The locals on the light-rail line in Charlotte, North Carolina, seemed amused by the horde of transportation tourists that crowded onto their cars one afternoon in early November. The visitors carried cameras, took notes, and seized on every detail: “This used to be an industrial corridor?” “How much do those station-side condos sell for?” “Does that bike trail follow the tracks the whole distance?” At the end of the line, the group followed a guide off the train and over to a large concrete park-and-ride garage. It was completely filled with cars! It had a soccer field on top! The crowd gawked and snapped photos like they were looking at Machu Picchu.
The explorers—a city planner from the Bay Area, an analyst for New York City Transit, a sustainability consultant from Indianapolis, an urban designer for the city of London, Ontario, and a dozen others—were members of the Congress for the New Urbanism, an organization of developers, architects, engineers, and activists who champion traditional, mixed-use neighborhoods over car-dependent suburban sprawl. The congress’s choice of Charlotte for this year’s transportation summit was a belated endorsement. Ten years ago, downtown Charlotte was notable for its enormous bank towers, the staggering array of parking lots around them, and a paucity of city nightlife and historic charm. In 1998, the fed-up citizens of Mecklenburg County voted to increase their local sales tax by half a percent to pay for new transit, and today the city has a thriving bus system and the year-old Lynx light-rail line, which has already sparked more than $1 billion in planned neighborhood development near its stations. About 17,000 riders board the train every weekday—a figure not far short of the initial projections for 2025.