Some people might drive through the suburbs and think that they are in a utopia. Good schools, clean roads and rows of McMansions might seem like the results of successful planning. That is until there is the inevitable realization that none of these places are accessible without a car. Most modern suburban neighborhoods are poorly designed. Winding and curvilinear streets decorated with random cul-de-sacs provide a confusing experience for motorists and pedestrians alike.
For a place advertised as the ideal location for families, the suburbs are remarkably unsafe for children because of unreliable sidewalks. Sometimes, there is no sidewalk at all. There are two reasons for this: sidewalks are an after-thought because car-ownership is over-prioritized, and suburbs are too expensive and spread out to maintain. If Charlotte is not required to build sidewalks, then they won't. However, if suburbs are costly to maintain, then why doesn't the city redesign them?
Suburban renewal or redevelopment is a concept that might seem foreign at first. However, when the city has built an unorganized sprawl of houses since the 1950s, urban utilities such as water and electricity had to be carried out to them, too. All of that infrastructure is aging and decaying for a city that does not handle its growth. Density is how cities like Washington, New York and Boston deal with growth; that's why public transit is functional in those cities. Nevertheless, here in the Queen City, the car is king.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), automobile accidents are still the leading cause of death for young Americans between 18 and 24. Most of those accidents happen on highways, but highways are how suburbanites get from their unorganized jumble of houses to the organized urban core where they work. However, the rise of remote work due largely to the Covid-19 pandemic has reduced the need to commute uptown, but that doesn't eliminate the problem.
While suburban neighborhoods grew along highways, urban neighborhoods were destroyed to make way for the traffic caravan. According to the Charlotte Redevelopment Commission Records, the city council approved a "slums razing" project in 1960 that targeted Second Ward, then called Brooklyn, the heart of the thriving black middle class in postwar Charlotte. However, under urban renewal, the neighborhood was leveled for the extension of the Independence Expressway, now part of I-277. This classic example of cruelty is symbolic of how often white progress is founded on black erasure. As Joni Mitchell cried out in her song "Big Yellow Taxi," "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."
Apparently, bulldozing black neighborhoods was not enough for Charlotte. Public transportation was also curtailed to keep the poor out of the wealthy suburbs. A 2015 Harvard University study by Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren found that access to reliable public transportation is the defining factor in a person's ability to escape poverty. The report also observed that "the greater price of access to high-opportunity neighborhoods could potentially explain why more segregated, sprawling cities tend to generate worse outcomes for children in low-income families." In addition, cars offer a high-priced premium for entry into the suburbs that only exacerbate racial and class-based exclusion.
What Charlotte should do is fund the parts of the city that have equality of mobility between those who walk and those who drive. This would mean withholding city tax dollars from suburban neighborhoods that often receive subsidies (money taxed from dense urban communities) to fund their unsustainable sprawl. Car-dependent suburbia would be forced to reform itself with sidewalks, bus routes, bicycle lanes and neighborhood overhauls. However, unlike urban renewal, suburban renewal would not displace people. It would just upgrade their neighborhoods to include higher density, more pedestrians and good schools.
Suburban renewal would undoubtedly improve life in the city, too. Most people can agree that empty parking lots are an ugly blight for any city, including Charlotte. However, urban parking is primarily used by suburban commuters. In her 1961 book, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," Jane Jacobs called urban parking lots "border vacuums" that serve as barren, dead zones.
Traffic congestion is a common complaint in Charlotte, but if the supply of surface parking were limited, then more people would use public transportation, meaning fewer cars on the roads. This is an urbanism phenomenon called induced demand, which refers to supply increases (for parking or highway lanes, for example) that inspire subsequent demand increases (traffic congestion). However, the opposite is true: reducing parking will reduce traffic.
I offer a challenge for the suburbanites who are not convinced that their neighborhoods were haphazardly designed: Don't drive to work or class tomorrow. Take the bus or walk and let's see if you make it on time.