Council Member Vi Lyles on expanding transportation options in Charlotte, NC

lynx-light-railA planned expansion of the Blue Line on Charlotte, NC’s LYNX light rail system will connect the center city to the NoDA art district and University of North Carolina Charlotte Campus. Photo by Reconnecting America, via Flickr.

Charlotte is the largest city in the state of North Carolina, with a metropolitan area population of 2.3 million as of 2013. Over the last half century, Charlotte’s economy grew primarily around the financial sector. As the home to Bank of America’s headquarters, Wachovia’s former headquarters, and a host of Fortune 500 companies, the city was the second largest banking hub in the country when the economic recession hit in 2008. In recent years, leaders in Charlotte have worked to make the city’s economy more resilient by cultivating and expanding other industries—particularly energy, logistics, defense, and healthcare.

In line with that strategy, many city leaders are working to provide a high quality of life in Charlotte’s diverse neighborhoods, which radiate out from the historic center city, in order to attract and retain new businesses and residents and promote Charlotte as a great place to live, work and play. At-Large City Council Member Vi Lyles, a member of Smart Growth America’s Local Leaders Council, is working to provide these neighborhoods with a greater variety of transportation options to help foster a sense of community and connection. “We are focusing on making Charlotte a place where people want to be,” says Council Member Lyles. “To do that, we have to provide those people with choices.”

Though Lyles began her first term on the City Council in 2013, she has a history of working to ensure that the City of Charlotte meets the needs of its residents. Lyles served as Assistant City Manager from 1996-2004, and has worked as a community advocate for affordable housing, the homeless, and the arts throughout her time living in Charlotte. “I want us to think about what people need to do and have to be happy living here,” Lyles explains, “whether they are a suburban mom, an entrepreneur, or a retiree–and what we in government can do to meet those needs.”

Council Member Lyles believes that providing convenient and affordable alternatives to driving will be a crucial step in meeting residents’ mobility needs and connecting them to employment, childcare, groceries, cultural amenities, and other daily destinations. “I have an interest in making sure that when you as a resident need to go somewhere, you can decide whether to walk, whether to bike, whether to take a bus, a train, or a car. I want to create the environment where you have that choice,” she explains. “Better mobility can help every member of our community, from children to seniors.”

Charlotte, NC At-Large City Council Member Vi Lyles
Charlotte, NC At-Large City Council Member Vi Lyles

Other leaders and community members in Charlotte share this focus on improving transportation choices. The City is currently conducting a series of major planned expansions to its transit network. In December of 2012, the Charlotte Area Transit System began construction on the CityLYNX Gold Line, a ten-mile streetcar system that will run along Trade Street through Charlotte’s central business district. The new streetcar line is a major component of the 2030 Transit Corridor System Plan, which establishes five corridors for future transit growth in the city and surrounding county. In a recent opinion article in the Charlotte Observer, Council Member Lyles made the case for the economic development and improved mobility the streetcar line will bring to Charlotte’s neighborhoods.

Work is also currently underway on an expansion of the Blue Line on the city’s LYNX light rail system, which serves Charlotte’s Northeast Corridor—one of the fastest growing areas in the region. The extension will provide an additional 9.3 miles of rail service and connect the Center City to the NoDa art district and the University of North Carolina Charlotte Campus.

Although service won’t begin operating along the Blue Line extension until 2017, the city is already seeing new development along the corridor. Council Member Lyles notes that this reflects a growing demand for walkable and transit-oriented development throughout the city. “The trend I see is that people are willing to live in smaller houses and on smaller lots, as long as [the development] is done well,” says Lyles. “And they are saying, ‘If I live here, can I walk across the street? Can I walk along the rail line? And how do I take rail to fulfill my other needs?’”

Despite this demand, some of the city’s planned transit investments remain controversial due to project costs. Lyles argues that reaping the benefits of these transit investments will require an openness on the city’s part to taking some risks and trying new approaches. “We’ve got to try to say yes, and then figure out how to be successful,” says Lyles. “Saying ‘yes’ opens you up to possibilities you’ve never considered. Saying ‘we’ve never done that before’ closes the door.”

Local Leaders Council