Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Memphis' Opportunity For First-Class Public Transit, Finally

It looks like Memphis Area Transit Authority has finally reached a long awaited point: put up or shut up.

For years, MATA has offered up numerous justifications for the sad state of public transit in Memphis. At a time when efficient, effective mass transit is a competitive advantage for cities attracting talented workers, ours does just the opposite.

For many students and young workers who come here, MATA becomes a symbol for a city that just can’t seem to get its act together. And it’s not a bus that they take getting out of here fast.

We won’t repeat the reasons why we are so focused on 25-34 year-olds because you’ve probably memorized it by now, but suffice it to say that we are bleeding this crucial demographic.

That Giant Sucking Sound

In the decade between 1990 and 2000, Shelby County lost 14,205 25-34 year-olds, and that was troubling enough, but in the first six years of this decade, we lost 18,482. In these same periods, Memphis lost 6,814 and 14,508 respectively.

Said another way, from 1990 to 2006, Memphis lost 21,332 25-34 year-olds and Shelby County lost 32,687 (including Memphis). DeSoto County gained 11,146 of this demographic, so our area had a net loss of 25-34 year-olds of 21,541 people.

In other words, slightly more than three 25-34 year-olds have left Shelby County every day for the past 16 years.

Nashville Mayor Karl Dean said that improving mass transit is the top issue that he hears from young Nashville residents (and keep in mind that Nashville’s public transit includes trains while we've managed to have trolleys that pretend to be transportation). Mayor Dean said he plans to move assertively to leverage newly passed legislation about dedicated funding source for mass transit to attract more federal funding and to upgrade his city’s system.

The silence here is deafening.

Why It Matters

Operating with the attitude that public transit is for poor peoples with no other choices, MATA is a significant obstacle to the kind of progressive image (and more important, reality) that other cities like Nashville are using as a lure for talented workers.

Focus groups with college-educated workers here tell us that they expected a city of Memphis’ size to have a modern, welcoming, efficient public transit system. Instead, they complain that the recruiters’ promise of a lower cost of living was misleading because “no one told us we’d have to buy a car.”

For example, workers at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital come from around the world. Researchers have lived in Paris, Boston and San Francisco. In other words, they know what a first-class transit system looks like. One relatively new arrival from Africa said she felt home at Memphis because so much of Memphis felt like a third world country - such as its bus system.

In previous years, MATA has suggested that it can’t attract more riders, and that was certainly born out by polling of the Sustainable Shelby project. It was widely predicted that climbing gas prices would force suburbanites out of their cars and back to city neighborhoods.

It never happened here and it’s not likely to unless something dramatic changes. Shelby Countians say gas prices would have to be $6.69 before they’d get aboard a city bus.

Getting It Right

The fact that gas prices will have to increase at least 50 percent for MATA to start looking attractive says as much about the transit system's reputation as it does about Shelby Countians' concern for their carbon footprints. It also indicates that the record public transit ridership that is occurring across the U.S. won't happen here.

The poll results are backed up anecdotally by Leadership Memphis' regular experiment requiring its members to travel to a class day using public transportation. The experience is always an eye-opener, because most of the class members are among the 92 percent of Shelby Countians who don’t travel in MATA. Comments from Leadership Memphis fall into broad categories like the need for better customer service for MATA and cleaner, better-maintained buses.

Meanwhile, Atlanta has upgraded the comfort of its seats and now loads news, sports scores and weather reports into televisions on its buses when they leave the bus barn. Utah and Colorado have added Wi-Fi to longer commuter buses for $5,000 and report that it has produced added ridership. Meanwhile, the buses have reclining seats, cup holders and racks for briefcases, backpacks and bicycles.

A number of cities like Portland, Oregon, send alerts to passengers’ Blackberries, offering up-to-the-minute information about trouble spots and alternatives in the event of problems on the route.

Doing More Than The Expected

All of this sounds light years away for MATA, but two recent developments might change all that…or at least prove once and for all if MATA is competent and capable to deliver a high-quality public service.

MATA is currently drawing up its plans to update its regional transit master plan, which in the past had often been merely updating the previous plan. If the current system is the answer, then it’s clear someone at MATA has been asking the wrong questions with its previous master plans.

This time around, there is a growing interest at the Memphis Area Planning Organization (MPO) to do more than the expected and the perfunctory. Over the years, MATA has repeated that the Memphis region can’t afford a first-class transit system.

Here’s the problem: they’ve never told us what a modern 21st century system would look like and what it would cost. The transit authority might be surprised: it might be exactly what we want and we might be willing to pay for it.

No More Excuses

Meanwhile, the other – and more on target – explanation given by MATA is that it doesn’t have a “dedicated funding source” like many other transit companies. It is this dependable source that has been pivotal to other cities far superior systems.

Just two days ago, when told rightly by City Council member Wanda Halbert that “it shouldn’t talk an hour to get from a certain point to downtown, MATA president Will Hudson told the City Council Budget Committee: “I’m not being smart. A lot of cities have a dedicated funding source that allows them to do that..They beat up on us all the time. It’s not about we don’t know how to run a transit system…If I had the money…”

While we think his contention that the current management has the ability to manage an effective transit system is arguable, we assume that he knows that quietly, the current legislature unanimously passed a law to approve a dedicated funding source for public transit.

It’s encouraging that finally someone in Nashville understood that transportation is about more than just about building more highways. Public transit advocates across Tennessee hailed passage as a historic step toward improved mass transit in the four metro areas of Tennessee, and said it was the first step toward a toolbox for a modern public transit system.

Just Do It

The law allows for our area to create the dedicated funding source for a Regional Transportation Authority.

Perhaps, just perhaps, it begins a “no excuses” era for MATA and ushers in the opportunity for the MPO to think more boldly and broadly about the future of public transit in our community.

It proves conclusively that hope springs eternal.


Steve Steffens said...

I agree MATA stinks, it never gotten past the reason for its original creation; getting domestics from north and south Memphis to east Memphis and back.

A) the bus routes need to be blown up and put on a grid, B) smaller, more frequent buses where you never have to wait more than 15 minutes ever, C) light rail, at least two lines, and D) we need to get Desoto, Tipton, and Fayette Counties in on this.

I'm not holding my breath, though.

Steve Steffens said...

Part of the problem, of course, is that, once you get beyond the Parkways, the city is laid out like a bunch of suburbs all crammed together, it's not grid-like the way more densely=populated cities are laid out.

It's the suburban mindset that plagues this area like a cancer. We need MORE density, not less; not everyone needs to live on a TARAesque plot of land.

Anonymous said...

We blew a great opportunity to start the first light rail when we didn't take advantage of the tracks from Cordova to Midtown. The railroad took them up before we purchased the land. The pending greenway will be great but a light rail could have been the start of a workable system.

Anonymous said...

1. Maybe we should save money by recruiting in Africa-their 3rd world standards are easily met by memphis.

2. The 'suburban mindset' is for a responsible local government to support the wishes of those who work to get there.

3. 'Domestics'? my goodness, are they still called that?

autoegocrat said...

MATA: Making Auto Travel Affordable

Please, MATA people, fix the routes. I don't need a TV on the bus, I just need the damn thing to get me there on time. I am not exaggerating when I say that I quit using MATA after discovering that I could usually get where I was going just as fast by WALKING.

Midtowner said...

MATA president Will Hudson told the City Council Budget Committee: “I’m not being smart. A lot of cities have a dedicated funding source that allows them to do that..They beat up on us all the time. It’s not about we don’t know how to run a transit system…If I had the money…”


You have a dedicated source Will, it's called a fare!

If you had a system that was properly designed, in other words, if you knew how to run a transit system, you might find yourselves with more riders and thus more money!

While I'm willing to let tax dollars go toward large capital purchases, the operating and maintenance costs should be covered by the fares.

I must agree with anon9:07, the greenway should be a rails WITH trails or just a light rail system. Most light rail lines are boondoggles but when you already have a corridor available, use it!

Don't ignore it and then whine that you can't get a poorly designed route from Downtown to the Airport!

Steve, the reason that the city is laid out like a bunch of suburbs all crammed together once you get beyond the Parkways, is because they once were suburbs before they were annexed!

autoegorat, good one! I can't even get to my place of employment in any reasonable timeframe. I can ride my bike ... risky but I've done it.

The city council should try using the bus before Will appears before them again. I wonder if Will uses the bus to get to work?Do other MATA employees use it?

Will Hudson should have retired or been fired years ago.

Anonymous said...

While I agree that the Memphis public transit system leaves much to be desired (especially in comparison to transit systems in cities like Seattle, Denver, Chicago, Atlanta, etc.), it’s counterproductive to beat up on Will Hudson and other MATA officials.

As Steve Steffens noted in a previous comment, the Memphis area is not densely populated. Far from it. Moreover, our employment and commercial hubs are very, very widely scattered. Because of those two undeniable facts, I fear that it will be difficult and incredibly expensive for Memphis to ever have a public transit system that might be reasonably attractive enough to entice suburbanites.

That’s not MATA’s fault. Nor is it within MATA’s power to lead the charge to seriously tackle the huge challenge, given the structural, financial and political dynamics of Memphis.

The charge needs to be led by folks like our city mayor, county mayor, congressmen, City Council members, County Commissioners and governor. Or it needs to be led by concerned citizens who can rally enough support to essentially force at least one of the aforementioned elected officials to take notice.

Until that happens, it’s largely pointless to spend time raking MATA over the coals.

toltecs said...

"It’s not about we don’t know how to run a transit system…If I had the money…"

I would suggest that the inability to get the trolleys on a simple, regular schedule demonstrates that he doesn't know how to run a transit system. How hard is it to have a trolley show up at a given station every 5, 10, or 15 minutes?

Zippy the giver said...

You guys need to get out of town more and go to a city that already has this handled well and take some DAM NOTES!

That's right, write it down!
NYC ha this handled. Boston is doing better. Hey maybe you should ask the man who pulls the levers, yeah, ask an Amtrak engineer or a NYC subway engineer.
This ain't rocket science.
Maybe we could get the government to design a nuke that only gets the obstacles of real progress in our society and send us a few.
There is "what is called for", which is what we should be doing woith a sense of urgency even without a crisis and impending doom, and here in Memphis, there's is only "what got done...wrong".
Most people who live here should be thrown outta here on their tuchus.

Anonymous said...

"Most people who live here should be thrown outta here on their tuchus."

isn't that what 'congressman taterhead' proffered as the solution to any problems in the 'urban' sections?
and haven't droves of the paying middle class taken him up on it?

be careful what you rant for...

Smart City Consulting said...


You make a good point about the density. But here's the thing: there are other cities with similar density who have broken this code.

Like you, we've reached the "no excuses" stage for MATA. Its service is simply intolerable. We know you don't agree with that.


If Will Hudson doesn't bear responsiblity, we don't know who does. He has never been an effective advocate for a better system and is content to offer more of the same. It's time for a fresh vision, which unfortunately requires a fresh perspective about change.

Smart City Consulting said...


Steve, we meant to mention that the density within the beltway has decreased by half in the past 40 years, which is also a symptom of the results of sprawl subsidized by city and county governments.

Midtowner said...

It's not about density, it's about service. It's about knowing the needs of your customers!

Does MATA go to large complexes like the FedEx HQ or the Hub and survey the employees? (Easily done during the pre-work meeting.)

Has MATA even asked a large employer (like FedEx or St.Jude's) the zip codes of their employees at their complexes?

Does MATA go to the various Malls and survey the customers?

I can tell you in the past they haven't. I attended several meetings on the light rail proposal and read all the material. It wasn't done.

How can you design a system if you don't know who and where your customers are???

Smart City Consulting said...

midtowner: great comments.

As for light rail, someone said to us once that if MATA can't even run the buses right, why should they be driving the conversation on light rail?

Anonymous said...

an efficenitly run bus system would be a hell of a lot cheaper and more flexible than a light rail system.

Zippy the giver said...

be careful what you rant for...
Yes, But I was talking about the legacy of appointees and ineffective leaders/bosses.
Midtowner got it right, running anything is about service, not to your employees, but, to the customer. Serve the customer properly, where they KNOW they got excellent service, and they'll be back with a friend and co-worker.
Don't and your company is a PARASITE sucking the lifeblood of our citizens, TAXES.
You could run busses cheaper and yes, the street layout here SUCKS HARD, it takes forever to figure this place out and to get a LOT of places you run a labyrinth. D-U-M-B.

Zippy the giver said...

I meant to also say that in NYC, they have 8 million people, they have ten times as many passengers per bus on EVERY bus, paying fares, plus ten times as many on the subway 24hr/day the 1,train, the 2 train, the 3 train, the 4,5,&6 trains, the 7 train, the LL, the IRT, the LIRR, and we can't get a dang bus right?


tigerdiehard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
tigerdiehard said...

Zippy, Boston and New York are both cities that include subway systems and a grid that has been in place for a century. Those cities are dense, walkable, connected, sustainable places to live. Memphis just needs a reliable public transit system that relies on both the use of light rail and buses. The Southern Norfolk line is my favorite considering it runs from Collierville down Poplar past the U of M through Cooper-Young and the Fairgrounds and into the heart of downtown.

The residents living in many of the more impoverished neighborhoods need a more reliable trasnportation system in roder toreduce their dependence on cars, increase mobility, save money, and live healthier lifestyles. T

The remaining young and older professionals just need to improve their quality of life by high quality transportation and a city developed and growing around it.

Zippy the giver said...

Don't get me wrong, I totally agree with you tigerdiehard, totally, but, it will never happen here with the malcreants in charge and they will not beat the federal bulldozers that are on the way. They don't think well enough, fast enough, creatively enough (unless they are ripping us off through taxes an empty promises, the normal scheme here in memphis) and they are completely INERT.

And why are those bulldozers targeting Memphis?
Because, for all our creative ideas, we have yet to implement one single successful plan to do anything better for Memphis EVER.
Oh, things get talked up and end up being Memphis staple GNP, HOT AIR with a tax bill on the back end and no product or service at the very end.

Memphis needs to stop letting it's citizens be divided along economic an racial lines like it was supposed to on June 19th 1865. Better transportation is one solution, I agree with that, but, if the educational and rehabilitation opportunities don't get some rather serious attention, upgrades, and effective programs, this city will most assuredly deserve to be bulldozed to the ground!
It's already federally recognized and on the schedule.
What more warning do we need?

Zippy the giver said...

Midtowner asked;
"How can you design a system if you don't know who and where your customers are???
1:26 PM"

OMG, that's the quintessential mindset of government handout mentality, take the money and do something stupid with it.

Waste waste waste.

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