Two, inequity will continue to be a major issue that we'll have to address as a nation and as a city. Three, affordable housing issues are going to continue to stay with us until we find solutions that can really change how we do it. Housing equity means that if I live far out of town, I can still get to work. If I live in Cabarrus County, but I work at the airport, there is a way to get there without me having to drive for so long or be stuck in traffic. And then, provision of jobs. There are people who don't have a vehicle and cannot telework because of the nature of their jobs. They will continue to need means of mobility to get to where they need to go.

One thing that's constant to all of these is providing mobility. Yes, as a result of public health crises maybe for the first few months, people will be afraid to take transit. But we've taken our top 10 highest-performing routes for example and decided to run them more frequently, every 15 minutes. So, you can carry only 20 people, but whoever else is waiting will find a bus to jump on. As we improve frequency, we can address that transit issue.

Mobility is a way of leveling the field. This is the right time to chart this course because the cities that will change, the cities that will be smart, will be cities that are investing in connectivity right now between different mobility options to get [people] to where they need to go.

Is there anything that you want to touch on that we haven't talked about?

For me, this is a generational thing. You're going to find young people use different ways to get to where they need to go. We're talking about micromobility options, such as scooters; we're talking a lot about autonomous vehicles; we're talking a lot about different means of people moving where they need to get to. It's very important for everyone to get engaged in the process as far as I'm concerned, because even if you're not doing it for yourself, you're doing it for your children and your grandchildren. There will always be that opportunity for people to say, "well, I have my own vehicle, I don't need to be a part of this," but the fact is that your children have to have a means of moving around to get a job, outside of driving.

Again, I believe that the cities that we're competing with are the cities that are investing in public transportation. This year Austin is going to launch a $10 billion referendum to invest in its public transit. Nashville failed a couple years ago, but they are relaunching again. Houston passed about $3.5 billion last year. Fort Lauderdale passed about $16 billion. These are cities that we are competing with and if we want to succeed competitively, the time is now.