Sunday, August 8, 2010

Getting Greener in Charleston

This week I took a day off work to see what was going on with alternative transportation in Charleston. Charleston is the closest link to the coast to us here in Charlotte, so I periodically take a day-trip there to enjoy a little sun, seabreeze and urbanism. It struck me that I never really paid attention on my trips there to the alternative transport situation in Charleston. This Thursday, I took a little more careful look.

Charleston's automobile dependency is reflected in its traffic congestion downtown and consequent difficulty getting around its walkable core. Part of the reason for this is the poor links the peninsula geography provides to the core, meaning car-owning folks living on the isolated urbanized islands and peninsulas have little if any incentive to abandon their vehicles getting to primary destinations around Greater Charleston. This includes travel to and from the historic peninsula. Unfortunately, its historic street fabric, well-connected as it is, just does not have the generous boulevards required to handle the automobile volumes this well-beloved destination produces. As a consequence, cyclists and pedestrians have to jostle with a relentless stream of vehicles around the narrow traffic-clogged spines of the city. You'd think urban form here (much more so than, for example, right-of-way lovin' Savannah) would help spur the mode shift to inch somewhat to alternative modes, but that appears not to be the case so much.

The freeway pipes leading to the urban core may do nothing to discourage the primacy of the auto, but one has to suspect here an under-performing, under-privileged and unappreciated transit system may also be an issue. Suspecting this, I concentrated my exploration of the transit question around the neighborhoods connected by Charleston's busiest bus corridor, the Route 10 corridor, which connects the large population of North Charleston with historic Charleston.

My observations confirmed the under-performance of the bus system.  Dramatically so.  Because my observations also revealed the terrific capacity of the Route 10 corridor to truly amplify the effects of transit performance.  Indeed, I left a little envious of the relative advantages Charleston's urban form and geography has on cities such as mine. The potential of this corridor and others in Charleston to generate a mode-shift to rapid transit is quite impressive. Here are just a few of the things I noted:

  1. There are a great number of existing and underutilized rail rights-of-way running along or parallel the Route 10 route that appear readily available to easily retrofit to commuter and/or light rail use. In a significant stretch of Spruill Avenue, in fact, the right-of-way is directly adjacent to the road and is presently unused (you could tell by the saplings growing in between the rails).
  2. The communities along the Route 10 corridor are relatively well-connected (except in newer areas further north) or are easily connectible (as in isolated complexes such as the former Navy Yards at Noisette). Since rail rights-of-way tend to create some of the greatest divisions between neighborhoods, TOD's located strategically could create new and exciting possibilities for interconnection. Significant locations of aging commercial and warehouse facilities can also benefit from tie-ins to transit related development.
  3. The communities of the corridor are using the Route 10 buses to standing room only capacity and stop areas were crowded...A sure sign that existing demand for transit is simply not being met and could grow significantly with added capacity.
  4. Rivers Avenue has a long stretch with a significant right-of-way in North Charleston (about 200 feet wide), which means it could easily be adapted to a multiway boulevard with dedicated transit lanes.
  5. Pedestrians and cyclists populate the entire corridor, but they are not well accommodated. TOD and transit infrastructure can certainly help improve things. Segmenting the road into multiple travelways for those wide sections of Rivers Avenue, for example, would certainly aid pedestrian crossing, which is a significant challenge at the moment.
  6. Because the Route 10 Corridor parallels the I-26 freeway, and parking/congestion is a clear deficit to automobile transport in historic Charleston, rapid transit would have a great strategic advantage attracting commuters as a viable transportation alternative. Charlestonians, however, need to be aware that the speed and frequency of the service is critical to court commuters with the auto choice, not just convenience. The near interchangeability of the commuting options is one critical factor that has made the light rail option very attractive to folks in my city.
  7. The employment and university/college destinations of North Charleston are very important for commuters arriving the other way, meaning a rapid transit corridor would have commuting demand both ways, which generates a clear advantage for the effectiveness of the transit system. A well-placed end of line in Charleston near Charleston Southern University, the large medical park, and the interchange with I-26 would not just be a commuting entry to the transit system but an important destination point as well. In effect, the Route 10 corridor connects two important destination districts, Historic Charleston and one of North Charleston’s most dynamic employment districts, one which has tremendous capacity for future growth.

In a lot of ways, the above points remind me of the critical advantages of the South Corridor here in Charlotte, the first light rail development corridor in the Carolinas. The South Corridor is also a retrofit of an underutilized rail right-of-way running parallel to an interstate freeway that connects a thriving suburb with the core city. What's great about the South Corridor is that it attracts ridership from a wide demographic base, including automobile commuters. Charleston’s recent Green Plan highlighted Charlotte's South Corridor as an aspirational transportation solution for Charleston, particularly for that reason.

My word to Charlestonians: we're flattered for the profile, but aim for what is great about Charleston. It seems that here in the South aspiring communities tend to pay way too much focus on enhanced transit solutions as an amenity choice (and hence an expendable or political choice) and not transit as an advantage choice (as an investment tool to capture and unplug latent benefits seeded in the city and currently being frustrated). Don’t just pay homage to a coveted amenity. Think first about why, indeed, you really need it and - especially! - the special way that you need it.

Instead, aside from mentioning the propensity of the peninsula to favor more compact and dense development forms, Charleston’s Green Plan just seems oblivious to many of these pertinent points of geographic advantage. Transportation talk should always start with discussion of urban form and geography. Nowhere does the Green Plan even seek to posit Charleston's unique metropolitan geography as a unique attribute to interrogate and build upon. There's a reason Charleston produces 40% of carbon emissions through transportation.  But, in fact, such a unique geography may just be Charleston's greatest asset in a solution.  The peninsula geography has myriad virtues that would begin to inform the process of thinking about what “sustainability” means for Charleston and its region. Thinking about the peninsulas and islands would begin to craft unique solutions bearing on the Green Plan's aspirations. A sustainability plan for Charleston should not just look like a sustainability plan that could have been crafted anywhere.

As an outside observer from Charlotte, let me point out that, even if I suspect the transit-related development opportunities are more constrained in Charleston, in some ways, Charleston's unique geography gives it a holistic advantage that Charlotte simply can't match. Please don’t miss this opportunity, Charlestonians! I would begin by studying carefully some of the observations and recommendations transit consultant Jarrett Walker outlines in his discussions of peninsula geography and chokepoints (here and here). Those strongly delineated peninsula areas, which will continue to reinforce compact and dense infill development in the future, and all those chokepoints between the peninsulas and islands, represent a unique edge for transit in Charleston. But this is if, and only if, transit is treated as a mode of primary choice, a mode that may indeed demand exclusive lane dedication in your constrained geography. Transit really stands a chance in your peninsula city, as in Seattle, Vancouver and the Big Apple, to become a mode of choice, not just forever play second (and neglected) fiddle!

...And, as a regular visitor to Charleston, I would certainly enjoy Charleston's charms better with improved opportunities to walk and bike the historic core. Of all the commitments the Green Plan makes, this one is especially relevant to me. A little more right-of-way dedicated to these needs and/or a little less congestion to go with it sure would make my experience of Charleston that much richer. Even if I'm probably not going to use transit services frequently during my visits, at least I would appreciate streets that are a little more accommodating to my tourist needs because of enhanced transit effects. Choice transit does indeed benefit both locals and guests.

1 comment:

Jarrett said...

Great post. Re the need to think carefully about one's envy of other cities' transit systems, you might refer to the example of Strasbourg: