Thursday, July 30, 2009

Driving Toward An Effective Public Transit System

It’s been said with no sense of hyperbole that all the planets would have to align for Memphis to have high-quality, efficient public transit.

Such is the lack of confidence that Memphis Area Transit Authority will ever offer the kind of transit system used in other cities to attract young professionals, reduce pollution, and connect urban neighborhoods to job centers.

The absence of quality transit is what a research fellow at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital calls “Memphis’ hidden surcharge.” The low cost of living allowed her to “quit living like a student,” so “instead of three of us crammed into an apartment in Boston, I can buy a house in Memphis. But what they don’t tell you is that you have to buy a car because the mass transit is so bad.”

Public Un-Transit

Another researcher tells of attending medical school in a city where bus stops had signs blinking the time that the next bus would arrive. Another told of the easy-to-use public transit website in her hometown – complete with GPS-equipped buses so riders can see exactly where they are – and laughs at the idea that “a transit company that can’t manage buses should be guiding light rail decisons.”

The Trip Planner function on MATA’s website suggests that it understands the Memphis surcharge. When it recommends a route, it helpfully reminds that it’s also available by car and that “these directions are for planning purposes only.”

Memphians in large measure are untraveled, and maybe that’s one reason there isn’t greater pressure for better public transit. Of the 50 largest metros, Memphians are last in taking vacation trips and last in “liking to visit places that are different.”

Changing Direction

Many young professionals relocating here marvel that Memphians accept the current transit system. Often, they attended colleges in cities with state-of-the-art mass transit systems, and they are outspoken about what MATA should be.

Accustomed to using public transit regularly in their previous hometowns, they cope here with a system seemingly shaped by the delivery of workers for domestic jobs in suburban homes, by the attitude that its customers don’t have any other choices, and by the philosophy expressed by a MATA executive: “Public transit isn’t for everyone.”

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Polling for Sustainable Shelby revealed that the per gallon price of gas would have to reach $6.70 before suburban riders would climb onto MATA buses.

More Than Roads

Despite all this, however, the planets may in fact be aligning.

First, it’s time for MATA to produce the regional mass transit plan required by federal law. These plans have often been more about putting this year’s date on the old plan rather than considering all the options and the costs.

This time around, a bolder approach is being encouraged by Memphis Metropolitan Planning Organization, the obscure federally-mandated agency that has to give the MATA plan its stamp of approval. MPO is charged with long-range transportation planning, and finally, public transit – and not just building more and more highways – is getting attention.

No Excuses

Second, Sustainable Shelby will be rolled out this month, and it reflects a strong pro-public transit attitude, stating: “Higher aspirations for public transit and improved bus service can decrease the number of cars on the road and improve air quality. A dedicated funding source is needed for higher quality transportation and expansion of service. A truly sustainable community demands a 21st century approach to addressing our transportation needs and challenges.”

Third, and most importantly, the Tennessee Legislature surprisingly passed legislation in May allowing Memphis and other major metro areas to create a Regional Transportation Authority and the “dedicated funding source” that is needed to pay for it.

In its defense, MATA has said that its ambitions have been thwarted by lack of funds to think and act boldly. With the planets now aligned, MATA finds itself in a new “no excuses” era. It remains to be seen if MATA has the ability to make the most of this rare opportunity to become relevant to everyone in our region.


If indeed the planets have finally aligned for MATA, they are orbiting around Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton. He’s chairman of the MPO, he’s the architect of Sustainable Shelby, and he could be the key member of a Regional Transportation Authority Board.

Already announced as a candidate for mayor of Memphis whenever that office opens up, it appears that public transit – traditionally the province of the city mayor - now unexpectedly becomes the barometer for testing what a future Wharton Administration could be.

Previously published as Memphis magazine's City Journal column.


Brad said...

Another...laughs at the idea that “a transit company that can’t manage buses should be guiding light rail decisons.”


I hope this perfect storm pans out, especially with the opportunity for debate that is presented by the mayoral special election campaign.

We desperately need a generational shift in thinking about city services and competing for those college educated 25-34 year olds.

Anonymous said...

AMEN! Excellent post and your are right on as usual. I feel I can speak with some authority on the MATA issue because I actually use it on a weekly, often daily basis. First of all, I will say that nearly every person I have come into contact with at MATA from drivers to management are always courteous and responsive. However, you are exactly right that the entire system either lacks vision or the will and/or means to implement change. The prevailing attitude seems to be that this is a service primarily to move low income people who have absolutely no other choice for transportation.

This is reflected in a number of ways. The busses are often filthy and the equipment poorly maintained. At times you feel as if your teeth will rattle out of your head because some busses appear to have zero shocks and if you happen to be riding during a rain storm good luck finding a dry seat because the busses leak like a Civil War era submarine. They are often stifling hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. Busses that are supposed to have bike racks often arrive without a rack or the rack is broken.

I could go on with a litany of complaints, but the fact is that this system is terrible because the people who do use it have no voice to demand change and for the majority that don't use it there is no demand for anything better because as you pointed out they have never been anywhere to see how different a well run public transportation system compares to what we have here. In fact, I think MATA is just one example among many of the things that we could change to make this city more attractive to the "creative class", but there is no public demand for these changes because a majority of the people in this city have never travelled anywhere to see how much we are missing.

I understand that it is a difficult task to provide public transit in a place like Memphis due to our lack of density. However, if you look around the country at systems in cities similar to ours, places like Nashville, Louisville, Chattanooga - these cities are making changes to make transit more appealing to use for a broad cross section of people - not just the poor who lack resources. For instance, look at the websites of some of these systems and compare it to the MATA site. The sites are easy to use, you can log on and track the arrival and departure time of busses, etc. MATA's website is often non-functional and looks as if it is updated about twice a year. Nearly every system I've seen that is comparable in size to MATA has bike racks on every bus. Maybe about 10% of MATA's fleet has racks and often they are in disrepair. I could go on and on, but the fact is that with just a little effort and expense we could vastly improve the system we have and begin to move in a direction to make this city more attractive to those people whom you mentioned in your post.

Anonymous said...

Regardless of what else happens if Wharton can bring light rail into Memphis I will consider his tenure as a success. The mayor that follows Wharton can work on revitalization of the inner core. Wharton's pet project should be implementing light rail and securing dedicated single source funding for the Metro area. Nothing else.

Anonymous said...

He was the chairman of MPO and Sustainable Shelby by default. Shelby County will have the largest deficit in history. I hear Wharton is about nothing more than the same cronyism. Shelby County is struggling and Wharton is apart of it.

packrat said...

wharton didn't cause Shelby's debt situation; that was caused by a bunch of white mostly republican county comissioners and county mayors.

Zippy the giver said...

I smell a political football inflating and nothing more.

Anonymous said...

By golly SCM, you don't know politics from shinola, but you've managed to stumble into a good position on something. (Blind hogs, acorns, and all that.)

If MATA would immensely simplify its routes, and probably if it ran small airport-like buses instead of those huge noisy empty road-ships, I'd wager that its ridership would grow tremendously.

In Boston for the first time, I left the hotel alone early one Sunday morning, took the subway halfway across town, got out and found and rode a bus the rest of my way, all without having ever been to my destination, and all with virtually no trouble. (The bus route was straight down one street, MATA take a hint). In Memphis, I have never ridden a bus, and would have no idea which one even to get on. An Englishman once stopped me downtown and asked which bus to take to the airport. On hearing my answer, he said incredulously, "NO one here knows!"

Zippy the giver said...

Kinda lets you know what kind of peopl have been running this town for so long.......... confused, befuddled, disorganized and unconcerned with constituents.
Light Rail is a long term project that will take PAYING ATTENTION to all the Feds have to offer and designing an intelligent route, the route will have to channel power and communications and it will require more power than is currently routed.
An intelligently done Light Rail System will require a "milk run" and express services, extra cars ready daily to provide enhanced services during rush hour, and a yard to park them in.

Light Rail alone won't be the "be all end all" of transportation.
Every city with light rail has an intelligently thought out surface system, busses. New Jeryey has busses that run from the city to the country. Some of them are those double cab designs that look like two busses with a flexible connection in the center joining them.
Busses will serve the Regular routes and the connecting stations for rail.
Now if you wanted to be smart and ahead of other cities, you could make a "TRANSIT PASS" that will be good on all systems with a monthly fee that is 1/3 less than paying for each trip a la carte. A magnetic or radio card that registers each trip tied to a system for billing, and "TOKENS" that you buy in a booth before entering systems so theirs no "making change" on the bus or train.
Now, if MLGW keeps up it's current overbilling practices and hiding or not knowing what the heck it's doing, you can expect a monthly bill to the city that will dwarf what is already owed by MCS every month which is a ridiculous amount.
So, to make it affordable, I would say that we ned to have some form of non MLGW supplied power for MCS to get of our backs, the city power requirements to get off our backs, and the schools requirements to get off our backs.
You know, we could teach how to deploy this power generation/distribution technology in the city and country to power communities without exorbitant outlays to children in school as a vo-tech and science class.
We could teach ex-felons re-entering the fabrication process and pay them a decent wage so they don't return as we retrain them in whatever they were never trained in, such as family and work success, not just moving our city along, but, moving it forward without losing any of it's citizens or their children.

I need to get this of my chest after the last comment and it's not a dig at the commenter or anyone, but:
It just seems to me that we very much do get lost in the process of politics, almost making the politics more important than the projects and we haven't been generating positive results for the citizens. It's an observation about our city and a worry.
I know our new mayor isn't in that group, he's a results driven man.
It's really time to innovate and not just get the ball rolling but to actually intelligently complete projects that innovate and generate results. We ar new to innovation so some of our results will generate stats that show failure. Let's not make them a condemnation but a result and information. Lets also not just not have oversight and expect failure. If we actually intelligently design and implement innovative plans we should expect success and we will generate it. If we see political quagmires that befuddle common sense, let's not wait to remove the political obstacles, including people with personally counterproductive agendas.
We need to streamline our city for innovative projects so that we can generate success and show the youth of this city that they matter and that they do have a future that they can design and succeed in.

Zippy the giver said...

P.S., a BUS ROUTE MAP would have solved the british guy's question. My brother in law told me the same story, I think it was him that asked.

Maybe cash for clunkers can apply to our bus system an we can trade old busses and trolley in for busses, trains and track to places that we can actually use.

Chris said...

I think light rail is a bad idea given the geography of the region. Instead, I think we either need dedicated bus lanes and/or an entire new fleet of smaller, modern, green buses with flexible routing. New thinking is what is most needed.

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:01 p.m.:

What a hoot. If the folks at this blog don't know anything about politics, you must not know anything about them. This blog time after time gets it right and its comments on politics are on target. Maybe, just maybe, you're the one that doesn't know shinola

Anonymous said...

>>>its comments on politics are on target. Maybe, just maybe, you're the one that doesn't know shinola

Anon 11:01 here.

Nah, there has been exactly one left-liberal president elected, last year. Otherwise, it has been all centrist Democrats, centrist Republicans, and conservative Republicans. SCM is left-liberal, I am center-right. In other words, SCM's politics, and presumably yours, are not mainstream; mine are, objectively, as measured against national elections.

But enough politics! SCM has churned out 4 or 5 solid articles in a row, on I-265 and public transportation. He is to be congratulated, feted, lauded! Don't rain on his parade!

Zippy the giver said...

If Eldrick Marion quit as City Attorney under Herenton, and then, Lowery asked him to leave BUT HE DOESN'T, does that mean his resignation was "a Herenton"? (We have to wait for three more for it to be valid).
Does it mean it was just posturing so that Willy could keep his fingers in the city's coffers to fund his campaign?
If his resignation was real, why didn't he accept this opportunity to hit greener pastures?
Is it because he's cultivated the greenest pasture in your tax dollars?
Howz that for politics?
And you're wondering why we don't have a comprehensible bus map?
Puh Leeze!
Look who's been running things.

Anonymous said...

Another reason to Support Wharton for City Mayor. He ain't perfect but he has the knowledge, the standing, the political skills, and the vision to put a public transporatation plan on the road to reality.

None of the other candiates can come close to that.

Zippy the giver said...

I think he has the experience to keep that carrot dangling forever. He could have made it happen while he was county mayor.

Anonymous said...

Packrat, Wharton was in bed with most of those white politiciasn you speak. They will be backing him to become the next city mayor. They're chomping at the bit to remain control of the city.

Zippy the giver said...

Last I checked, Michael Hooks was not white, and neither was Ford's money man who is backing others.
THEY have a vested interest in keeping things racist.

Keep the racism crap out of this, it's fake, phony, and all about distraction (red herrings) and not on point at all.

Borden said...

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Borden said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


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