Nashville Considers Light Rail, but the City's Unfit for It

» Is Nashville advancing a rail system that it cannot handle?

From time to time, it’s worth taking a step back.

The Nashville region’s bus network is not exactly popular, with a total annual ridership of just less than nine million; that’s about 30,000 weekday trips in a metropolitan area of 1.6 million people. The 32-mile Music City Star commuter rail line, which has operated between downtown Nashville and Lebanon since 2006, handles about 800 daily trips — compared to the 1,500 originally expected for the corridor.

Public transportation in Middle Tennessee, in other words, is not big business.

No surprise, perhaps, considering that the City of Nashville has a density of 1,230 people per square mile. By comparison, Portland, Oregon has a concentration population roughly four times as intense. New York City, at the extreme, is 22 times as dense.

Yet Nashville Mayor Karl Dean maintains that his region is ripe for a massive investment in public transit. One light rail line isn’t enough for him, it seems: he wants a $6.5 billion network to compete with the growing economic heavyweights of Denver, Charlotte, and Austin, each of which have large transit plans of their own.

Mr. Dean recently led the development of the Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee, a coalition of the area’s business groups designed to encourage the passage of a tax measure to fund investments in public transportation. Last year, the state’s General Assembly passed legislation allowing city councils to institute local funding sources to pay for transit. The local MPO will develop a long-term regional transit master plan by May; the Mayor expects light rail corridors extending in all directions from downtown to be a focus of the project. He hopes to push ahead on the project as quickly as possible.

His enthusiasm for public transportation, however, is tempered by unfortunate conditions on the ground. The similarly sized Charlotte region has a central city that’s twice as dense, a stronger economy, and a larger downtown — yet even it has been able to get only one light rail line in the ground more than ten years after first collecting sales tax returns for transit. That 10-mile project, which has been pretty successful, cost about $500 million to build, but the next extension may not be complete until 2019. How would Nashville ever be able to afford a $6.5 billion system within a reasonable time period?

Even more important is the question of who would use a rapid transit system in this Tennessee city. The limited success of the Music City Star line, which only cost $40 million to build and which runs mostly on single tracks at peak hours only, can be chalked up to poor planning and limited ambitions. But even a well-designed, frequently serviced light rail line in Nashville would under-perform massively.

The 12-mile route between downtown Nashville and the northeast suburbs is the region’s most popular bus corridor and recently received upgrades, including limited station stops and new stop shelters. But that line handles a total of less than 90,000 passengers a month — about 3,500 per weekday. Even if replacing that service with light rail tripled ridership (an unheard-of increase in passenger count), the transit authority would carry less than 1,000 passengers per mile on the corridor, putting it in league with San Jose’s VTA light rail, not exactly considered a huge success.

A 30-mile line from downtown Nashville to Gallatin, extending the same route, is currently being planned and is apparently the region’s top priority. It would carry far fewer people per route mile.

Mayor Dean’s interest in promoting a rail system is understandable considering the too-frequent professions of the mode’s power to right all wrongs in cities from Detroit to El Paso.

In areas with adequate density and considerable existing transit ridership, tramways are indeed acceptable solutions to mobility problems. But in places like Nashville, their expense wouldn’t be justified: they will not produce the high ridership necessary to fill trains running on corridors that attract few to buses. Before high-capacity transit is going to work, sprawled regions like the Music City must first address underlying conditions of urban form resulting from decades of government promotion of highways and single-family homes.

Image above: Nashville Music City Star, from Flickr user SeeMidTN.com (aka Brent) (cc)

24 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Russell Warshay

    How feasible is it for a city to increase its density without improving mass transit? This might be a chicken and egg argument, but you have to start somewhere.

  • Troy Foster

    As a resident of Nashville, I would like to see light rail, but I do not see it as worthwhile. I am a proponent of alternative transportation, but I find it bothersome when there is talk of light rail and bike lanes when there aren’t sidewalks on many of the residential streets. As it is, Nashville is a southern city and sprawl is still the name of the game, even with the recent “trends” to move into the city. Many (most?) of the recently built in-town condos are vacant and industry is still choosing to move to the outskirts of town.

    I think the chicken and egg argument needs to involve a change of attitudes instead of a “put it there and (maybe) they will use it”. Before a light rail is considered (as a further convenient transportation alternative), people need to allow car-independence into their transportation paradigm. They need to be able to walk places safely. They need to be able to bike to their destinations safely. In Nashville, public transit is a “poor person’s solution” instead of an every person’s solution. To change this, people need to break free from the car-dependence at a root level… and have other options.

  • Chris G

    Yeah, I’m not thrilled with the tone of this article. It basically says that because they have low ridership with buses they shouldn’t bother taxing themselves and building this rail system.

    Not to mention the made up to prove the point stat of passengers carried per mile.

    Nashville is one of those towns where the suburbs are further out. So mileage will be higher. The key is to get options. People will take them as needed. Keep adding options and ridership will grow not only on the new lines, but existing ones.

    You need to start somewhere.

  • Ari

    This definitely does seem like a chicken-and-egg issue (and I will admit that I don’t know much about Nashville).

    But if you look at where light rail projects have been at least somewhat successful, they’ve been in cities which have at least some walkable neighborhoods and some transit dependency. 30,000 riders a day does not seem to meet this critical mass; the only new light rail systems with lower ridership are in Charlotte, Buffalo and Seattle, all of which have one line and at least 1000 daily riders per mile (2000 if you don’t count Seattle, which wasn’t complete until December). And the transit agencies in those cities carry 101,000, 94,000 (Buffalo) and 450,000 per day. Per capita, these cities have 6, 8 and 13 transit riders per 100 metro population, as opposed to Nashville, which is less than two.

    As for the VTA, arguably the least successful major light rail system in the US (the lowest ridership per mile of any major system by quite a bit), even the VTA serves 130,000 people per day, and the area is also served by Caltrain and other transit providers. Its service area, Santa Clara County, is about the same population as metro-Nashville. However, distinctions must be made: Metro Nashville has 226 persons per square mile, it’s the city of Nashville that breaks 1000. The city of San Jose, which contains much of the light rail system, has a population density of nearly 6,000. That’s a bit higher.

    So there are more robust bus systems in both Charlotte and Buffalo and especially Seattle (and several other cities with higher ridership) than Nashville. In other words, if you build it, they will come, but only if there are some of them there already. Sorry, Nashville, if federal dollars are going to go towards building new, fixed-guideway systems, you should not be high on the list.

  • 電車男

    I can understand that people are worried about unsuccessful transit projects ruining the image of public transit, but for heaven’s sake, if Nashville wants a good light rail network, why should they be discouraged? If only more cities would follow its example! If Nashville can secure funds for–and ultimately complete–a light rail network, then even if it isn’t very popular at first, it will pave the way for future development and expansion. There’s no way the city will ever get denser unless there is a way for people to get around without driving. Good transit should precede dense development–guiding growth, instead of reacting to it. Furthermore, if other cities that are considering light rail (and are better suited to it than Nashville), then it would be good for them to look at this as an example and say, “Look, if they can do it, we can DEFINITELY do it!”

    Honestly, if you want to see good transit in the US, you should be encouraging this sort of thing. It can always be modified later, so long as it is built in the first place.

  • As a follow-up to the chicken-or-egg question, I would like to note Charlotte as an interesting example of how to go about changing the game in a sprawling city.

    Instead of simply building a light rail line, the city first invested in significantly increasing bus service and dramatically altering the zoning so that areas in transit corridors have increased density. These are important first steps before any transit program can be successful.

    Over the past ten years, Charlotte’s transit system has increased in ridership tremendously, from 12 million trips a year in 1998 to 26 million in 2009. The majority of that increase — about 9 million of those new trips came via bus use, not the light rail program (see Interim CEO John Muth’s presentation).

    To me, this is evidence that a city should first get the basics on transit and land use right before moving on to big investments like light rail. I’m not against light rail in Nashville per se, but I do want a good use of limited resources — and that usually involves first ramping up bus services, then spending on rail.

    • jb

      i know this post is old now, but i just saw it, so i’m going to go ahead and comment…

      this post doesn’t make sense to me. Nashville is being criticized for having a $6.5 billion plan to build light rail. But the city currently has no plans to build light rail. There is a multi-billion dollar transit vision for the future. Light rail is being considered, along with a lot of other things. Funny that the post mentions improving the bus system when I have read multiple articles mentioning that the city favors BRT and improving the bus system before ever moving on to light rail.

      Sure, commuter rail to Murf. and Hendersonville are being considered, but there is demand in those areas where there was/is virtually none in to the East in sleepy areas like Lebanon.

      But this post suggests the city is going to try to build $6.5 billion worth of light rail in a matter of 10 or so years and do nothine else to improve walkability and transit–not true.

      The author also suggests that the city first work on zoning and improving bus systsem before considering light rail. The city has already addressed zoning changes recently as suggested and the also just increased trip frequency during a severe recession with its new downtown circulator. Yes, more change needs to happen, but give it time.

      The city doesn’t have a 10 or 20 year plan to build out light rail to catch up with peer cities. At this point it only has what would better be described as a vision to imrove transit with goals to spend billions of dollars on the overall plan.

      The leaders of the city are well aware of the need to change the culture and make the city more walkable and dense for future transit to work–they aren’t completely ignorant. Give us a break.

      For example, Toks Omishakin, the city’s walk-bike czar, for lack of a better term, recently stated his goal of building 50 miles of sidewalks and bikepaths over next five years and making sure that all citizens in Nashville have easy access to sidewalks, bikepaths and greenways.

      That sort of infrastructure, along with better city planning and zoning, lays the groundwork for the success of future transit projects. And that’s exactly what the city is doing. This post completely ignores way too many facts about the overall plan for livability.

      The city isn’t, “simply building a rail line,” and hoping things work out as the author writes in the reply above. That’s just ridiculous.

  • mulad

    Geez, are those ex-C&NW gallery cars on the Music City Star? Maybe not quite that old, but if I’d seen a new line put in near me with 40-year-old passenger cars and hand-me-down locomotives, I’d be a little less than excited to ride.

    But yeah, it looks like light rail is overkill for this corridor. I wonder if it might work as a bare-bones streetcar line.

  • poncho

    I dont think the disappointing Music Star ridership numbers mean that frequent day long urban mass transit wont work. Portland (which sounds roughly the same metro and city size as Nashville) has very good LRT numbers and abysmal WES rush hour only commuter rail numbers.

    It seems to me after visiting Nashville only once, one corridor might be workable, running southwest of the city along Broadway/21st. Hits the colleges and streetcar era neighborhoods and is probably the densest part of the city. Then again bus service in the morning now on this route is 30 minute headways.

    30,000 riders a day in Nashville Metro is an amazingly low number. But I believe in Portland it fell to a near level in 1970 and by building up the bus system and constructing the light rail system it is up to over 300,000.

  • Anyone interested in traffic or passenger density should read these PublicTransit.US reports:

    http://www.publictransit.us/ptlibrary/trafficdensityonline.htm

  • Ocean Railroader

    They could try a rapid streetcar idea in that streetcar tracks would be cheaper to build then light rail and a streetcar wouldn’t be that much heaver then a bus. They could set aside lanes in the streets for the streetcars to run on with out getting in the way of cars.

    • dejv

      The biggest difference between streetcar and light rail is stop spacing and level of segregation from other traffic. Technology is essentially the same, there are some tradeoffs like between minimum curve radii and maximum speed (but not really, vehicles for european standard 20 m minimum can be capable up to 80 km/h or 50 mph).

      • Max Wyss

        So, that means that there is essentially no difference between “Light Rail” and “Streetcar” (but don’t tell that to the politicians ). In fact, particularly in Germany and Switzerland, a given line may have streetcar sections (mainly within the centers), and dedicated right-of-way sections (between the centers), and even subway sections (in tunnels, signal controlled (with automatic train protection etc.)).

        And, stops are where people are and want to go to.

  • Andrew

    nicely written Yonah.

    don’t be afraid to call a spade a spade: Nashville is not ready for rail investment. As you say, so much can be done with zoning and bus improvements (a can of paint for a bus lane, say) to prove that the residents of Nashville are even interested in commuting without a car. let’s wait for that before (very) limited federal funds are invested in anything.

  • Don

    The Music City Star is a dog. It runs on a slow, curvy branch line and doesn’t provide single seat rides for enough commuters. You have to transfer to a bus to get to most of the employment centers. And, yup, those are old Metra gallery cars. They picked them up for a buck a piece (VRE in VA got some, too). They also picked up a few used Amtrak locomotives. That they managed to get the Music City Star going for a very low investment is probably the best thing about it.

  • jeff

    This has it backwards: building light rail encourages dense development. And he time to build it is now, while land is still affordable, and before there is even more sprawl.

  • Drewski

    I was in Nashville a month ago. Traffic is heavy throughout the day, and right now it’d be very disruptive to try to have, say, a streetcar line from Belle Meade Plaza to Downtown via Harding/ West End. For those who don’t know, Nashville had an official planning standard that didn’t allow for more than eight dwellings per net acre; the city’s own policies forced the low-density sprawl. This was only repealed in the last 10-15 years. MTA service is barely better than it was in the mid-70s, and ridership is about the same as it was then. Keep in mind that the city’s population has risen from roughly 450,000 then to almost 650,000 now. Nashville is a major trucking center, and the concept of slower traffic staying out of the left lanes of the freeway is a completely unknown concept, so freeway driving is no joy. Surface traffic is much heavier than it was 20 years ago, and Nashville is still evolving toward a more urban self-image. It is doing so, but it’s a process, and in a place where revenue comes from either sales or property tax, it’s not easy to find money to fund better service and break out of the chicken-and-egg conundrum. As it stands right now, you can’t even catch a bus to Franklin, or all the development out to Murfreesboro, or to Hendersonville, let alone Gallatin. The most obvious demonstration of improved service would be some kind of circulator connecting Vandy/Midtown to Downtown, running maybe every 10 minutes midday and 5 at peak, but no. This is arguably the most urban corridor in Tennessee, and a major improvement in bus service still runs into the traffic issue–it’s nothing unusual, at 7 PM on a weeknight, to see traffic backed up at a light to the previous traffic light. Nashville’s a very American city–it’s the kind of place that will have to create a deeply-subsidized system around which the city will grow.

  • RichD

    The article is definitely slanted against light rail. I would also encourage naysayers to light rail/trams to visit Charlotte or Atlanta and drive around during rush hour..it’s more like rush hours. Nashville has an opportunity to be so much more livable and urban at the same time.
    First of all, purposely looking at “per mile” statistics is grossly misleading as the Music City Star services farther out areas. Secondly, the limited success of the Music City Star partially stems from it’s very limited service….at least add another am inbound train arriving around 8:45 and an outbound train leaving at 8:30 (current schedule does not encourage any commuter to stay in town , grab a drink or dinner other than Friday nights). Future light rail /tram should focus on south to north routes along South 12, 21st for example from green hills area towards downtown. And yes, the city must encourage residential and commercial development along the routes developed so that it is not a train/bus combo (most people would stick to their cars). If nashville does increase it’s density and develop light rail/trams, it is going to become another Charlotte or Atlanta….big ugly sprawl w/ horrendous traffic; nothing more than a big bland suburb. Learn from their mistakes.

  • Chris

    It is a must, the best economic cities in this country and world have the the most developed mass transit systems. Look at chicago, new york, london, hong kong….

    The bigger the tree, the bigger the roots….

    If nashville does this, you are looking at major economic growth. even so, to get to that level, Nashville would need a direct rail to other major cities like chicago, memphis, atlanta etc….

    For those who think its impractical now…. Your right, because its so small and not fully developed. So give this city the room for growth like we give the best to our children!!!!!

  • DoobieBro

    Chris,

    Most Americans have never left America. They don’t know what advantages a fully developed subway system could bring. I love how in Tokyo, HK, or Seoul, I could walk to the nearest subway entrance and be surrounded with different stores, eateries, etc. Subway stations can produce group. Once again, Americans just don’t understand. They never will because they will never leave their own country.

    – Apologetic American In Asia.

  • Drewski

    The population density numbers presented in this column were also misleading. Sure, Nashville has roughly 1200 people/sq mi. What that fails to mention is that Nashville is a metro government, coextensive with Davidson County, and the 508-ish square miles of the city include large swathes of land (mostly to west, northwest and north) where the terrain and geology are not conducive to development; that’s no less than a quarter of the city area. It’s like including all the land in Multnomah and Washington counties in Portland’s density calculations. Moreover, there has been a consistent pattern of infill development west and south of Vanderbilt since the mid-80’s.

    The single biggest obstacle to a viable streetcar/LRT line in the West End corridor is in Cherokee Park, a neighborhood immediately west of I-440. The total r/w width of West End is workable, with two major exceptions. One, the properties along the street are mostly old mansions converted to condos, and their parking configurations frequently involve some intrusion on the r/w. Two, there is one condo complex at a corner, in the 3700 or 3800 block. The city allowed it to encroach on the r/w, and it violates the building plane in an inexplicable way. Google it–it’s truly bizarre to see. So one building, combined with existing parking arrangements, pretty much destroys this option. The only way to avoid the problem would probably involve some kind of compensation mechanism, which would mean the city would have to pay for below-grade parking for most if not all properties in this stretch of West End. Nashville is built on limestone, so any excavation is expensive. Get around this problem, and a streetcar line on West End is viable. It would also tie into a line to Hillsboro Village (maybe eventually to Green Hills). 12 South is another possibility, as is service to Edgefield (across river from downtown). This is about city-building as much as it’s about current demand, and the density argument should be used as it applies to specific circumstances.

    Finally, it is worth mentioning that Tennessee’s only interurban lines ran from Nashville to Gallatin, and Nashville to Franklin.

  • jamal Craft

    What make some cites successful is how well planning goes.
    Nashville is a growing metro area and as it continue to grow now is the time to make mass transit a priority. Nashville has 1,600,000 people in it’s metro area and could hit two million just within ten years. Atlanta started to build it’s rail system when it had 1,800,000 people in it’s metro area in 1980. Nashville already has a congested freeway system during rush hour and sporting events. Imagine two million people in this metro area using the same mode of transportation as it exist’s now when it could take years to build it. So yes it is time to make a move to build a new updated modern system rail and bus system.

  • Kelt

    I am a resident of Portland, Oregon and while doing research on the Nashville area for a family member I came across this forum. Being someone who uses the Portland Metro system (Max Light Rail) daily thought I’d add a few comments. Any city that is expecting future growth should definitely consider a light rail system and shouldn’t wait until the last minute to do so. I would have to say Portland has one of the best systems in the country. Unfortunately in the areas where there has been procrastination with adding the light rail traffic build up and timely commutes are a problem. One of those being the Columbia River Crossing from Portland into Vancouver, Washington. If a city waits until an area becomes busy with traffic by automobile or foot, things can become very frustrating. It’s a timely process building a light rail system causing streets and intersections to be closed for long periods of time causing huge delays, so the sooner construction begins the better it is for everyone. Plus the sooner the train is in operation the sooner the city will see the benefits. Nashville would greatly benefit from a light rail system. It’s great for businesses, tourists love it because it makes getting around easier plus it’s an attraction in itself for those who don’t have them in their own towns. A light rail is more reliable than buses because it is capable of staying on schedule. Also, there are many people like myself who will ride a train system, but do not and will not ride a bus. There is so much more room on a train. You’re not right up on the person next to you and in times of cold or flu season it makes all the difference. I could go on and on with the many benefits of having a light rail, but I would be here all day. I hope the city of Nashville will strongly consider going ahead with the light rail and will do so soon.

  • Why don’t we try a new innovative form of transportation? It is inexpensive to build, private transportation, travel on your own schedule, and you can eat sleep, work as you travel. If you have new ideas for this system please contact me. You may see this system at: http://RACTransportationSystem.blogspot.com

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