Is Effective Transit Possible in a Transit-Hostile City?

» Despite the sound intentions from the mayor, opposition may kill Nashville’s BRT project.

One of the primary arguments made for investing in bus rapid transit (BRT) is that such systems can be implemented not only more cheaply, but also with more ease, than rail lines.

A look at the situation in Nashville suggests that there are limitations to that “ease.”

Much like in cities across the country, residents of Nashville have strenuously debated the merits of investing in a 7.1-mile, $174 million BRT line called the Amp. The project would link the city’s east and west sides, running from the Five Points in East Nashville through downtown to St. Thomas Hospital, past the city’s West End. With dedicated lanes along 80% of its route, frequent service, pre-paid boarding, level platforms, transit signal priority, and an improved streetscape to boot, the line could potentially serve about 5,000 rides a day, double the existing demand. In this year’s federal budget, the Department of Transportation recommended allocating it $75 million over the next few years.

From a pure public transportation perspective, the line makes perfect sense: It serves the city’s central east-west spine. Within a half-mile of its stations are 33% of the county’s jobs (132,000 of about 400,000) and 5% of its population (32,000 people), and it is currently undergoing something of a building boom. It would link several hospitals, Vanderbilt University, the downtown core, the transit center, and several tourist attractions. And it would offer transit service speeds similar to those available for private automobiles today.

Yet this week, Mayor Karl Dean — who has been the project’s primary proponent since 2008 — pulled back, reacting to vocal opponents and a state legislature that threatened to block the line entirely. He agreed to eliminate dedicated lanes for buses along about half of the project’s route.

What gives?

For years, opponents have been mounting a campaign against the Amp, arguing that the project would massively increase congestion by taking away lanes of traffic, require wasteful government spending, and destroy retail and restaurants — thereby reducing sales tax revenue. The Stop Amp coalition, it seems, is funded by a local auto dealer, Lee Beaman. Lawn signs have sprouted everywhere.

You might think the project was recommending turning streets into a bus-only zone, depriving motorists of the freedom to use this all-important corridor. But the investment in the new BRT line will actually guarantee the same number of through lanes on 60% of the corridor, and the route will have two lanes of automobile traffic in both directions throughout. These are not skinny streets; they already have at least five lanes of traffic running on them. But the BRT would require taking space from cars. There would be some negative consequences for those who currently drive.

Moreover, the opponents note, there is “already bus service along the proposed Amp route… and the buses are not running at capacity!

Indeed, it is undoubtedly true that Nashville’s recent experience with transit has been far from inspiring. In Davidson County (whose government is shared with the city), 13.3% of families live below the poverty line and 7.6% of households have no vehicle available at all; another 40.3% have just one vehicle available. Yet just 2.1% of the city’s residents take transit to work, representing about 34,000 daily riders. The city’s commuter rail system, the Music City Star, carries just about 900 people per day on average.

But opponents have failed to note the connection between the city’s poor transit service and the demand that would undoubtedly result were better bus services made available. The bus that current serves the city’s West End is scheduled to make the 5 mile trip from downtown to the St. Thomas Hospital in 27 minutes at rush hour — about 10 miles per hour. No wonder few people ride it.

Nonetheless, partially thanks to the support of the Koch Brothers, the state legislature, including both Republican and Democratic members, decided over the past few weeks to make its voice known through legislation. The State Senate passed a bill 27 to 4 that would prohibit center-running transit altogether (most of the Amp would run in the center of the street) and require approval from the State Department of Transportation for dedicated bus lanes. The State House’s equivalent bill would apparently allow for center-running transit, but still require state approval for what is, in the end, a local matter.

Local support for the project, including from the chamber of commerce, has been significant, but not strong enough to push back a hostile state legislature or the local motorists. Thus the rationale behind the mayor’s decision to rid the line of its dedicated lanes in the most controversial areas of the line, in the wealthier West End segment and in front of Mr. Beaman’s car dealership.

One wonders how long the plans for the other dedicated lanes along the corridor will last. Without the dedicated lanes, most of the BRT’s travel time savings, the feature that will make the buses actually attractive to riders, will be lost.

As Daniel Kay Hertz has noted, the popular conversation about appropriate transit investments, in Nashville as much as anywhere, is typically moderated by people who rarely if ever rely on transit. Of course there is opposition to reducing lanes for motorists when virtually everyone who owns a business or runs for office relies entirely on their personal vehicles to get around. How in the world can they be convinced to believe that a BRT project has value?

This phenomenon, which is more than anything else a structural adherence to a pro-automobile transportation policy*, is certainly even more true in a place like Nashville — where decades of sprawl and auto-dependence have wiped out the city’s transit system** — than it is in a major transit market like New York or San Francisco, where similar opposition still pops up all too frequently.

Yet there remains a large, and often potentially underrepresented, share of the population — the poor, the disabled, the elderly, the young, the people who simply don’t want to drive — who would benefit from improved transit, even in a transit-hostile place like Nashville. Who represents their interests?

* One might also refer to it as a structural adherence to the needs and preferences of the wealthy.

** As recently as 1970, 7.3% of Davidson County’s workers used transit to commute.

36 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Felipe

    > The Stop Amp coalition, it seems, is funded by a local auto dealer,

    Really funny. If he would just look at the statistics, he would conclude that the effect of a good public transportation in car sales is tiny. I doubt he would lose any money. Even for a gas dealer the effect would be tiny.

    It is just ideological hate that I see here. I assume that it comes from libertarians for whom public transit is communism.

    > The State Senate passed a bill 27 to 4 that would prohibit
    > center-running transit altogether (most of the Amp would run
    > in the center of the street) and require approval from the
    > State Department of Transportation for dedicated bus lanes.

    lol! That’s just crazy. Transit running in the center affects *less* the cars, as it doesn’t affect cars turning. Dedicated lanes which are not in the center are stupid, that’s why they are so rare outside the USA. But I guess their idea is of course to ban dedicated lanes completely.

    • Bob

      Having watched debates about transit in the South ‘up close’ in Atlanta, Charlotte and now Nashville I have seen the motivations of transit opponents evolve. I think the fear that transit will disrupt the existing, defacto, segregation of the city has largely faded away. While it may appear to have been replaced by ideology (“public transit is communism”) I really think the current opposition is rooted in a desire to protect their investments in the burbs. Investing too much in core areas of a city will, they fear, cause their home values to fall and reveal the suburban lifestyle to be unsustainable.

      While this reflexive desire to protect their investments is certainly understandable, it is wholly misplaced. City’s and suburbs are co-dependent. I really think that transit development needs to be contextualized around transit making the region better off, instead of the binary us vs. them tone that we see in Nashville.

      • Brian

        You have no idea what you are talking about. This has nothing to do with suburbs. The bus line would connect two different urban neighborhoods. People aren’t against the investment, they’re against the traffic problems that it would cause. It has a dedicated lane for 60% of the route. Whoopity do. The 40% of it that doesn’t covers several areas that are already seeing horrendous traffic. I personally would love to have a service like AMP here, but they need to do more to make it work than just shove a fast bus down our throats. There are other things that need to be addressed at the same time.

    • Brian

      You honestly think that Beaman is against it because he’s an auto dealer? He’s against it because his dealership is at the center of the Y intersection of West End/Broadway and he thinks it will impact his business, and it’s his prerogative. All the sour grapes need to stop with the ideological accusations and name calling just because the opponents of AMP won. Maybe try actually finding out what about the route people were against and how it could be revised, like the mayor is actually doing?

  • Andreu

    Reminds me of Jarrett Walkers comments about reminding politicians and others at community meetings and in public debate about those who choose or do not choose to use public transit. Asking the question “do these people not matter?” starts to unveil the disillusion that policies which advocate or further automobile use to the detriment of public transit use. Often, these are questions that perhaps the most vociferous opposition to transit projects have not taken into much consideration and very likely people who are not as committed to that type of opposition are not thinking about.

  • The whole “but the current buses aren’t even operating anywhere near capacity!” argument isn’t necessarily just hot air. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem. If (badly designed) land-use patterns require people to commute longer distances, then they will be disinclined to take slower transportation.

    33% of jobs and only 5% of commuters? Sounds like the trunk like would largely depend on feeder lines or (gasp) park-and-rides to increase ridership. Just to play the devil’s advocate here, but perhaps the money would be better spent better local connectivity for commuters? Induced demand like what you see with roads requires a comprehensive network design. (Thank you, Jarrett Walker!)

    Or perhaps Nashville needs more nodal, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly (ie transit-oriented) development to get people out if their cars in the first place? I say this living in a polycentric city—Los Angeles—where we do, in fact, have bus and train lines running at capacity. Polycentric cities with more distributed job centers (but not sprawl!) allow more people to live closer to work and commute shorter distances. Perhaps people who still choose to commute longer distances should just be forced to drive.

    At the same time, I agree that it’s absolutely ridiculous for state politicians to kill off this project. Cities should be able to make these sorts of decisions for themselves.

  • If it’s really about “the disabled, the elderly and the young”, it might be cheaper just to subsidize them taking taxis. (Poor people most likely aren’t in the 5% who live within a half mile of the trunk line, so they would benefit from better network design and better land-use planning.)

    People who just don’t want to drive, well… I don’t want to have to drive, so I live in a walkable neighborhood. If you don’t want to drive but still want to live in a culdesac, then I guess you won’t be getting out much.

    • Tom West

      The plan is here is make transit *better* than the car.

    • Eric

      “If it’s really about “the disabled, the elderly and the young”, it might be cheaper just to subsidize them taking taxis.”

      Something like that already exists in many US cities (spurred by ADA regulations). It’s called paratransit. And it’s MUCH more expensive per rider than buses.

      “Poor people most likely aren’t in the 5% who live within a half mile of the trunk line,”

      Actually they are – take a look at Google Maps street view. Particularly the eastern half of the route.

  • Aaron M. Renn

    Without a doubt, a lot of the opposition to transit is simply ideological. We see it here in Indiana as well. On the other hand, building something like the Music City Star provides all the ammo opponents need to criticize transit investments.

  • Anandakos

    Folks, we need to write the Red states off. In fact, we should be encouraging them in their folly. After all, they insist that life is a zero-sum game and the their solutions are best. All the while, though, they’re sponging off the high-income, high-taxation parts of the country.

    So leave them be. Eventually Pax Americana will end and their sprawlsvilles will be unlivable without access to cheap gasoline.

    • Nathanael

      It would be easier to do this if the Red states hadn’t been given effective control of the US Senate through the gerrymandering of state borders. This means they can do endless damage to the rest of us.

      If we abolished the Senate — or gave California and New York a number of votes proportional to their populations — then we could forget the Red states.

      • Garl Boyd Latham

        The “gerrymandering of state borders”?!

        Wow. Those bad ol’ conservatives will stop at nothing, huh?

        You know, replacing one ideology with another won’t solve anything.

        • Fred Sader

          Gary–I am sure Nathanael meant gerrymandering within state boarders, and honestly, both parties and political persuasions have been doing it for years. It is a national issue that is at the crux of the problem.

        • Nathanael

          As a hisory notes, the gerrymandering *of* state borders dates back before the Civil War — look at the history of Maine, or of N and S Dakota, two cases where states exist solely to provide Senate votes for a political faction which existed at the time.

          • Nathanael

            “As a history note”

          • Nathanael

            My point is that historic gerrymandering like this has left us with the need to pay tribute, at a national level, to a few areas with insignificant population, while ignoring others (upstate NY, rural California).

            A Wyoming voter has 65 times as much power as a California voter. This is wrong. And means that corrupt people can get a lot of power cheaply by buying votes in Wyoming.

    • Garl Boyd Latham

      So, is this really a reasonable explanation of the basic difference between “red” and “blue” states:

      Those in “red” states “insist that life is a zero-sum game and…their solutions are best,” while those in “blue” states simply insist their solutions are best (while giving math a miss)?

      Oh, well; maybe y’all are right – ‘cept for the part about sponging off others. [Texas happens to be a donor state.]

      Advocacy seemingly becomes more difficult by the day.

      • Anandakos

        Texas is a “donor” state by 6%. Now, since its economy is huge that six percent is a lot of money, but it’s only 1% more than it gets back. New Jersey is a donor state by 39%, California by 22% and New York by 21%.

        And I’ll concede that a significant portion of the Federal expenditures in Virginia, the Carolinas and Texas are military; it’s not just Resentful Redneck welfare. But a huge amount is.

        • Anandakos

          Apologies; the 1% in the second line should be 6%. I checked on the latest figures and found that Texas’ contribution had gone up from the older ones. I missed the repetition when I edited the post.

          • Adirondacker12800

            The Federal government is borrowing huge amounts of money and sending it to the states in one form or another. You have to separate that out.

        • Adirondacker12800

          Military bases most certainly are redneck welfare. Plop a 1,000 horny 20 somethings out in the middle of nowhere and they wanna go out for pizza. And to for burgers. There’s dry goods they can’t get in the PX. There’s soft goods they can’t get in the PX. All the people working in Pizza Hut, Burger King, Walmart and Rite Aid are there because they 1,000 horny 20 somethings have cash to spend. Not to mention the contractors who go on base and do things for the military that they make money off of.
          … it’s reallly realllly odd how every wave of base closures finds rational reasons to close bases in blue states and long lists of reasons to keep open the bases in red states….

  • Sometimes you can’t make voters wake-up until traffic congestion or high gasoline prices hit them. LA used to have a stupid ban on subway construction. For decades, LA applied for less than its fair share of Federal Rail Transit funding. After decades of worsening congestion, most LA County voters now know the only solution to Wilshire Blvd Corridor is subway extension to Westwood/UCLA and eventually, to Santa Monica.

    Until Nashville/Davidson County voters agree to build the line “right” as a BRT or LRT, like LA, they should not receive that portion federal transit funding for BRT or LRT. Let Atlanta, Memphis or Charlotte have their share of New Starts funding for LRT projects.

    • In LA’s defense, it was a ban on federal funding restricted to a specific area of the city with underground methane deposits, after there had been a major explosion during the first phase of construction.

      Also the Bus Riders Union successfully sued the LACMTA over spending a disproportionately large amount of money on heavy rail subways to wealthy (white) areas of the city.

      Since then, the LACMTA has developed one of the best bus networks in the country and built multiple lower-cost surface LRT lines serving lower-income areas of the city. So it’s not all a loss.

      The reason they’re able to build the Purple Line Extension, FWIW, is that they passed a sales tax ballot measure in order to pay for it.

      • Garl Boyd Latham

        John,

        Your comment may be in L.A.’s defense, but it condemns the Bus Riders Union (and, in natural progression, de facto U.S. policy):

        Wealthy = “white” = undeserving of rail-based alternatives.

        Racism is racism, no matter where it originates or who it might benefit.

        • Andreu

          Garl,

          That is very dangerous territory you are walking on by holding to the belief you express as “racism is racism” as it negates the several hundred years of institutionalized servitude and the subsequent and continuing issues that people of color experience.

          On top of that, you confuse what the facts of the case and the opinions held are. The assertion you make is incorrect, what the law mandates is that if you create a benefit that primarily accrues to white or wealthy, that is illegal use of federal funding. The law mandates that benefits must be spread equally (or very close to equally) among all people within a region — that is if the rail system benefits only the communities that are traditionally wealthy and white, this is an unacceptable use of federal funds. If the same system used the same funds but created benefits that were equivalent for white and wealthy as for minorities and for low-income people, this is not an illegal use of funds. It does not go into mode-choice debates.

          • Garl Boyd Latham

            My apologies, Andreu.

            I know how the law reads and how various aspects have been defined by the courts. Unfortunately, I also understand “burden of proof” and the concept behind it.

            I know there will be no solution to this quagmire in my lifetime. Still, I find that fact to be quite depressing.

            After 40-sum-odd years in this business, it’s difficult to ignore reality – even when you’d like to try!

            Best,
            Garl

            • Though in a Marxist reading, literally anything can be an instrument of oppression, so long as it retains some tangential connection to money. So geological farts could be an instrument of oppression, but only by the wealthy.

        • In LA’s defense… it has hazardous geology. Underground methane deposits and earthquakes aren’t tools of racial oppression. And now they’re building the subway anyway, with newer, safer technology that wasn’t proven twenty years ago.

          You’re mixing up the two stories. Both black people and white people in LA were opposed to deep-bore subway construction in the 90s, albeit for different reasons.

          • Garl Boyd Latham

            John,

            Twenty years ago in Los Angeles, I’m sure one could also find both black people and white people who were supportive of deep-bore subway construction.

            Sorry; I’ve had my say.

            I do appreciate your input.

            Garl

        • Buildings around the La Brea Tar Pits have methane detectors because it is a poisonous, flammable gas that is literally seeping out of the ground.

      • If Japan can build subway in more challenging geological areas, LA could have expanded subway sooner too. The shame is now that LA has come around to rail, the House of Reps is blocking more federal transit funding to build the system that LA ( and other cities) need by 2035,

        http://soulofamerica.com/la-metrorail-concept-map-2035.phtml

  • Fred Sader

    It looks as if Nashville lost the battle Charlotte won over mass transit. We built the Blue Line LRV over a well organized opposition and it has been a huge success. The city is expanding it by doubling it in size in the next few years. Density, development, and growth along the line have added over a Billion Dollars to the tax base (inspite of the great recession), with more coming. The city is also starting a streetcar line that will cross the Light Rail Line at right angles. It is a start and, yes, there is still organized opposition but the city is moving forward looking to the future.

  • Scott M.

    John Hupp:

    Your comments are way off.

    “In LA’s defense, it was a ban on federal funding restricted to a specific area of the city with underground methane deposits, after there had been a major explosion during the first phase of construction.”

    The explosion was not during “the first phase of construction.” The explosion was at Third and Fairfax, and before any construction started on the subway. The actual site of the explosion was over 1/2 mile from the subway route that will be constructed. The area WAS closed because of underground methane deposits in the area, but most likely due to panic, bad publicity and NIMBY fears about “those people” being able enter the sacred areas. As if they couldn’t take a bus already. There was never any scientific justification for avoiding tunneling in the methane heavy areas. There are literally hundreds of buildings in the area with basements and underground parking garages that required underground digging and construction for the last 100 years in that area. In fact, it was a basement where the explosion took place in the Ross clothing store. There has not been a similar dramatic explosion incident since that time (1985!).

    “Also the Bus Riders Union successfully sued the LACMTA over spending a disproportionately large amount of money on heavy rail subways to wealthy (white) areas of the city.”

    The Bus Riders Union did sue the MTA and won a consent decree. The rationale was that construction money took away funding for bus service in poor areas, though the two things came from completely different sources of money. Also, there were no trains built to “wealthy (white) areas of the city” At that time. The first light rail line went through South LA, Watts, Compton and Long Beach. Not wealthy. Not white. The first subway went from Downtown to MacArthur Park. Not wealthy. Not white. The next extensions of the subway went to Koreatown, Hollywood and finally North Hollywood. Not wealthy, and not majority white for some decades. Probably the first areas sill majority white and somewhat wealthy when train service arrived were South Pasadena and Pasadena, when the Gold Line arrived in 2003.

    “Since then, the LACMTA has developed one of the best bus networks in the country and built multiple lower-cost surface LRT lines serving lower-income areas of the city. So it’s not all a loss.”

    As I stated before, train service to lower income areas of the city was built FIRST. Train service still has not reached the following white wealthy areas: West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Manhattan Beach, San Marino, and is not scheduled to anytime soon (except for Santa Monica where the Expo Line will arrive in 18 months.)

    “The reason they’re able to build the Purple Line Extension, FWIW, is that they passed a sales tax ballot measure in order to pay for it.”

    You did get that right.

  • Buckeyeman

    You might possibly want to look into the possible influence of the Koch brothers in Tennessee transportation issues. there have been articles to that effect on the internet mentioning that. Having people like them and Karl Rove influencing any issue at all on any level could be quite dangerous to our country at all levels.

  • Since Tea Party Repubs can no longer dodge from fuel taxes only paying for 1/3rd of Highway spending, its time for moderate Repubs and Democrats to drop the hammer. Withhold Highway funding in the upcoming Surface Transportation Bill until Tea Party Repubs agree to increase funding for Transit and HSR.

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