When it comes to being a bike-friendly city, Charlotte doesn’t make the grade. Gradually, though, city leaders are working to change that.
On Saturday, city officials opened the first completed segment of the Uptown CycleLink, a network of bike lanes protected by low, concrete barriers. When completed, the CycleLink will stretch more than seven miles into and through uptown Charlotte.
The first completed segment, just over 2 miles, cost taxpayers about $7.1 million. It runs mainly along Sixth Street and connects the Little Sugar Creek Greenway with Irwin Creek Greenway. Shorter segments are on Fifth, Seventh and McDowell streets.
Why it matters: City leaders say that, as Charlotte grows, bike lanes will play a larger role in meeting the transportation and recreational needs of an urban population. They also tout the positive impact of having a clean and safe alternative to cars.
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“Beyond the environmental and health benefits of this kind of infrastructure, I think there’s just a quality-of-life improvement when you make these sorts of investments in the city,” Larken Egleston, who represents District 1 on Charlotte City Council, told QCity Metro.
During a morning rush hour, we rented a bike from Charlotte Joy Rides and went for a peddle along the CycleLink route.
Except for intersections, which still require a watchful eye, the two-way, protected lanes felt smooth and safe. We encountered just a handful of other cyclists. The lanes are said to be rated AAA — “safe for all ages and abilities.”
What we liked: At most traffic lights, a biker can rest on metal “bike bars” without dismounting.
What we didn’t like: At one point along our ride, uptown construction force us onto the sidewalk. (It was either that or the busy street.) A block or so later, a truck filled with landscaping equipment blocked our way.
Annoyances side, it was easy to see how safe and convenient it might someday be for Charlotte’s bike commuters, especially those living in close-in neighborhoods.
More bike lanes mean fewer lanes for cars, and that sparked some “early opposition to this network,” said Shannon Binns, founder and executive director of nonprofit Sustain Charlotte.
Binns’ group, which advocates for “local sustainability through smart growth,” collected more than 4,000 signatures in support of uptown bike lanes. That was in 2016. The next year, city officials and uptown boosters took up the idea and began to move it forward.
Phase 1 of the CycleLink opened in April 2019, extending from the Little Sugar Creek Greenway to the Rail Trail.
Phase 2, which opened Saturday, runs from the Rail Trail to the Irwin Creek Greenway. It also includes an addition on McDowell Street between Sixth and 10th streets.
When completed, the network will connect more than 40 miles of bikeways into and across Charlotte’s center city.
“As a growing city, we need to make sure that everyone has a safe and convenient way to get to the places they need to go, whether it be work or for play or just to get to the doctor’s office,” Binns said. “And not everyone has the ability or the interest in owning a car.
“Cars are an expensive way to travel,” he added, “and increasingly, as more people come, we have more cars on the roads and more congestion. So in urban areas like this, it’s really important we give people multiple, safe ways to get around.”
Charlotte is hardly alone in building more bike lanes. In cities across the country, officials are looking for ways to reduce car traffic and create urban centers that attract young professionals.
Ely Portillo, assistant director of outreach and strategic partnerships for the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, said more and more people are becoming interested in transportation alternatives. Bike-friendly cities, he said, are often attractive to people “interested in city growth and development.”
Despite Charlotte’s aspirations, it was nowhere to be found on a 2021 list of “most bike-friendly cities in America,” compiled by the website SmartAsset. Atlanta, the only Southern city to make the list, came in at No. 18.
When compiling its list, SmartAssets compared the 100-largest U.S. cities across several metrics: percentage of bicyclist commuters, bicyclist fatalities, miles of protected bike lanes, income after housing costs, average number of days with precipitation and the average number of days with extreme temperatures.
Five of the top-10 cities were in California, with San Francisco ranked No. 1.
“Charlotte isn’t a leader yet, but I know we aspire to be a leader, and we have a lot of models in other cities that we can look to,” said Binns of Sustain Charlotte.
QCity Metro Editor Glenn H. Burkins contributed to this report.