It’s widely predicted that climbing gas prices will force suburbanites out of their cars and back to city neighborhoods. Shelby County is likely to be one of the last places where it will happen.

That’s because our community’s inequitable tax structure and MATA’s poor reputation combine to stall changes in lifestyles here. As a result, if and when a change comes, it will apparently be fueled by gas costing more than $6 a gallon.

That’s how much Shelby Countians say they would have to pay to consider taking MATA, according to polling taken in connection with Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton’s Sustainable Shelby program. In fact, among people who say they prefer a suburban lifestyle, the price was $6.69 per gallon.

Gassed Up

The fact that gas prices will have to increase at least 50 percent for MATA to start looking attractive may say 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’ annual experiment requiring its 80-member class to travel to a meeting 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 travel in their personal cars. In this yearly experiment, trolleys get higher marks than buses, but the experience does little to capture new transit riders.

Comments fall into broad categories like the need for better customer service and cleaner, better-maintained buses. The class is also asked to make their plans on the MATA website, and although it is markedly improved in the past two years, it still falls way short of the industry standard in Portland, Oregon, where the TriMet website gives bus locations in real time.

Riding The Rails

Here, MATA’s Trip Planner function at least no longer promises to reply within 48 hours. Trip recommendations are now immediate, although one recommended travel plan called for a rider from the Med-ical Center to Balmoral to spend the night at the Lamar and Barron intersection.

Despite its apathy toward MATA travel, Shelby Countians are enthusiastic about light rail, which is on the transit company’s agenda. Almost 80 percent of Shelby County residents said they would likely ride light rail if it were available. Of course, an effective light rail system is light years and more than $1 billion away, meaning that MATA buses will remain the backbone of public transit here for the foreseeable future.

A MATA official acknowledges that the agency must abandon the lethargy that comes from a ridership that is viewed largely as a captive audience with no other options. To expand its customer base, he says that MATA has to improve its rider experience and reliability, or even $6-a- gallon gas may not put more people in its seats.

Taxing Situation

But more than MATA stands in the way of a behavioral shift in Shelby County. In the past 30 years, homebuyers’ attitudes were shaped by the disparity of the tax burden between Memphians and non-Memphians. With a tax structure that pushed the costs of sprawl onto Memphis taxpayers (who paid for the lion’s share of sprawl in the form of new roads and new schools while still footing the bill for museums, parks, libraries, and arenas that should have only been on the larger county tax base), suburban residents simply do not face the financial realities that are driving suburbanites back inside other cities.

The difference in taxes here pays for an awful lot of gas. For example, the tax bill for someone living in a $150,000 house in the unincorporated area of Shelby County (or Lakeland) is about $1,300 less than a Memphian’s. In other words, even if gas prices rise $2 a gallon, these suburban taxpayers can drive about 12,750 miles, or the equivalent of a 50-mile weekday commute, before the cost of gas is more than the amount they save from “county taxes.”

In Germantown, the tax savings from living there instead of Memphis is about $700 a year, enough to pay for about 7,000 miles a year. In other words, the savings pay about half the cost of the additional gas for a 50-mile commute.

As a result of this lifestyle subsidy, non-Memphis residents have little incentive — yet — to move to closer-in Memphis neighborhoods, and the softness in the suburban home market may make it tough to move anyway. While the tax savings may pay for a lot of gas for suburbanites, the fact is that the rising cost of fuel is locking them into place because it’s making their homes less attractive to buyers.

Published previously as City Journal column in July edition of Memphis magazine.