Transportation designer reimagines Charleston with rapid transit system, for fun

Fantasy rapid transit map of Charleston courtesy of Ben Cotton

By Andy Paras

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) -- Imagine for a moment what Charleston would be like with a rapid transit system -- one you could ride from say, the airport to Fort Moultrie, without having to fight traffic.

That's what Ben Cotton did. In his free time. For fun.

Cotton graduated from Clemson with a master's degree in regional planning, spent the last seven years in Boston working for the U.S. Department of Transportation before opening his own business, Alternative Transportation Group, in his hometown of Charleston in April.

While following the Charleston mayoral election and the long debate over traffic problems, Cotton created a fantasy map of what a rapid transit system in the Lowcountry might look like.

"From my perspective it wasn't intended to be anything more than a conversation piece," he said. "I'm not really in a position to talk about the details for any transportation plan."

But when he posted it on his Facebook page, he found a lot of people wanted to talk about it.

"It sparks imagination," Cotton said.

He intentionally left some details -- for instance, would it be above or below ground? -- vague so that others could contemplate it.

"Imagine what it would be like if we had this -- that's the only question I would ask," he said. "I love hearing other people ask if this could actually happen. I have opinions but they shouldn't be associated with my putting the map out."

His Facebook posts have been shared more than 240 times in about a week.

"I'm very surprised and overwhelmed by the response and mostly excited that it put others who have thought more about actual feasibility in a position to actually talk about it."

Not surprisingly, some people have been quick to point out the obvious obstacles to making such a plan work, such as Charleston's marshy terrain and the cost of such a project.

"There's a reason why existing transportation corridors are where they are. They make a lot of sense," Cotton said. "But it's also fun to isolate the various neighborhood destinations, wherever they might be, and think about what other transportation corridors might exist -- regardless of feasibility."

Feasible or not, the map shows how some seemingly disconnected parts of the Lowcountry could be connected, such as a direct route from North Charleston to Mount Pleasant.

"A map like this romanticizes the idea," he said. "In the real world a lot of the romance gets taken away by the cost and difficulties of planning, operating and owning a large transits system."

Some have asked: What about Summerville, Goose Creek and Moncks Corner?

"In a true regional transportation system those areas are important to address, but I think that kind of transit would look and behave differently than the routes I imagined," Cotton said. "I see more of a regional commuter line, with more distance between stops, that ties into the denser urban system. Maybe it connects with the new multimodal center in North Charleston? I think that would work with the Mixson stop on my map."

Even if the plan or one like it never comes to fruition, you can still hang it on your wall. Cotton is selling the design on his website.

"I knew there were people here who have been thinking about this.This gives them something to put on their wall that might capture the attention of someone who hasn't thought about it before," he said. "I've actually sold more than I expected already."

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