By Brent Warren, TC Blogger

Charlotte’s light rail system recently celebrated its five-year anniversary. Now serving over 14,000 passengers a day, the Lynx Blue Line has surpassed ridership expectations and won over former critics.

As Charlotte looks to add a streetcar line and gets ready to start construction on a nine-mile extension of their light rail, it’s worth taking a moment to look at how this once car-centric and sprawling city managed to transform itself into a transit-friendly city of sidewalks.

Charlotte and its suburbs grew a tremendous amount in a short period of time. A UNC Charlotte study found that from 1985 to 1996 Mecklenburg County’s total developed land area jumped from 18% to 41%. In comparison, Columbus’ growth, while significant, has been less meteoric (see chart below).


Columbus MSA

Charlotte MSA



Pct Change


Pct Change
















Source: US Census Bureau (Population, Metropolitan Statistical Areas)

In Charlotte this rapid population growth and the sprawl that came with it spurred calls for action from two important stakeholders:

  • Business leaders, who heard complaints from the talented young workers they were recruiting that Charlotte did not offer the type of urban lifestyle they were looking for. These executives started asking how the city could be transformed in order to attract and retain the workers they needed to grow their companies.
  • Non-profit and citizen-based organizations, who were concerned about the loss of open space and the environmental consequences of sprawl. Campaigns focused on sustainability and smart growth helped people see the connection between the ever-increasing sprawl with the concrete land use and transportation choices that were being made.

Local government and elected officials responded by helping to facilitate important planning and visioning efforts, which led to recommendations to improve transit and encourage transit-oriented development. In 1998, voters approved a ballot initiative that provided dedicated funding to implement these recommendations. The long-term result of this vote was a doubling of bus service and the introduction of a light rail line with many walkable, mixed-use developments along its length.

In Columbus we’ve seen great improvements in COTA since the most recent levy was passed in 2006, but obviously nothing approaching the transformative changes Charlotte has seen in the past 15 years. Many of us in Columbus hope that in the next 15 years we see the type of overall system upgrade that they’ve experienced in Charlotte.  Do you think there are any lessons to be learned for Columbus in Charlotte’s story?