Grier Heights youth uncover hidden costs of transportation choices

When we educate residents about the impact of our area’s sprawling land use patterns and transportation habits, we usually share the statistic that the average Mecklenburg County household spends 26 percent of their income on transportation costs, much more than the national average of 19 percent (learn more in our 2014 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Sustainability Report Card).

But for teens who have never been behind the wheel, that’s a very abstract idea. Last Friday, we created and facilitated a game to bring this statistic to life.

Grier Heights youth uncover hidden costs of transportation choices

Teens in Grier Heights mapped areas they’d like to access by bike, walking, or transit.

The morning before our workshop, Sustain Charlotte’s office looked like a miniature currency counterfeiting operation as our interns printed and cut out thousands of “dollars” worth of Monopoly money!

Grier Heights youth uncover hidden costs of transportation choices

Interns Jamie Barry (L) and Miriam Mohammad (R) helped us design and create the game.

We presented the Grier Heights teens with this scenario for the simulation game: It’s your last summer in Grier Heights before you go off to college. You’ve just gotten a part-time job where you’ll earn $1,000 a month. Choose whether you’ll commute to your job by bike, bus, or car.

We gave each teen $1,000 in fake currency. Then the fun began! We ran the simulation for four weeks with different costs for each commuting mode, including both planned and unexpected expenses. For example, the bike commuters had to pay $10 to replace a broken bike tire tube. Bus riders had to pay $20 for a weekly transit pass. Car drivers had to pay $40 to fill the gas tank and $70 to their parents to cover insurance.

The game ended with the teens counting how much money they had left. Of course, the bike commuters had the largest percent of take-home pay left, car drivers realized they had only $740 (26% spent on transportation), and the transit riders had spent about 8% to commute.

13 year-old CJ gave the game his stamp of approval. “That was as fun as a video game,” he admitted. But he added that he would’ve chosen a bike or bus if he’d known ahead of time how expensive driving was. We talked about how it can be useful to own a car for out-of-town trips and accessing locations that can’t be reached by other transportation modes, but the cost of commuting in a single-occupancy vehicle every day to work or college adds up very quickly. “That’s money you should be putting in the bank,” said one teen.

Grier Heights youth uncover hidden costs of transportation choices

Teens placed stars on area locations they want to access. CJ plans to attend UNCC.

The teens were aware of many non-financial benefits of sustainable transportation modes. When we asked them about environmental impacts, they told us what ozone is and that there would be less of it if fewer people drove. They said that biking or walking is a good way to stay in shape and it doesn’t cost anything. Carl told us that he likes to walk from Grier Heights along Randolph Rd to the Cotswold shopping center. “I’m walking there and walking back 40 minutes each way, so I’ll sometimes get an ice cream at Dairy Queen.”

Thanks to grants from Wells Fargo, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and Foundation for the Carolinas’ Front Porch Grant Program, and American Public Transit Association, we’re working intensively with the Grier Heights neighborhood to address transportation sustainability challenges. Over the past few months, we’ve met with residents, neighborhood association leaders, school administrators, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department Community Coordinator officers, a pastor, an apartment property resident services coordinator, and youth mentorship program facilitators to pinpoint the existing transportation needs of Grier Heights. Together, we’re creating a plan to work towards solutions that residents can feasibly implement.

Grier Heights is only a few miles from Uptown. It’s well-connected by several bus routes. But residents cite safety concerns as a main reason that more people don’t walk or bike, especially after dark. The teens told us that bicycles are often stolen if they’re not locked. The neighborhood’s community center at the location of the old Billingsville School is about to celebrate its grand opening this weekend. We’re working with the Grier Heights Community Improvement Organization to finalize the site for a bike rack installation at the center. This is an incredible neighborhood with a rich history and powerful vision for the future!

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