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Showing a Little Pride

September 15, 2011

Since moving to Atlanta I get asked quite a bit why I would leave Charlotte for here.  The question is usually asked in some sort of confused manner as if I dropped out of Harvard to enroll in the local community college.  There were a lot of reasons why.  The city has the cultural entertainment and diversity of Muncie, Indiana.  It aesthetics are equal to that of your local strip shopping center.  It’s more insecure than a teenager with a massive pimple on prom night.  And most importantly it has the walkability and transit options that are a step up from the Downtown Connector and what the Sierra Club once awarded as the most sprawling city in America.

So it really gets to me when people (most who only visit or see it on television) try to tell me how great of a city it is.  But it really frustrates me when I read or hear things like: “Charlotte is a pioneer in public transit” or “Charlotte is leading the way in public transit” or “We should look to Charlotte for transit solutions.”  To be a pioneer, leader, or innovator you have to be doing at least one of two things.  Either you do something no one else has done, or you do it better than everyone else.  Neither of which a 9.6 mile light rail line and a sub par bus system accomplish.

It is easy to be envious or critical of something when you only can see it from afar.  And that’s what most of the people who offer up praise for Charlotte’s transit are doing.  Maybe they have seen the pictures of the shiny new rail car.  Maybe they visited Charlotte and hopped on the light rail as if it were some kind of amusement ride at Six Flags.  But they have never lived there.  They haven’t attempted to exist on a day-to-day basis depending on their transit system.  Now I can’t sit here and say that I haven’t done my own share of distant criticism; that would be a lie.   When living in Charlotte most of us were aware of the sprawl and car dependency issues of the city, but we mostly shrugged it off and said at least we weren’t Atlanta.  Assumptions we made from either driving through the city, or reading the countless reports on the air quality and traffic congestion of Atlanta.  Well those assumptions were wrong.  Atlanta has greeted me with a wealth of culture, historic and vibrant neighborhoods, historicism that lets me know this place existed prior to 1966, entertainment, and the ability to indulge in all of these things without the burden of an automobile.

Charlotte is spread over a whopping 240 square miles of land.  More land than the city of Chicago with a quarter of their population.  A rail line services 9.6 miles of that.  If Charlotte was truly worthy of looking at as an innovator or being ahead of the transit game,  than Atlanta had to have been on another stratosphere, and cities like Dallas, Salt Lake City, and Portland composed their own universe, light years ahead of everyone else.    When Charlotte implemented its light rail line it had a population just shy of 700,000 and a metro of over 2.2 million.  At the time of heavy rail implementation, Atlanta had a population of just over 400,000 and a metro of the same size.  Salt Lake City: 180,000 and a metro just over a million, and they have 72 miles of light rail.  Charlotte ranks behind those cities and so many more.  It was also recently reported that the light rail will probably not see any substantial expansion until somewhere between 2020 and 2030, optimistically.  When heavy rail was instituted in Atlanta, a majority of the system that you know now was opened within a five years of service commencement.  For all the complaining that people do about MARTA not going anywhere, imagine if when MARTA was built it only went from Avondale to Ashby, and then they said in about 15-25 years they would begin construction (not operation) of the North or South line.  People would have been furious.  If you think they scream inefficiency now, imagine what they would have said if that was the case.  But that is exactly what is happening with our neighbor to the North, and those same people complaining about MARTA going nowhere praise their mass transit investment as if they just invented the wheel.

So it is to this that I ask for two things.  When looking for inspiration in transportation, aim higher.  Don’t choose a location just because of its geographic proximity to Atlanta or because it is new.  Choose a place that can serve as a real model for success like Dallas, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Washington D.C.  Choose a location that has taken an aggressive proactive approach.  That’s how transit began in Atlanta, and that’s the type of attitude it needs to push forward.  Choosing Charlotte as a model is underwhelming, and I do not mean underwhelming because it is light rail, I love light rail (but not as much as heavy rail).  I mean that because their transportation goals are behind where Atlanta’s were 30 years ago.  I mean that because placing your first light rail line in one of the least populated areas of the city does not serve as a model to ease traffic congestion or to improve quality of life.  I know it’s hard to be humble and enjoy what you have when your neighbor just got the “it” thing for Christmas, and you haven’t received squat in a decade, but try to keep it in perspective.

The second thing I ask for is to have a little more respect and pride in where you live.  I know this isn’t transit oriented necessarily, but it has definitely been one of the things driving me insane since moving here.  While there are always greener pastures somewhere, Charlotte is not one of them.  If you love bouncing from strip shopping center to strip shopping center while your home and work life remain in small compartmentalized sections of the city spread among 240 square miles (Atlanta is spread over 140) that you have no option but to drive to, then it’s the perfect place for you.  But if you do enjoy the urban environment, the ability to at least have the choice not to sit in gridlock, respect historicism, and a diversity of culture, people, architecture, and entertainment, then Charlotte is not the place to be envious of.

Atlanta and MARTA are not perfect.  But what you have in this city is leaps and bounds ahead of your neighbor.  If most of us spent as much time pushing for successful urban development and successful mass transit, as others do dreaming and comparing to some other substandard location, we would have a pretty good chance to make a profound impact on this city.  It is this attitude, which for the first time in a decade, allows me to have some pride in where I live.

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