Road design is health and climate issue, experts say

CHARLOTTE — If you drive along I-85 in Northeast Charlotte, it’s easy to miss a small white structure near exit 41.

It’s a new air quality monitor meant to detect nitrogen oxides, which are pollutants linked with chronic respiratory diseases and a precursor to ground-level ozone or smog.

Victoria O’Keefe, an air quality specialist with Mecklenburg County said the location of the monitor is extremely intentional. It’s right next to biggest source of pollution in the county.

“Where we see about 160,000 cars and trucks per day,” she said.

The health and climate toll of traffic

It’s the dirty, not-so-secret truth behind our personal vehicles, they’re the number one source of pollution in Charlotte and across the country, the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The brunt of those costs affect people who live within 200 meters of those major highways.

“In the Historic West End we have I-277, I-77, I-85 and NC 16 which all surround the community,” Daisha Wall with CleanAireNC said.

Wall has been working with the neighborhood to improve air quality monitoring and add more trees and green infrastructure to help filter the air. Ultimately, she said taking cars off the roads or swapping them for electric vehicles is the only way to remove that pollution at its source. That’s why Wall said the group worked to get an EV charging station installed in the neighborhood.

“We’re still building up our infrastructure for EV Charging stations. The more EVs that we have, the more infrastructure that we need to actually charge them,” she said. “Communities that have been greatly impacted by air pollution should be the first in line for receiving technologies such as this.”

While 2023 was a record year for EV sales, transitioning to EVs alone, won’t end vehicle emissions anytime soon. About 84 percent of cars sold last year had non-hybrid internal combustion engines and with the average car remaining on the road for more than 12 years, the current speed of the EV adoption means they’ll remain in the minority for at least through the next decade.

The other option is to get cars off the road or drive less, which in Charlotte is a challenge.

How do we get around without cars?

Charlotte is consistently ranked among the most car-dependent cities in the county, as 95 percent of households own at least one car.

Eric Zaverl of Sustain Charlotte believes that won’t change until it gets easier to get around the city any other way.

“That is a symptom of not having this diverse transportation network in Charlotte,” he said. “We need to add more tools to the toolbox when it comes to moving people with transit.”

He said building walkable, bikeable neighborhoods and even neighborhoods conducive to efficient transit requires density.

“So folks can not have to own two, three cars,” he said. “That you’re able to provide options.”

Density is a climate issue too

If a city can build one of these walkable, bikeable neighborhoods connected to transit, where people are choosing not to drive, the Rocky Mountain Institute considers that one of the most impactful ways it can fight climate change.

By estimating the number of eliminated car trips, shortened car trips and acres of forest and grassland saved reducing urban sprawl, the study determined North Carolina cities have the potential to cut 2.8 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions by adopting dense land-use policies. That would be like closing six coal-fired power plants for a year.

“We’re using less miles of road, which means less paving, less miles of sidewalk, because it’s serving more people in a smaller distance,” Zaverl said. “I don’t think people realize exactly when you start spreading things out. That means there’s a lot more infrastructure.”

At the same time, unless those dense neighborhoods have transit good enough for their residents to rely on, they’ll keep bringing in their cars. So Zaverl said density needs to start around those connected areas first.

“I think if they build the same thing in NoDa, and they build the same thing out in Steel Creek, or in North Charlotte, that’s probably not the best practice,” he said.

Meanwhile, Clayton Sealey wants the city to remember, most people will only choose transit if it actually makes travel more convenient.

“Charlotteans are not going to ride transit, without reliability because they have to know when they’re going to be somewhere,” he said.

If the city wants people to walk and bike more often, Henry Wheeler believes our roads need to be built around pedestrian safety and convenience.

“Who would want to be walking, coming from work and walk a whole quarter of a mile to get on the bus to go home, when they could go across the street?” Wheeler said.

While advocates understand none of these changes can happen overnight, cyclist Chris Miller has hope things will be better for the next generation.

“So when my son is 15, 16 in Charlotte, he doesn’t need a car. He can get anywhere he wants without a car,” Miller said.

(WATCH: Safety improvements planned for NC traffic lights)

Michelle Alfini

Michelle Alfini, wsoctv.com

Michelle is a climate reporter for Channel 9.

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