Why People Don't Ride Public Transit in Small Cities

Booming regions like Charlotte and Nashville are stuck: Residents love their cars, so support—and justification—for expanding bus and rail systems is hard to find.

Mark Humphrey / AP

NASHVILLE—This is one of America’s booming cities. An average of 82 people move here every day, amounting to a growth rate of 12.7 percent between 2000 and 2013.

And, as is the case in many booming cities, the traffic is terrible.

Congestion costs the average Nashville auto commuter 45 hours a year, according to an annual Urban Mobility Scorecard prepared by Texas A&M. There’s little public transit in Nashville, and most people get around by car: Drive around one of the city’s hot areas—The Gulch, Germantown, Downtown—on just about any night and you’ll see parking lots chock full of giant cars and people driving around in automobiles, looking for places to put them.

There’s agreement among just about everyone in Nashville, including the new mayor, Megan Barry, that the city needs more public transit, and it needs it now.

“I want to hear from you, Nashville, on how we can improve our transit and transportation infrastructure so that you can get out of your cars if you want to,” Barry said, in her inaugural address in September.

Barry is hiring a transportation czar and told me, on the phone, that she will look for federal and state funding for transit projects. The mayor and civic leaders have traveled to cities such as Charlotte, Denver, and Vancouver, she said, to see how those car-centric regions were able to expand their transit options over the last decade.

But the mayor, and the region, have a big challenge ahead. Putting in new light rail or even bus rapid transit is costly, and can take away space currently used by cars. And it is difficult to find funding in Tennessee, a state where there is no income tax and municipalities have to depend on sales tax for revenues.

“If we had a dedicated revenue stream right now for transit, we would be building it,” JoAnn Graves, the executive director of the Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee, told me. “We have not been willing to go into debt to fund any kind of transportation system.”

But, even if the city could find the money for a new light-rail line, would people use it? Like most Americans outside the biggest cities, people in Nashville are accustomed to using their cars. According to Census data from 2009, fewer than 3 percent of workers in the Nashville metro area used public transit to commute to work, making the city less public-transit-friendly than Houston, Richmond, Memphis, Tampa, and Kansas City, to name a few.

Buses in Nashville (Erik Schelzig / AP)

Evidence from other cities indicates that even if Nashville somehow finds the money to put into light rail or bus rapid transit, it could be challenging to get people to use those systems. And though transit may reduce congestion temporarily, commuters will return to the roads once they see traffic is down.

In most metro areas of less than 1 million people (Nashville has roughly 659,000), just 1.5 percent to 2.5 percent of residents use transit, according to David Hartgen, a emeritus transportation professor at UNC Charlotte. Many of these places have tried to increase the share of their population that use transit, but few have succeeded.

“It’s an extremely difficult thing to do because we have this minor detail in this country called freedom,” he said. “You can live where you want, you can work where you want, you can commute how you want.”

Even Charlotte, which is seen as a poster-child for public-transit advocates because it invested heavily in transit over the last two decades, has not seen a significant increase in ridership when compared to the region’s astronomical growth, he told me. And, when gas prices go down—as they have in recent months— ridership decreases.

Charlotte came to terms with the idea that it needed to add transit in the 1990s as the city grew, and in 1998 passed a half-cent sales tax to fund transit. A light rail line, the LYNX Blue Line, started running in 2007, and it is currently being expanded. A 1.5-mile streetcar line opened in July of 2015, and the city is planning on expanding it. A regional plan seeks to establish 25 miles of commuter rail, 19 miles of light rail, 16 miles of streetcar, and more buses throughout Charlotte and its suburbs.

But ridership has remained essentially flat, even though downtown Charlotte has grown by about 50 percent in employment, Hartgen says. Average daily ridership of CATS, the Charlotte Area Transit System, peaked at 95,484 in July of 2008 and has hovered around 90,000 ever since; its most recent 2015 figures were down a little, at 84,889. Average daily ridership of LYNX, the light-rail line, jumped to 16,895 when it first started in 2008 and has stayed around there, reaching 17,868 in September.

A Lynx train in 2008 (Chuck Burton / AP)

The case of Charlotte shows that, even when there is transit available, the vast majority of people won’t leave behind their cars and embrace public transportation, Hartgen argues. In many cities, the average commute time by public transit is about twice what it is when driving your own car. And in many cities, including Charlotte, only about 20 percent of the operating costs of a transit line come from ridership; the rest come from government dollars. What's more, Hartgen says, as population increases, a city's transit costs rise much faster than revenues from transit do, as the city tries to expand its service to new neighborhoods. In Nashville, for instance, the population grew 9 percent between 2007 and 2013, while operating costs grew 66 percent.

Meanwhile, the amount of wasted time spent in traffic in Charlotte has decreased since 2005, even as the region’s population has exploded, according to Texas A&M’s Transportation Institute. That’s because the region has added and improved existing roads, not because more people are taking transit, Hartgen says.

Nashville’s lesson from Charlotte should be that it could make more financial sense to improve existing roads and bus lines, Hartgen says, rather than seeking funding and political support for a new line.

“Don’t go shooting the moon on a quixotic effort to try and get the last $2 billion out of Washington and the state capitol—instead use your local money to improve your own transit service and make it better for the people who need it,” he told me.

This is, of course, not a sentiment that most transit advocates would agree with. People can be converted to mass transit, especially if it's done incrementally, said Jarrett Walker, a Portland-based transit consultant and the author of Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking About Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives.

In the 1970s, Portland was much like Nashville, Walker said, with parking lots and cars everywhere. But after the region introduced new laws preserving existing land, which limited road construction, Portland had to reassess. In the 1980s, the city redesigned its bus system, establishing lines along a grid that made service more frequent and widespread. After bus ridership increased, the region was able to muster the political will to put in light rail.

“The fundamental message here is that the bus system really, really, really matters,” Walker said. “The success of transit is going to ride heavily on the success of a bus system.”

Barry told me that the region still wants to build new infrastructure, especially as people move there from other cities where transit is more commonly used.

“I think it’s a chicken-and-egg-thing,” Barry told me. “You get in your car because you don’t have transit options. If you have transit options, you get out of your car.”

Many Nashville residents do not have those options. In 2014, it seemed as if Nashville was on track to launch a new bus rapid-transit line. Mayor Karl Dean has secured funding from the White House to build the Amp, a “trackless trolley” between the city’s east and west side. By January of this year, the Amp was dead, derailed by either the city’s failure to communicate with residents about the project, or by meddling from the Koch brothers, depending on who you ask.

Barry says she’s planning on getting the local and state leaders together to discuss transit options, and Nashville’s business community is already deeply involved in advocating for transit. Local residents might be the most difficult to convince.

Commuters disembark from the Music City Star (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

I stopped by a station of the Music City Star, Nashville’s only commuter-rail line, which opened in 2006. The Music City Star runs on existing rail lines, and was one of the most-cost-effective new commuter-rail lines in the nation, costing just $41 million for 32 miles. But daily ridership is low, with, at most, 1,370 people riding the train a day. Many days, ridership is half that.

Cristy Cross has lived near the commuter rail since it opened in 2007, and says she has never taken it, once. It doesn’t run on the weekends, which is when she usually goes downtown. And then, she says, it’s pretty easy to just drive.

And those who do use it don’t have the easiest time. Jason Guthormsen takes the train most days, he told me. He loves the train—avoiding traffic and having some downtime.

But when he gets to downtown Nashville, he walks 1.2 miles to his office rather than wait for a bus there, since the buses don’t go where he needs to go. It’s not a commute most people would relish. And on days when he misses the train, or just gets up late, he joins the rest of Mt. Juliet residents, hopping in his car where he’ll make his way to work, albeit slowly.

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