Writer: Ryan Gandolfo
4 min read July 2022 — Public transit is typically an afterthought in most U.S. cities. It’s usually underfunded and, therefore, unattractive to commuters. But as Nashville and the Middle Tennessee region experience sustained growth, enhanced multimodal planning will be increasingly necessary.
According to a March 2022 opens in a new windowreport by the University of Tennessee, the state’s population is projected to increase by nearly one million residents by 2040. Three-quarters of that growth is slated to be in urban counties.
With the influx of new residents expected to continue, one of the central concerns facing Music City is increased traffic.
“The last 10-12 years of growth have been explosive, and while we are a music capital of the country we also have strong automotive, educational and healthcare industries, in addition to being the capital city of Tennessee. I would say one of the major issues that our city needs to address is transportation infrastructure. Traffic issues are becoming increasingly difficult to deal with and so a mass transit answer would be great for our city,” Churchill Mortgage President and CEO Mike Hardwick told Invest:.
Currently, Nashville’s public transit, like many other cities, is underfunded, which erodes its perception.
“Inadequate funding of Nashville’s public transit leads to inadequate service for the size of our city and our current level of need. Without greater transit access, many of our residents continue to feel the burden of growth without the ability to participate or benefit from it,” Jessica Dauphin, president and CEO of Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee, told Invest:. “Inadequate services have led many here to believe that this is the best public transit we can get. But, it’s terribly misleading because public transit is the backbone of any thriving city. Most, if not all, vibrant and attractive cities have quality public transit at their core.”
Dauphin and the Transit Alliance are focused on raising awareness and building support for funding regional multimodal transit.
“The annual budget process is what hamstrings the public transit agency from making real strides toward building out mobility infrastructure and providing the level of service our residents desire and deserve,” said Dauphin, noting that the city cut the public transit operating budget by $20 million a few years ago.
“When cuts are made to the budget the transit agency must sometimes cut service, which leads riders to distrust the agency. When riders distrust public transit, it undermines the ability of the agency to be successful in its mission because people stop using the service. People use public transit when it is reliable, convenient, safe and affordable, which requires investments that Nashville has yet to meet,” Dauphin said.
Despite these ongoing challenges, WeGo Public Transit CEO Steve Bland echoed Dauphin’s sentiments that public transit is vital for making the region accessible for everyone.
“Excellent public transportation is crucial from a social equity perspective so those who don’t have the means or ability to drive their own car can participate in life’s activities. This couldn’t be more true in Nashville than it is today with general inflation, major increases in gasoline prices and a lack of affordable housing options,” Bland told Invest:.
Back in 2018, Nashville was eyeing a public transit overhaul with a referendum, called Let’s Move Nashville, that would have provided $8.9 billion in funding for light rail, bus rapid transit and more transit options. The voters ended up turning down the referendum and left future plans in disarray.
“I think that initiative was just a collision of challenging events. Some of the biggest advocates for public transportation were opposed to the referendum, primarily because of the increase in sales tax and intrusive construction, such as tunnels downtown. The public here wants more public transit, but it has to be in practical terms. We certainly learned a lot of lessons from that experience,” said Bland.
WeGo Public Transit is currently working on multiple initiatives to accommodate residents either for their morning commute or major events.
“You need to see it as a travel opportunity. We have many riders who are jumping on the train to get down to a Titans game or jumping on a bus to get to a Nashville SC soccer game. You’re going to get folks traveling by transit to a special event and it might be a lower-wage service worker going there to sell beer or it might be the season ticket holder because they don’t want to pay for parking, or they don’t want to worry about having to drive. We need to serve everyone,” said Bland.
In addition to expanding bus services, WeGo has been actively working to bridge the transit gaps that deter potential riders such as the use of bikes and scooters.
“We see partnerships with micro-mobility providers such as Bird as opportunities to expand our role from solely a transit service provider to a mobility coordinator. There are many service options and alternatives to single occupancy vehicles now available to the public, in addition to traditional bus and rail transit,” WeGo’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer – Operations Systems Dan Freudberg opens in a new windowtold Intelligent Transport in May.
The partnership with Bird helps to address another issue in Nashville: walkability.
Nashville routinely ranks among the least walkable cities in the US. According to Smart Growth America’s 2021 Dangerous by Design opens in a new windowreportopens PDF file , there are 1.5 pedestrian fatalities for every 100,000 residents in Nashville, roughly double the national average.
“Nashville is a notoriously un-walkable city. While the Nashville Department of Transportation (NDOT) has made great strides in recent years, there are still many streets and neighborhoods without adequate pedestrian infrastructure. Many areas were built up without sidewalks or crosswalks, and it is much harder to go back now and try to address decisions that were made in the past with regards to these types of facilities,” said Freudberg.
Between an underfunded public transit system and lacking transportation and pedestrian infrastructure, Nashville is in a precarious position.
“In the end, this is the issue that will define the Nashville region for generations. Are we going to step up and invest in our communities? Are we going to invest in making strides toward becoming an equitable city? Are we going to be competitive for the billions of dollars in new infrastructure funding over the next five years from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law? These are questions we need to be asking ourselves and our leadership,” said Dauphin, who serves as a WeGo Public Transit board member.
“Funding transit is the one option to help address core issues that we haven’t tried yet. Mobility is at the core of every human’s ability to provide, learn and be healthy. Individual freedoms are directly tied to mobility, and it is at the foundation of our individual dignity. It should be at the core of our priorities. It should be reflected in our city’s budget,” explained Dauphin.