During the final weeks of this fall's mayoral race, it would have been hard to walk past a radio or TV without hearing one of the candidates griping about traffic. But local transportation planner Ben Cotton didn't hear anything that didn't involve him sitting behind the wheel of a car.
"A lot of the discussion in the mayoral race that I heard, it was car-based, auto-centric stuff."
To Cotton, the public talk of "fixing traffic" seemed like as good an opportunity as any to think through how a non-car-based transportation network might look in Charleston. That's where his new "fantasy transit map" comes in.
The look is familiar to anyone who's hopped on any urban rail system: Primary colored "lines" snaking and looping through stations named for local neighborhoods and landmarks. But on this map, the stations (NoMo, Towne Center, Avondale) probably won't ever exist. Cotton's map is just something to get people's brains working.
"I had thought about this for a while, just because I'm a map nerd and a transportation wonk," said Cotton, who recently moved to Charleston after working for years in federal transportation research and development. "Maybe someone will want to put this on the wall, [since] it's a good conversation piece." (Cotton is taking orders to do a print run of the maps later this month.)
Cotton has heard criticisms about the map leaving out areas north of the airport, but he hopes the urban planning principles behind the exercise can cultivate a new approach to thinking about how people get around.
"It's important for Charlestonians, and Americans in general, to think beyond the car in terms of transportation."
In recent years, local transportation discussions have focused around connecting cyclists and pedestrians to different areas of town and sorting out the nuances of technology-based solutions like Uber. In the past few months, plans have emerged to create a linear park under the I-26 overpass that cuts downtown's upper peninsula in half down to the Crosstown.
"As people become more familiar with transportation alternatives — biking, walking, riding the bus, even new car services like Uber and Scoop — they're starting to question why there aren't more options for getting around town. They're saying, 'I want something safer, or more convenient, or less expensive, than driving alone.'"
For his part, Cotton is launching a new business that connects Charleston to Savannah with regular shuttle service called the ACE Basin Express.
"While it's pie in the sky, it's as easy as putting a map together and saying, 'Actually, it doesn't have to seem that crazy.'"