In Charlotte, an emergency access path next to a light rail line doubles as a popular trail. It’s a public space that has helped transform the city’s identity, and a great example of how to take something old and unused and make it new.

A section of the Charlotte Rail Trail. Image courtesy of Charlotte Center City.

With a little over 800,000 residents, Charlotte is North Carolina’s largest city, one of the biggest in the southeast, and the 17th-biggest in the US. But despite this large population the city ranks poorly when it comes to how easy it is to walk around in.

But Charlotte’s transportation reputation is changing fast. It opened its first light rail line in 2007 and now has a streetcar as well. Another big change in Charlotte has happened without huge investments in transit technology: the Charlotte Rail Trail, an urban trail in central Charlotte that runs along the emergency access path for the light rail.

The trail, which opened in 2007, runs alongside the tracks for the Lynx Blue Line for 4.5 miles between the city’s Central Business District (known as Uptown) and the formerly industrial South End neighborhood.

The Rail Trail has helped transform Charlotte

The Lynx Blue was a great addition to the neighborhood, jump-starting a lot of transit-oriented development (TOD) in the area. But the neighborhood’s industrial heritage meant that parks and other public space were in short supply in a rapidly changing place. Part of the construction for the Blue Line included an emergency access path for first responders that is otherwise open to people walking or cycling in the area.

A trio of individuals, David Furman, Terry Shook, and Richard Petersheim, thought that the path could be a lot more than just a way for ambulances and fire trucks to get to the light rail. They envisioned public art, a better way to get around,  and trail-side retail—  a “linear commons” that would become a destination and public space valued by nearby residents and the city at large.

From there, Charlotte Center City, a business improvement district (BID) that works to promote neighborhoods like Uptown and South End, took over the organizing, working with developers, the city, and other stakeholders to make the trail happen.

Chairs along the trail encourage people to hang out and linger. Image from Charlotte Center City.

Today, the trail is both a great way to get around and a destination all to itself.

According to Erin Gillespie, who works to improve the trail with Charlotte Center City, trail usage has nearly doubled in the short time the trail has been opened. 1250 people per day were using the trail in 2014, and the number climbed over 2000 in 2015 (for reference, the number of people who biked across the 14th Street Bridge on the average weekday in May of 2015 was a little under 2,250).

Surveys of nearby residents say many of them use and rely on the trail in their day to day lives. The trail is busiest in the evenings, when commuters and residents use it to enjoy and explore their city.

Dining along the trail at the Lynx’s Bland Station. Image from Charlotte City Center

Along the trail, there’s public art and nearby retail. There are also events that get people to stop jogging and to start lingering.

Buildings that would normally avoid putting any entrances close to a rail line are instead building entrances to entice trail based customers. Public art and furniture line the entire length of the trail inviting people to sit and admire the scenery and even participate with special events along the trail. New connections between the street and the trail make it easier for people to get to the trail, which allows more people to enjoy what many have discovered for themselves.

This restaurant faces the tracks and trail rather than the street. Image from Google Maps.

That identity may not always mesh with people’s idea of a walking and biking trail. There is not a lot of tree cover, but that’s hard to avoid, as much of the South End was developed as an industrial and warehouse district. Because Charlotte Center City has worked with landowners to provide easements for trail access, the trail has actually been able to create more open space than was there before.

Meanwhile, Charlotte does have a separate Greenway program aimed at improving the park spaces and trail network within Charlotte. The Rail Trail will be a part of that overall network but keep its own identity as a place with a lot of activity.

Still, there are challenges to improving the trail from what it is today (here, you can check out the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s report on common hurdles for projects like this all over the country). Finding the space necessary to develop the Rail Trail in the face of intense real estate pressure has been a constant challenge. Despite its popularity and use, the trail does not have any dedicated funding and is largely improved with small grants.

And while working with developers has yielded great results it has also led to piecemeal improvements. Gaps in the trail do persist, especially when it comes to getting to the trail itself. Local streets and the trail are not always at the same elevation and paths between the two can be inadequate.

Trails like Charlotte’s help spur positive growth

Our region is certainly no stranger to trails that run along right of ways from other forms of transportation. The Metropolitan Branch Trail and Custis Trail run right along railroads and highways. One big feature of the Purple Line in Maryland will be its running alongside the Georgetown Branch Trail between Bethesda and Silver Spring.

We should keep Charlotte’s Rail Trail and the excitement it has created in mind when we hear opposition to the Purple Line that says a train next to a trail will keep people from enjoying the area. I asked Gillespie if there had been any local opposition to developing the trail the way it has been, and she struggled to think of concerted efforts to put a stop to things.

She added that the smooth process might be because a lot of the work to build up the trail was done before South End really got comfortable in its identity as a residential neighborhood. There was never a chance for people to hold onto their vision of the neighborhood the way Chevy Chase has with the Purple Line.

The need for space and to negotiate with developers is also reminiscent of NoMa and its struggles to find park space for one of Washington’s most rapidly growing neighborhoods. In Charlotte, the Center City BID has been able to help a lot by coordinating and managing all of the stakeholders that have in interest in the city’s redevelopment. NoMa is working to do that as well but the big pay off has yet to arrive. 

Charlotte is by no means done with redefining itself as one of America’s urban places. A rail trail extension is slated to open next year and the Blue Line is getting its own extension as well. Gillespie said she’s excited about these improvements because it will mean more people will get to experience the Rail Trail and help cement the path’s reputation as one of Charlottean’s favorite spots.

If you have recently visited Charlotte and traveled along rail trail tell us what you think in the comments.