Trail of the Month: February 2009
North Carolina's Charlotte Trolley Trail
Charlotte's new light rail transit line purrs right alongside it. Apartment complexes and condominiums have opened up within feet of its pavement. Famous restaurants and stores are right across the street. North Carolina's professional sports stadiums and arenas are only a few wheel turns away. In fact, about the only convenience the Queen City's newest 3.3-mile rail-with-trail doesn't offer yet is an official name. But this oversight is not for lack of love.
In designing and building this complex urban trail, the city drew on the efforts and insights of numerous agencies, including Charlotte's planning, engineering and transportation departments, says Jim Keenan, program manager for the city's Engineering and Property Management Department. Keenan credits these dedicated partners with the pathway's great success; ironically, he also says the trail probably remains nameless because so many different people contributed.
"Part of collaboration means that no one really owns it entirely," he says. "The trail wasn't one person's focus. A couple people had the idea, and then a lot of people helped develop it."
Some folks call it the "station-access trail," except the pathway does far more than connect transit hubs. Others refer to it simply as the "multi-use path," which is certainly accurate yet doesn't capture the trail's history and unique rail-with-trail personality. Perhaps the most evocative potential name is the "Charlotte Trolley Trail," which best reflects the pathway's origins and original use.
In the early 1990s, the city of Charlotte purchased several miles of unused right-of-way from Norfolk Southern that stretched into downtown from the southeast. Planners wanted to restore some vintage trolleys to run along the corridor, says Keenan. As they developed the trolley system, they decided to put wide sidewalks on both sides of the tracks over a two-mile section (occasionally, the sidewalks are on only one side). Safe, well-lit and landscaped, the paths were eight-feet-wide and open to pedestrians and cyclists.
Completed in 2002, those first two miles passed through uptown Charlotte and the South End, a turn-of-the-century industrial area that quickly welcomed the new greenway. "We had people out walking even before construction was complete," says Keenan.
The city then decided to extend the trail another 1.3 miles south along the brand-new light rail transit corridor, called the LYNX Blue Line, which is open to bicycles during all service hours. Keenan says the city wanted the extension—funded entirely by voter-approved bonds—to connect to more transit stations and provide an alternative transportation and recreational outlet. Four feet wider than the northern sidewalk section, the southern 1.3 miles are better tailored to cycle traffic.
At both ends, though, the pathway now seamlessly plugs into its surrounding neighborhoods, from 9th Street in the heart of Charlotte all the way south to Clanton Road and the Clanton Road LYNX station. "It basically bisects downtown," says Keenan.
During rush hour and on weekends, the trail is often flowing with users of all kinds and with all sorts of destinations—whether to get to work, out for a run, walking to dinner or ice cream at an old-fashioned soda shop, or heading to a Charlotte Bobcats game (the arena's parking lot abuts the trail). "It is truly a mixed-use facility," Keenan says.
At any station along the route, trail users can load up on the LYNX line and zip into points across Charlotte, and all while avoiding on-road congestion. This off-road connectivity has noticeably enhanced Charlotte's transportation landscape, says North Carolina native Katie Test. She grew up in the city's Elizabeth neighborhood and says much of Charlotte has a suburban feel; many people routinely drive 30-40 minutes to commute into downtown. Yet Test recently re-visited the South End after the trail and LYNX were developed. The Trolley Trail, she says, has really brought together the communities along its route, where folks can leave their cars behind and share a walk with neighbors. "It's become a great lifeline for the city, because it connects residential areas, restaurants, downtown and sports areas. It's like an active transportation dream."
She calls the Trolley Trail "walking and biking remediation" for Charlotte. Locals and visitors to the pathway now have an off-road thoroughfare—with only a few small interruptions—to get outside and navigate the city.
And judging from turnout on the trail, Test is not the only Charlotte denizen excited about the new possibilities. New apartment and business developments are popping up all along the corridor, and activities abound on all sides. Just walk out on the Trolley Trail any day, says Keenan, and you'll see the city at play. "In the end, we've got something the public really embraces."
For more information, photos and user reviews of the trail, or to post your own comments, please visit TrailLink.com.