Greensboro, North Carolina, and Lincoln, Nebraska, are examples of two very different regions, despite their similarities at first glance. Both are relatively small, with less than 1 million people. (Greensboro has around 723,000; Lincoln around 302,000.) Neither region has fixed-guideway transit, though both have a variety of bus, vanpooling, and other transportation options.
However, Lincoln scores straight As in Living, Working, Moving, and Thriving, while Greensboro is one of several communities that scored straight Ds. Evaluation of the opportunity areas in each region reveals why these communities score so differently: Lincoln has 12 opportunity areas, while Greensboro has just five, but the real difference is in how they have used their assets.
In Lincoln, nearly a quarter (23 percent) of all jobs and 15 percent of all households are in opportunity areas. In Greensboro, only 7 percent of jobs and 1 percent of households are in opportunity areas. (For comparison, an average of 10 percent of jobs and 15 percent of households nationally are in opportunity areas.)
Practically, this means that homes and destinations in Greensboro are much more scattered, making it fiscally unrealistic to connect them with transit and more expensive to provide schools, parks, services, and other infrastructure. Thus, Greensboro residents will have to drive more often, because it is simply too far to walk or bike from home to any given destination.
In Greensboro, only 1.1 percent of commuters use transit to get to work, and 1.8 percent walk and bike. In Lincoln, the percentage of commuters who use transit is similar, 1.2 percent, but 4.4 percent of the population walks or bikes to work. The opportunity areas have a great deal to do with this difference, and, as a result, according to Transportation for America’s Pedestrian Danger Index, Lincoln’s streets are safer as well. (Transportation for America is a project of Reconnecting America and Smart Growth America.)
What has been happening on the ground to make these two places perform so differently? Among the many factors that influence the built environment and transportation choices, planners for the City of Lincoln have worked hard to rein in sprawl.
The city created a three-mile buffer around city limits for agricultural uses. To complement this policy, the city ensures there is enough land within the existing boundaries to provide for forecasted development and housing needs. The region’s metropolitan planning organization — which is responsible for many transportation policies in Lincoln — has also adopted a “complete streets” policy, which recognizes the role land-use decisions and proximity to jobs and services play in creating safer streets for everyone.
Economic depression has been a major challenge in recent years for the Greensboro region (known as the “Piedmont Triad,” for its three major cities: Greensboro, High Point, and Winston-Salem). Once a hub for the textile, tobacco, and furniture industries, their decline in the past decade resulted in the loss of 70,000 jobs.
Greensboro also has been identified as one of the most sprawling places in the United States. Smart Growth America recently ranked the Piedmont Triad as second in the country in terms of sprawling growth. It has proven challenging, however, to offer transportation choices and concentrate growth in a region defined by three major, disparate economic centers, and three separate major jurisdictions, each in control of its own land use policies. This is a challenge that is unique to a handful of regions in the country, and coordinated policies will be needed in the Piedmont Triad to bring up the region’s grades.
However, change is in the air. The Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation (PART) received a Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2010, and is busy creating a plan for better coordination between the Triad’s cities and counties. PART also completed a longrange Regional Transit Development Plan that created a regional vision for transportation investments that will be considered in the regional land use plans developed with the grant.
In the meantime, individual jurisdictions are considering their own local transit investments, and there are plans for streetcars in Winston-Salem and Greensboro, and passenger rail from Greensboro to Winston-Salem. Our D student is well on its way to a higher grade.