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Better Charlotte street design is no panacea for traffic deaths

Transit Time

Earlier this fall, the Charlotte City Council discussed the rise in traffic fatalities, both for pedestrians and people in cars and trucks.

They debated how to attack the problem.

The traditional way would be for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police to write more traffic tickets. In 2008, officers wrote one ticket for every 22 Charlotte residents. That fell to one ticket for every 68 residents in 2018.

The other idea was more radical: Redesign the city’s thoroughfares to make them less conducive to speeding.

“We know we can’t enforce our way out of his,” said at-large council member Braxton Winston. “We built our way into this.”

He added that giving people speeding tickets on, say, Sharon Road West won’t make it safer.

“I will also say that giving people a speeding ticket on the network — you are not going to make that stretch safer for giving people [tickets for] 54 miles per hour in a 35,” he said.

The city several years ago made a pledge for zero traffic fatalities by 2030, but it’s going in the wrong direction. From 2008-2012, the city averaged 39 traffic fatalities from vehicle crashes and pedestrians being hit. Last year, there were 81 fatalities.

In an interview on WFAE’s “Charlotte Talks” in October, host Mike Collins asked Mayor Vi Lyles whether the city should have police write more traffic tickets to slow drivers down.

“What are we going to do that’s technology based? And how do we design intersections and highways, your thoroughfares in Charlotte, to make them more safe?” Lyles said. “Technology is going to help us. Design is going to help us. …Enforcement is one way to do this, but it’s a flash in the pan versus a continuous improvement. We want the continuous improvement that will change behavior.”

But Lyles’ statement might be too optimistic.

The problem is simply too large — and the city’s current street redesign efforts too small — to move the needle.

The city of Charlotte maintains 2,528 miles of streets. More than 1,700 miles are local streets, which presumably don’t need to be redesigned to force people to drive slower. That leaves 300 miles of thoroughfares and 482 miles of collector streets.

That doesn’t count state-maintained roads like W.T. Harris Boulevard and North Tryon Street.

The Charlotte Department of Transportation does have a program to retrofit streets to make them safer for pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists.

CDOT’s work has been praised by neighborhood groups, as well as Sustain Charlotte, which lobbies for more pedestrian-friendly infrastructure. In other words, the city is doing exactly what Winston and Lyles want.

It’s just not doing it very fast.

Since 2000, CDOT has finished 38 street retrofit projects. Most of those projects are designed one way or another to slow down vehicles. The total number of “centerline” miles they have improved is 20.

If you do the math, you can see retrofitting 300 miles of thoroughfares would, at that rate, would be finished around 2321.

And the pace of making streets safer may slow down.

“All the easy street conversions have been done,” said CDOT design section manager Keith Bryant. “Now we are left with really difficult roads.”

By difficult roads, he means thoroughfares like Sharon Road West, which handles so much traffic the city doesn’t believe it can place a deliberate chokepoint on the road to slow people down. Or Pineville-Matthews Road. Or South Tryon Street.

Not only are there no firm design plans to change them, there aren’t any conceptual plans.

Bryant said the very first street conversion he can find was in 1986 on Park Road, from Kenilworth Avenue to Ideal Way.

Since then, the city has done others, mostly inside the Route 4 corridor within a few miles of the center city.

Those easy conversions include projects like removing traffic lanes last decade from East Boulevard in Dilworth, one of the most high-profile “road diets” or street conversions the city has done.

And the city recently did a high-profile street conversion on Parkwood Avenue to serve Belmont, Villa Heights and Optimist Park. The city removed one lane of traffic and added 0.8 miles of bike lanes.

The total cost was $3.7 million.

(The plan to redesign streets is also likely to get more expensive: The N.C. DOT has seen the cost of its projects balloon this year, and it faces a $12 billion shortfall.)

Bryant said the city will be monitoring traffic on Parkwood to see how the fewer lanes handle the traffic. The city is hesitant to remove a lane of traffic on a road that handles more than 20,000 vehicles a day. Parkwood carries more than that.

“We have pressed the boundary on Parkwood,” Bryant said. “It’s in the mid-twenties. We will have to see what the crash history does.”

Bryant noted that new streets under construction are being designed to make vehicles drive slower, and to allow for pedestrians and cyclists.

“There has been a shift,” he said. “There has been a re-emphasis in creating complete streets. You will find we have a lot of good projects in the hopper.”

He said CDOT is no longer designing roads to handle as many cars as possible.

“It’s like the shopping mall parking lot that they design for Christmas time of year,” he said. “We aren’t doing that.”

CDOT’s philosophy aligns with Lyles and Winston.

But asking CDOT to reduce traffic fatalities through street conversions is a bit like draining a bathtub with a thimble.

Copyright 2021 WFAE