By TOM LOW, Special to The Observer

What distinguishes a so-so transit stop from a great one? And can a simple bus or light-rail stop, once pinpointed on a planning map, become a focal point for a thriving neighborhood?  The time to think about these issues is now, as Charlotte sets about designing its Independence Boulevard Busway project and its expanded Charlotte Trolley service from South End through uptown.  If you want to see mediocre transit stops that haven't attracted development and don't turn neighborhoods into better places to be, examples abound in many cities, including Miami, Houston and Atlanta.  Consider Atlanta's MARTA system: Cold granite slabs and windswept platforms, surrounded by vast parking lots and massive garages. How can we in Charlotte, instead, build transit stops that bring money, people and a higher quality of life into a neighborhood?  Many Charlotteans have offered their thoughts at public workshops the city is holding for the Independence Busway and the soon-to-be expanded trolley line. Because my family and I live in the Chantilly neighorhood and my office is in the Plaza-Central business district, I've attended some busway workshops.  What people at such meetings said they want isn't hard to predict. An audience questionnaire at a Sept. 29 trolley workshop found the most requested amenities for trolley stops to be public art, historic markers, police sub-stations and small parks. The other things people wanted weren't as glamorous but are just as important - utilitarian amenities that make a big difference in transit riders' comfort: benches, restrooms, pay phones, a clock, automatic teller machines and bicycle racks.

With all this public energy (and money) devoted to planning Charlotte's transit stops, it's worth considering transit stops in other cities, particularly cities known for high quality of life. How do they look? Where are they placed? What positive role can they play in a neighborhood? How can they be designed so they fulfill, not squander, their economic development potential? And finally, how can they boost the lives of the people living nearby?  Sociologist Ray Oldenburg, in his thought-provoking book, "The Great Good Place," describes modern U.S. society as one in which, increasingly, people's lives are divided between a workplace and a private home, with only a torturous commute to mediate. He believes people need a "third place," more relaxed than work, less private than home, for socializing.  Such third places have existed throughout history, the world over, he writes: the ancient Greek agora, classic French cafes, English pubs, old-fashioned taverns, even soda fountains on Main Streets of old.

In Charlotte the churches, country clubs and the YMCA steam room can sometimes be third places, for members. But Oldenburg points out a need for informal neighborhood places - coffee shops, beauty parlors, general stores - where people hang out simply for easy company and conversation.  Why couldn't transit stops be designed to be great good places?  Imagine this daily routine: You get up in the morning, dress, walk to the corner cafe, buy a newspaper, coffee and a doughnut. You read and sip as you watch through the window for your train or bus or streetcar. When it arrives, you take a few steps and hop onto your ride to work.  Or imagine you're a conventioneer uptown, sampling regional delicacies such as pecan pie and sweet iced tea, or maybe a Moonpie and Cheerwine, while you wait for the trolley.

City officials and transit consultants have great expectations about transit tax dollars making a grand statement. What better statement can we make about being a sophisticated city than by anchoring the transit stops from the start with great good places?  But what does it take to create such a place?  Bob Gibbs of Gibbs Planning Group Inc. in Birmingham, Mich., a downtown retail consultant, notes that a great transit stop should have a place for people to go inside and do something while they wait.  He and other downtown experts I spoke with say it's a mistake to think that transit stations should be separated from the sidewalks and surrounding stores.

In other cities I have visited, including San Francisco and Toronto, transit is seamlessly integrated into the city street scene. No special transit structures are needed. Mostly people wait nearby or in the shops that directly front the transit stops.  The shop owners get the business this foot traffic generates, and riders have a comfortable and inconspicuous place to hang out. Waiting in a shop or cafe is also far more dignified than standing under a Plexiglas kiosk trying to avoid dirt and rain blowing in.  Just as important, shop owners and customers looking out the windows provide informal, grass roots policing known as "eyes on the street."

Roberta Brandes Gratz, an urban expert and author of "Cities Back From the Edge: New Life for Downtown," says if Charlotte wishes to become a pedestrian- and street-oriented city, a transit system provides a great opportunity. If the transit stop can become part of a commercial street, she says, it will naturally lure new businesses. She recommends the city consider incentives for such new businesses. In Charlotte's pro-entrepreneur environment, transit stops could provide opportunities for public-private ventures.

The new Reid's Fine Foods uptown, next to the proposed trolley line, is a perfect example of a business attracted to a transit line. When the trolley begins running uptown, riders can wait at Reid's coffee and wine bars or at the outdoor tables next to the rail line.

At the busway workshops, participants agreed plenty of parking will be needed to attract riders who don't live within walking distance. They also wanted to consider neighborhood shopping.  Think about this: Lining up shops and services between parking lot and transit stop would let riders drop off dry cleaning or pick up bread, bagels or a bouquet of flowers on their way to or from work without making another car trip. Some cities even encourage day care centers at transit stops. People are less likely to mind walking a short way to their cars if it's a pleasant walk past stores designed for window shopping.  Jim Ritchey, general manager of the Triangle Transit Authority, a fledgling transit system that will serve Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, says great transit stops invite people to do things. This can happen with stores, offices or homes.

Jane Jacobs, the acclaimed urbanist and author, agrees that beyond the basics - protecting people from the weather, giving them a place to sit, making sure they feel safe - if a transit line runs in the right place then shops, homes and businesses will naturally happen. She also says the less elaborate the stations are, the better. Why build a fancy canopy that just lures potential customers away from the shops where they might otherwise wait? That isn't good for business investment.  It may take a long time for enough housing, shops and workplaces to fill the area right around the new transit stops so that a large portion of riders can walk. But why couldn't great good transit stops be built from the beginning, to anticipate the development and possibly speed it along?

If these great good transit stops were located at buildings with upper floors, they might include telecommuting facilities. This is the high-tech version of the old keyman office. The home-based workers who get lonely stuck in the back bedroom could visit the telecommuting office and plug in to the fiberoptics web and share copiers, fax machines, printers, coffee and small talk. It could offer space for teleconferences, or real conferences. Business people could meet clients in the cafe downstairs over coffee - the way Europeans conduct business, since they have a shortage of golf courses.

Space at transit stops could also provide opportunities for newly forming or expanding civic or religious groups which don't need a lot of space or big parking lots.  What might one of these great good transit stops look like in Charlotte? We must envision something more than a bus stop with parking lots and windswept platforms with security cameras.  

First, let's skip the polished granite, steel and glass canopies. Just hang a simple sign saying "transit stop." Integrate public art and historic markers into buildings' facades and into the streetscape. Locate stops specifically to promote mom-and-pop shops. Don't waste the development potential of the area around these transit stops with vaguely defined "open space." Instead, make sure any open space is designed to be a pocket park, green or plaza and is surrounded with stores, offices, homes and community buildings, so people feel safe using them. Make sure community police regularly walk or bike past.  As for me, you'll definitely see me riding transit. I'll be the one on a stool in the soda shop window, slurping orangeade with a straw, reading Tom Wolfe's book "A Man In Full" while waiting for the streetcar. I might think about all those poor souls, stuck sitting on granite slabs in Atlanta's bleak MARTA stations. Then I'll look around and sigh, "Ahh, city life in Charlotte is wonderful. What a great good place."

Seven steps to a great transit stop

1. Locate stations at cross streets. Intersections are natural hubs for retail, which can make station areas lively and safe. This also eliminates the need for pedestrian bridges, such as one proposed for the Independence Busway, which are outdated and expensive. One in Roanoke, Va., similar to what's proposed here, cost about $7 million. Instead of expensive pedestrian bridges, expand the greenway system with walk- and bikeways along creeks, such as under the Independence freeway at Morningside Drive.

2. Don't replace old suburban development with new suburban development. Transit stops need city-style development: wide sidewalks, store windows along the sidewalk, parking lots behind stores, buildings that mix uses such as stores, offices and apartments. Remember to reserve space for civic uses such as libraries, post offices and government services.

3. Neighborhood shops on the stop: Don't separate transit stops from nearby stores and restaurants. Transit riders provide the customers that attract private investment.

4. Keep it simple. No need for polished granite, steel and glass canopies. Hang a simple sign saying "transit stop" in front of stores and cafes.

5. "Open space" is great - in the right place. Any parks near transit stops should be small, friendly pocket parks, greens or squares, placed where they don't squander the sites best suited to attract businesses to serve transit customers.

6. Provide comforts. Shops and cafes can provide the necessary seats, pay phones and restrooms (with diaper-changing facilities). Don't forget the needs of kids. Don't forget bike racks. And regular police patrols are a must.

  1. 7.Remember transit when planning big intersections. Cloverleaf interchanges have no place in a transit-friendly neighborhood and are hard to retrofit. Work with the N.C. Department of Transportation to build urban-style interchanges, where people can walk to and from transit stops and area businesses.