Like other North Carolina metros – and many cities throughout the Sunbelt – Charlotte is very sprawling. A recent report ranked the city as the 25th -most sprawling in the country. However, among metros with a population of over one million, Charlotte ranked 5th in terms of sprawl.*
Because it forces longer commutes and makes public transit uneconomical, sprawl often leads to families devoting more of their paycheck toward transportation expenses. While Charlotte has made some investments in public transit, many neighborhoods still lack access to non-vehicular transportation options. Compounding this issue is gentrification in the central city, which pushes low-income residents – who are more likely to take transit – to the suburbs, where transit is less available.
This post is the second in a series analyzing transportation affordability across North Carolina’s three largest metro areas. As in the Triangle, we present data on access to jobs, in addition to estimated transportation costs for three low-income household types: a single person in poverty, a single parent with two children, and a working-class family.
A hub and spoke metro
Unlike the Triangle, Charlotte is organized like a traditional metro area. Jobs are clustered near downtown (known in Charlotte as Uptown), with smaller concentrations in the seats of outlying cities – for example, Concord, Gastonia, and Rock Hill. Highway corridors between Charlotte and these cities have some additional employment opportunities along them.
Retail jobs (which are also included in the total jobs figure) are more concentrated in south Charlotte, with other clusters around the UNC-Charlotte campus and Concord Mills Mall. Retail development has followed Interstates 77 (to the northwest and south) and 85 (to the west and northeast) out of Charlotte toward Concord, Gastonia, and Rock Hill.
The cost of sprawl
As in the Triangle, single-person households in poverty must devote a significant portion of their income toward transportation in Charlotte – above 40% across nearly the entire metro area.** While transportation is more affordable in the denser parts of Charlotte – which has greater transit options and better job access – the LAI still estimates these households would devote at least 25% of their income toward transportation.
The geography of transportation affordability for single-parent households and working-class families is similar to those of households in poverty. The lowest-cost neighborhoods are near downtown Charlotte, while residents of outlying counties have higher transportation costs.
However, note that the legends for each map are different. For working-class households, the darkest purples are where they would devote 28% (or more) of their income toward transportation. For poverty-level individuals, the darkest greens are where they would spend at least 60% of their income toward transportation. If we applied the working-class legend to poverty-level households, the entire map would be dark green.
Summing it up
In Charlotte, sprawl combined with poor transit access means that low-income residents pay a disproportionate amount of their income for transportation. Lowering transportation costs will entail a concerted effort to link outlying areas with job centers, especially downtown Charlotte. Planners may also consider encouraging more transit-oriented development along the city’s light rail line.
We’ll later combine this data with our previous analysis on income inequality to identify neighborhoods where affordable housing should be built. Affordable housing can only be truly affordable if residents can get to jobs and services, and we argue it should be built in areas with low transportation costs that currently lack low-income housing. Building in these areas will avoid concentrating low-income residents in certain neighborhoods while allowing them to afford commuting and transportation to other necessities.
*Ranking behind Charlotte were Warren (MI), Riverside-San Bernardino (CA), Nashville, and Atlanta.
**The average American household devotes 14% of their income toward transportation.