For my recent trip to Charlotte, North Carolina, to attend the Strong Towns and Congress for New Urbanism convenings, I had planned on staying at an Airbnb in Uptown/Downtown. (The city’s central business district is referred to as “Uptown” by locals, although “Downtown” is understood by natives since it refers to the same area.) However, the day before I was to leave, the rental company canceled on me. Because of this late notice, I knew Uptown accommodations would be pricey.
Frantically, I decided to book a hotel along the Charlotte Area Transit System’s Blue Line. I wasn’t sure what I’d find, but at least I would have access to reliable public transit to the event venues. I began my search for accommodations looking north, but it was a bit too far, so I looked south. I found a Best Western a five-minute walk from the Woodlawn Rail Station. I had never been to this area of Charlotte, so I didn’t know what to expect, but it was affordable.
Wow, was I pleasantly surprised with Charlotte’s light-rail system. For years I have worked on advocating, planning, and riding L.A.’s light-rail lines. Compared with our city, Charlotte is next level in planning, design, and execution. Here’s why.
I rode the bus from the airport to the Westin Hotel in Uptown to register for the conference, then headed to my hotel by light rail. I was told that I could step on the system from the hotel, so I followed the signs in the back of the hotel—and voila: I walked a few feet to the Brooklyn Village Station. I didn’t have to cross a street to get there!
The Brooklyn Village station is clean and quiet, so I could relax and take in the great weather and environment. The station is elevated above the street, away from cars. On the other side of the station platform is an apartment building also built a few feet away—and, again, not separated by a street. The lack of cars and intimate space created by the buildings on either side of the station reminded me of the Budapest tram stations on the ring road where I once lived.
The train arrived, and I took it a few stations south. Along the way, I noticed people walking and cycling along the rail line on dedicated bike lanes and sidewalks. Where were the cars? At each station I saw public spaces, retail, office, and housing built a few steps away, not across wide roads separating them from pedestrians/transit users. People were using the light rail like New York City subway riders, going from one destination to the next. The Charlotte system is a lifestyle choice rather than a mobility choice, seamlessly connecting people to where they want to live, work, and play.
These new multistory developments—or transit-oriented developments (TODs), as they are called—were designed in a traditional style with subtle brick facades, warm colors, and with an emphasis on ground-floor retail. Trees and landscape surrounded them. Many of these TODs are laid out around public spaces that are both visually clear from, and within walking distance of, stations.
Once I arrived at Woodlawn and exited, I had to cross a narrow street and parking lots to access my hotel. That felt like L.A.! However, I went back to Uptown later, back to Woodlawn Station. While I was waiting for the train, I heard birds chirping. There was a bird’s nest in the tree planted on the platform next to me! How incredibly pleasant it is to hear birds and not the roar of cars. Woodland has some great trees planted on the station platform for shade and beauty. According to Charlotte architect Eric Orozco, “The trees are small maturing ones with crowns that won’t spread out to interfere with the vehicle or platform functions and overhead wires. The shelter and trees are an homage to our historic tree-covered neighborhoods, designed by John Nolen and the Olmsted Brothers.”
For the next four days my life evolved as I discovered Charlotte’s light rail, attending the conferences, visiting friends, shopping, eating, and exploring the landscape and public art along the line. One of the highlights is when the train runs right through the convention center. It gave me hope on how L.A. can retrofit similar stations.
Charlotte light-rail stations focus on the sensory experience of riders, which is the opposite of what L.A. does. Here, we design and build the lines and the stations to get people out of cars. The stations are usually located to prioritize car accessibility by placing them in the middle of freeways and streets, which are further widened by the Department of Transportation. L.A. Metro builds park/ride lots adjacent to the stations for two auto-centered options: passengers parking their cars before boarding the train and drop offs. To access the stations, riders have to cross busy, dangerous streets and/or walk through parking lots. Many stations are located on noisy roadways, which is an assault on human ears.
If the ultimate goal is to get people out of their cars, it’s crucial for the system itself to be worth the experience. It must be easy to access and provide some sense of ease and delight. The Charlotte light-rail system integrates people, mobility, art, and sensory details, with hints of nature. This made me realize that we have it all wrong in Los Angeles. We punish our transit riders.
Featured image: Brooklyn Village light rail stop, Charlotte Area Transit System. All photos by the author.