In his landmark 1994 book, The Geography of Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler describes the modern American city as a wasteland of charmless monotony yoked to the automobile, its inhabitants stalled in soul-sucking traffic jams that endless road construction fails to solve.
A small market that revolves around a beguiling old city, the Charleston area seemed immune to this description for most of its existence. But the recent development booms and the area’s northern-creeping center of gravity have set the tri-county area on a collision course with Kunstler’s dystopia.
Urban planners and government officials have recognized this hazard and begun to act, nowhere more forcefully than with current plans for a new bus rapid transit (BRT) system that would link Ladson through North Charleston to downtown Charleston, with mass transit links to Summerville and throughout the region.
Bus Rapid Transit is Not Like the Bus of Your Youth
The bus rapid transit proposal developed by the Berkeley Charleston Dorchester Council of Governments (BCDCOG) is nothing like the city bus systems common in the U.S. High-tech, low-emissions buses would run every 10 minutes on dedicated lanes, with preferential traffic signaling to expedite their travel. The state-of-the-art bus stations would offer copious information about bus status and allow dedicated walking and biking access from either side of the street. Tickets would be purchasable online at the same cost as a CARTA ride — $2.
Planning that dates back to 2014 envisions a 21.5-mile route starting at the Ladson Fairgrounds and ending in the downtown medical district, with 20 stops along the way, making one full trip in an hour. Population and employment density patterns suggest 6,800 daily trips on the bus, about 40% of them made by people attracted to mass transit for the first time by the speed, convenience, and comfort of the BRT. The project would connect with CARTA lines and provide ample room for bicycles.
Indeed, planners view the bus rapid transit line as one link in a region-wide transit system that encompasses pedestrian, bicycle, automobile, and bus traffic, all equally valued. The plan includes the creation of 34 pedestrian crosswalks and 18 miles of multi-use paths along Rivers Avenue. Less than one-fifth of the cost of light rail, it will facilitate access to affordable housing and jobs for those who cannot afford cars, thus making it far more than a transportation solution. A better commuter mix, less dependent on automobiles, supports economic development and overall quality of life for the region.
No More Automobile Ghetto
It also suggests a shift in perception in the community, which has now topped 800,000 residents and is growing by more than 15,000 residents annually. “Any community that experiences growth starts to demonstrate the need to create multimodal corridors,” said Sharon Hollis, the BCDCOG’s principal planner and lead for the bus rapid transit project. “We can’t widen our way out of automobile congestion. This is a way to give people back some freedom bypassing traffic while reading a book, doing work or [cruising] the internet.”
“Even as recently as five years ago people just assumed you had to have a car,” she added. They didn’t understand that there was no way to keep up with maintenance and widening, and if we all kept driving the problem was just going to get worse.”
The result of this kind of thinking is on display in Los Angeles, Atlanta, and hundreds of other communities, many of them much less urbanized, but nonetheless gridlocked in car traffic without viable alternatives.
In fact, much of the route runs down Rivers Avenue, a failed semi-highway that stands as the paradigm of the “automobile ghetto” that Kunstler described. “Rivers is a ‘stroad’ – not a good street, not a good road. It is designed to move traffic as fast as possible, which is in direct conflict with safety and the ability of people to walk and bike and access transit,” said Katie Zimmerman, executive director of Charleston Moves, the multi-modal transportation advocacy group.
Federal matching grants will cover half of the $500 million costs, with Charleston County’s half-cent sales tax, approved by voters in 2016, covering the other half. The project remains in the planning stage and is scheduled to begin construction in 2023, with an opening date in 2026.