Daylight at the End of the Transit Tunnel…

As a few of you might have read in a previous post on the matter, I outlined several opinions regarding initiatives- from small and low cost to large and capital demanding- to improve public transit in Memphis.  This encouraged several comments from readers with their own excellent suggestions and contributions on the topic.  At least a few hopeful transit advocates saw this discussion and others occurring at the dawn of what would be an awakening for MATA- a new day that would see an efficient system that provides a level of service that supports the entire community’s needs for access to employment, retail options and recreation.  This service would appeal to and benefit not only those who are transit dependent but also those who would make transit a choice in their daily lives.  As younger generations continue to rise, their preference for cities with efficient public transit options should not be taken lightly during MATA’s planning process.

…or an Approaching Train?

Instead we have been presented with a questionnaire under the very descriptive title “Preference or Trade-Off Survey” .  I would encourage all readers to please take the time to respond to this survey even if your experience with MATA has been limited to passing a bus as it lumbers along Union.  I for one took the survey and was discouraged by the obvious path being defined by Nelson/Nygaard as directed by MATA.  To first understand the impact of this survey we must agree on a basic point: life in a city relies directly on one’s ability to move through and across a community.  The survey is about choice in as much as a gravely injured patient might be forced to choose between the amputation of their right leg or their left leg.  Regardless, an individual will face a serious handicap for the remainder of their life.  Similarly, if this survey is in any way indicative of the outcome of this Short Range Transit Planning process, then the ability for public transit to provide efficient mobility to the entire city will be seriously compromised.

Seeing as I am not the consultant I cannot with absolute authority predict what options MATA- and thus the public- will be presented with as an outcome of this survey and study.  However, this survey definitely suggests we are essentially faced with 2 options or their variable hybrids:

1)    Shrink the service area covered by MATA in an effort to provide greater frequencies as well as more hours of service each day including weekends.

2)    Preserve- or even increase- the service area by limiting the number of stops, reducing frequencies and scaling back the number of hours MATA provides service throughout the week and weekend.

Abandoning Routes means Abandoning Neighborhoods

Not to be overly dramatic, but these options would place a significant (perhaps insurmountable) obstacle in the path toward creating a more livable urban community and its ability to compete on the national economic scene.  As discussed at SCM in previous posts, this community and region are plagued by entrenched and significant levels of poverty.  One approach to addressing this issue is providing access to opportunities for those that are defined in part by poverty.  How exactly can we expect an individual to ever improve their ability to provide for themselves and their families if they are unable to access employment opportunities?  Even that crosses a bridge too far and too early.  How can we expect the same individual to qualify for said employment if they cannot further their education due to the restrictive nature of distance from a college or university?  Market forces continue to restrict and centralize retail and services in communities across the country by eliminating those that are most marginal because they serve those living closest to the margin, resulting in entire neighborhoods loosing local access to basic necessities.  We propose they live in a neighborhood lacking basic services such as a grocery store, school supplies, child care and clothing shops and then remove access to those neighborhoods with such services.  For those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, it restricts the one service that provides a symbolic and literal “way out”.  Without mobility, tyranny of distance results in stagnation and decay.

This of course does nothing to appeal to a generation of creative and educated individuals who are doing more to drive national economic growth every day and show a preference for cities with robust transit options.  If we cannot provide efficient transit for those who choose to ride a bus or train, then we enter the economic development and recruitment fray with one arm already bound behind our collective back.

The Best Defense is a Good Offense

While the survey portrays a transit system on the defense- falling back on declining ridership and aging equipment- nowhere is there mention or suggestion of MATA leading an offensive within the community.  This narrow focus relies on the perception that MATA is not a valuable resource, one that if nurtured could yield very positive returns.  MATA as an asset could lead to increased land values and investment along dedicated routes in the existing urban area which has been the case in nearly every city to implement or improve their transit system.  Where is the “preference” for MATA to increase both frequency and service area?  Where is the option to both increase and decrease the number of stops by way of parallel express and local service along heavily traveled corridors?  Where is the option to increase local circulator routes in areas of shared employment focus such as the Medical District and the Airport area?  Let’s experiment with a “free fare zone” downtown, a concept which has enjoyed much success and encouraged ridership in other cities.  Let’s implement true park-n-ride service along with express routes where busses are allowed use of the inside or outside shoulders of the freeways as done in New Jersey.  Increase the frequency along certain routes to once every 10 to 15 minutes during rush hour.  Expedite the implementation of multiple transfer points across the city by utilizing bus turnouts and simple shelters in place of the costly and time consuming process of building transit centers.  Work with employers to incorporate cost sharing or discount voucher programs for those who utilize MATA.  Coordinate with the city’s evolving bike lane program to support the ability for individuals to ride their bikes in conjunction with utilizing MATA by ensuring all busses are equipped with bike racks and by locating rentable bike lockers at transfer points and locations where bike lanes intersect bus routes.

MATA must allow the current planning process to include an option that provides the level of service necessary to support healthy, stable and sustainable neighborhoods.  MATA, the challenge is this: produce such a plan and then sell it to the public.  Sell the role a well planned and integrated transit system will play in the economic health and stability of the entire metropolitan area.  Sell the system to those who would utilize MATA on a daily basis should it reinvent itself as an attractive transportation option.  Sell the fact that such a system will produce benefits to be enjoyed by even those who do not find themselves riding a bus, trolley or train as part of their everyday mobility.  Don’t assume that the only option is continued retrenchment with fewer routes while serving a smaller section of the urbanized area.  Prove that MATA is not simply a crutch for those with no other option but is a tool that, when properly wielded, can be relied upon by the entire community to get to where they need to go.