As transportation chair for the Sierra Club’s Tennessee Chapter, I’m always looking at transit and all transportation modes in Memphis and around the state.
Several recent studies have shown that Memphis needs better transit. These studies indicate that the Memphis Area Transit Authority needs to become more attractive to riders, employers, and millennials by establishing a dedicated funding source, increasing overall funding, and moving toward a plan to allow increased ridership.
The Sierra Club’s mission recognizes the importance of the “built environment” with transportation as one key element. Thus, we focus significant efforts over many years for public services that meet the needs of the people, while we also push for clean air, clean water, green transportation for all, and reduction of greenhouse gases – transportation being responsible for a third of greenhouse gases in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
In Memphis as well as in other cities, some residents need better transit to get to work or to the grocery store or doctor. Some businesses need it so employees can get to work. Riders want choices of how to get around, or so that their family can get along with one fewer car. Some want it so that Memphis can be more attractive to businesses that are looking for a place to relocate, or to open a new location for their business. Some say Memphis needs it because it’s an important element of a healthy, livable city.
Over the last 25 years, MATA has suffered from a collection of forces that have weakened it by a thousand small cuts. First, our geography has spread, decreasing the population and employment density. This has increased costs and decreased ridership at the same time. Then, because ridership was down, the Memphis City Council reduced its funding support. As a result, MATA had to cut back routes or decrease their frequency, which only served to reduce ridership even further.
It was the genesis of a death spiral. Fortunately, a collection of forward-looking politicians, transit professionals, business leaders, and community activists have blocked further decline for the moment, and there is considerable discussion of not only how to fix it, but how to make it into a transit system that Memphis deserves.
Some ideas in public and private discussions include a guaranteed funding base that is not subject to City Council votes; greater density in the city and less moving out to the suburbs like Collierville and Arlington; and more frequent buses on key routes. Overall there should also be cleaner buses, a safer environment, and better customer service.
Those recent reports addressing Memphis transit have come up with essential considerations. First is the growing recognition that more funding is needed. Innovate Memphis’ “Transit Funding White Paper” (innovatememphis.com/transportation-and-mobility) recommended in its transit vision and goals that, “the Memphis area invests in quality public transit as its highest transportation priority (and) increases transit service with $30 million dedicated annual local public funding [operating plus capital expense].” This report was also sponsored by the Greater Memphis Chamber.
Tom Jones of SmartCity Memphis published an insightful article in February 2017, titled “Memphis Deserves Great Transit” (smartcitymemphis.com/2017/02/memphis-deserves-great-transit). In it, he repeats the call for better transit, emphasizes the significance of the sprawl problem, and echoes the importance of increased funding for MATA.
The Memphis 3.0 comprehensive plan, currently under way, includes “Connectivity” as one of its key pillars. Innovate Memphis, working with Jarrett Walker + Associates, is leading the way with the “Memphis 3.0 Transit Vision” (memphis3point0.com/transit), which seems likely to become the basis for Memphis’ transit priorities for the next 5 to 10 years.
The preliminary “Conceptual Alternatives Report” is available at that link and is crucial to understanding the approaches to improving transit in Memphis. Suzanne Carlson, transportation and mobility project manager at Innovate Memphis, describes four proposed transit networks that “show the trade-offs between broad coverage across the city, even if the bus doesn’t come very often, or higher frequency on key routes that will increase ridership and access more jobs. We also designed networks with more money, to increase service, and are asking the public and decision makers which network is right for Memphis.” Preliminary survey results show that people have some preference for ridership concepts.
The planning under way, including the public input process, will bring sound proposals to our elected officials. We look forward to decisive action as Memphis needs better transit to succeed in the twenty-first century. One additional positive note: MATA expects to evolve to electric buses over the next 5 to 10 years, with higher reliability, reduced operating costs, and less air pollution. •
Dennis Lynch is transportation chair for the Sierra Club’s Tennessee Chapter.