We moved to Chapel Hill nine years ago from Brookline, Massachusetts. Brookline is the quintessential streetcar suburb — a century ago, trolley car companies had the foresight to extend service along Beacon Street to Cleveland Circle, offering middle-class working families an easy commute to downtown Boston.
Flanked with brownstones and low-rise apartments, Beacon grew into a prized community, with spectacular schools, wide sidewalks, independent bookstores, restaurants, and boutiques. Above all, Brookline was walkable – our car was totaled five months before we moved to North Carolina, and despite having two kids younger than 7, we didn’t need it.
It was a stark contrast with our new home in Meadowmont. We made it for 2 weeks as a one-car family – I rode the bus to work at UNC Hospital, while my husband navigated neighborhoods with our two boys. But it was July, and I was 8 months pregnant –- by mid-month, we bought a minivan, just in time to bring our third home from the hospital.
We missed our car-free lives. Getting three kids buckled and situated was a struggle, not to mention the trail of carbon that we left driving to soccer practice and to big box stores. Meadowmont was built for walking, and we got accustomed to wheeling our old-lady grocery cart along the bike path to Harris Teeter. We biked to Brixx for pizza and to Lickety Split (and then Market Street) for ice cream. In our 1-square-mile bubble, we could occasionally make it through a weekend without getting into a car.
We owe that good fortune to the foresight of Orange County planners, who saw what happens when development spreads like kudzu through former forest and farmland, with suburban cul de sacs spread over the land. Orange County leaders established rural buffers, aiming to cluster development in compact neighborhoods and protect open spaces. But cars, like kudzu, are invasive, sprawling out to spawn widely-spaced homes with long driveways but no sidewalks, remote from retail stores and restaurants.
Today, we’re poised to be saved from sprawling suburbs by the mother of many walkable communities: Light rail. Throughout human history, permanent transportation corridors have spawned multiuse development. Ancient cities grew up along navigable rivers – think Cairo, Rome, Paris and London. In the 19th century, railroad stations were the nidus for Chicago, Denver, and Sacramento. And in local communities, streetcars, like the Green Line in Brookline, have fueled development of walkable, compact neighborhoods.
It’s rivers and rails, not bus routes, that drive development. A bus route can change overnight, but train tracks last for decades, a fact not lost on real estate developers. Only long-term term transit corridors stimulate environmentally-friendly, high-density development
That’s why, in 2012, Orange County residents voted 59 percent to 41 percent to invest in public transit and light rail, setting in motion the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project. The 17.7 mile project will span 18 stations, spawning compact, mixed use development that will free residents from car travel to live, work and play. Local leaders have committed to developing low-income housing adjacent to light rail stations, making life without a car a plausible possibility.
The light rail will also connect with a network of buses in Orange and Durham, speeding commute times to downtown Durham and Chapel Hill. Such changes are essential for upward mobility: a 2015 Harvard study found that shorter commuting time is tightly linked with escaping poverty.
In April, the Orange County Commissioners will decide whether to stay the course. Light rail will preserve Orange County’s vision to smart, environmentally-sound development surrounded by a bucolic rural buffer. The majority of County Commissioners voted for the plan, and each of us needs to remind them why we nearly six out of 10 of us voted for smart growth.
We can’t let the kudzu take over.
Alison Stuebe is an Obstetrician-Gynecologist. She rides Chapel Hill Transit to work every day.