Monday, January 8, 2018

What to do about Mass Transit and traffic congestion

by Rod Williams  - All of the candidates for mayor have issued statements or published position papers addressing the issue of mass transit and traffic congestion.  Polls of what Nashvillians care about list mass transit and traffic among the top issues. The long hard-fought battle to stop the AMP caused people to focus on the issue of mass transit.  And, people’s own personal experience of dealing with Nashville traffic has elevated the issue. I have lived in Nashville most of my adult life and I remember when we could brag that Nashville was a “15-minute city," meaning you could get anywhere you wanted to go in fifteen minute. That changed a long time ago.  Traffic is a serious issue and good big cities have mass transit. It is fitting that traffic and transit are important  issues.  Below are my thoughts on the issue.

I want to see Nashville develop a system of mass transit that uses the private sector to the largest extend possible.  I would like to see us transition from a public mass transit system to a private mass transit system.  I would like to see us do things never done before.  We should break new ground. We should be known as the city with a great transportation system primarily dependent on the private sector to provide the service.  We should privatize mass transit.

By “privatized” I mean both fully privatized non-governmental transit, and public-private-partnership and out-sourcing, private companies hired by government to provide transit services. 
As an example, Uber is a fully private operation with no government subsidy and minimal regulation.  Airport-hotel express bus service is private form of mass transit. A private-public partnership may be that a company builds a light rail line and operates it, for instance from the airport to downtown, and we lease the rail line for 75 years.  Some turnpikes are built like this.  Hiring a private firm to provide a service is the way the state often houses prisoners and the way we pick up most of the city’s garbage.  

We need to seek a unique solution:  If I were mayor I would seek out consultants who have experience in successful cost effective mass transit relying on private providers.  If we cannot find a consultant with a track record of doing this, we could do it ourselves.   I would call Uber, Lyft, Sidecar, Grayline, Megabus, and others to the table and ask for RFP’s for moving masses of people efficiently.  These app-dispatched type companies like Uber and Lyft are relatively new.  They have made lots of money and have lots of money to invest and they may be looking for opportunities to grow.  Brainstorm with them. Invite them to help us solve our transit problem.

Look at Megabus: For $10 one can go from Nashville to Atlanta on a Megabus.  Would Megabus want to take over a Nashville Express bus services?  Or, maybe Grayline?Remove prohibition against private companies competing with the MTA.  At this time probably no company would want to provide a purely private bus service but we should remove the impediment if one did want to.  We should change the environment to one that welcomes private solutions, competition and innovation instead of a climate that penalizes private solutions. 

Remove the requirement for a 'certificate of necessity' before one can operate more cabs or start new cab companies.  The only logic for restricting supply of taxis is to protect those already in business from competition. Taxis are not mass transit, but they complement mass transit.  For one thing, they get people out of their private car and once one has become accustomed to not driving their private car, then other forms of transportation may also become more attractive.  Also, if one takes a bus from Murfreesboro to downtown, often one must still get somewhere else.  Taxis can take you the few blocks or miles from the end of the bus line to where you need to be.  Also, taxis do not need to park downtown for 8 hours at a stretch and if we had more taxis in use there would be less demand for more parking.

Look at how we pick up garbage: 
I was in the Metro Council when we changed the way we pick up garbage. The city picked all up of it, it was a more labor intensive process and garbage cans were manually lifted instead of mechanically lifted and service was twice a week instead of once a week. We transitioned to a once-a-week, mechanical-lift, uniform-garbage-can system.  Metro still designs the routes and supervises quality but most garbage is now picked up by private companies.  This has saved metro a lot of money.  Garbage workers were some of the lowest paid employees in the city but disability claims and retirement was very expensive. Metro employees and the public resisted the transition to private companies collecting the garbage but the transition to the current system happened and it has worked well.  During the transition, Metro public works “competed” with private companies. The cost of metro picking up garbage was established counting all cost in order to measure and compare the deal we were getting from private firms.  If Metro could “bid” lower on a route than a private company, Metro continued the route.  Eventfully, private companies took over most to the routes. The city simply could not pick up garbage as cheap as a private company. 

My Thai observation #1: It doesn’t matter the color of the bus.  I did not know what I was observing at the time but as a young man I spent 15 months in Thailand. I was in the Air Force and I lived off base and enjoyed my experience.  I learned how to take the local buses and get around.  I noticed that on a bus route that I used, I sometimes caught a brown bus and sometimes a green bus, but the bus followed the same route and regular schedule regardless of the color of the bus.  It was only years later when doing some research on transportation that I realized that the local government set the routes and allowed private companies to bid on the routes.  On the same route,  one time the bus may be one owned by one company but the next bus may be a bus owned by another company.

My Thai observation #2:  It is not a taxi and it is not a bus. Often instead of catching a bus, I would catch another type service.  In Thailand, they were often mini- pickup trucks that had a top but open sides with benches facing each other on each side of the truck bed.  Later I realized this type service is called a “jitney” and operates in many countries, but we do not have it in America.  It is a service that operates on a relatively fixed route but can deviate a block or two off the route to drop someone off at their home or place of work.  With modern phone apps and almost everyone having a smart phone, I think an Americanized version of jitney service could work in Nashville.  Obviously, Instead of pick-up trucks however I would envision vans or very small busses. 
The Nashville Star has been a failure and not a model to follow. This 30-mile line starting in Lebanon was projected to move 750 per day but on average it only moves 550 people a day.  The fare box only covers only 15% of the cost of a trip on the train.  With an operating budget of $5.1 million, that is not a sustainable model.  Also it gets very few cars off the road.  If 550 people a day are taking the train, some of those would be riding with a spouse, or car pooling or riding a bus or not working downtown. So if we consider 75% of those riding the train would be driving a car that is only 413 cars taken off the road in that 30 mile stretch of I-40 or Lebanon Pike.  That is an insignificant number.

We do not need to widen roads. There may be bottle necks that could be improved, but widening roads is like solving a weight problem by buying a bigger belt.  Sitting in traffic is one of the “cost” that will result in people being willing to use mass transit and also influence people’s decision about where they live and work.

Not everyone minds their long commute. People like to talk about their horrible commute, but some people are accustomed to it and value the independence of their car and do not want to ride mass transit.  I think I would hate it myself, but some people have told me the ride home gives them time to unwind. They do not find it nerve wracking. They want to listen to their music or choice of talk show or sports and do not want to share that choice and they want to stop off at the grocery store on the way home.  Don’t assume people want to give up their car.  We are not now maximizing the use of vanpools and car pools and the express bus services. If we are not now maximizing alternative options, they why should we assume other options would get people to give up their car? There may not be as much demand for mass transit as some assume. Equal to the challenge of how we move people is selling people on the idea of using mass transit.  Don’t assume that if we build it, they will use it. 

Not every bus has to be the same.  Some millennial and young professionals may want luxury seats and Wi-Fi and a smooth ride. Recent immigrants living out Nolensville Rd may be happy with a school-type bus and lower priced service and greater frequency of service may be more important than a luxury ride. Let entrepreneurs have a chance to provide different models and see what works. What works on one route may not be the same as what works on another route.

Mass transit and planning for development should coincide.  I have traveled quite a bit in Europe and in some other countries. A visitor to Europe may think the walled cities with big cathedrals and cobble stone streets are quaint and that everyone lives like that. If you take a train from one city to another in many of these countries, however, you will find that much of the population live clustered around railway stops at different points along the route.  One may pass through miles of sparse development or pasture and farmland and then come to a railway stop and there will be a population center with multi story apartment buildings around the train stop.  Should we build a light rail line or develop a Bus Rapid Transit route down Nolensville Road or some other major corridor, then land use planning should allow high rise, high density development of apartments clustered around the transit stop. 

We need greater density to make mass transit successful.  We should discourage rezoning of neighborhoods to single-family-only, should encourage zoning that allows auxiliary living units on residential properties (mother-in-law apartments) and increase density along major corridors, at mass transit hubs, or major transit stops.  This would also increase the supply of affordable housing. 

Express bus service is a “public good."  It is a given that getting more people to take buses from Murfreesboro to Nashville, or Gallatin or Clarksville to Nashville is a public good.  When someone takes the bus it makes the road less congested for the rest of us.  It reduces the demand for widening roads, reduces commute times for other drivers and cuts pollution by reducing idling cars.  It reduces poverty by making it possible for low-skilled workers to get to jobs, it increases disposable income and spurs economic growth by allowing people to spend more of their money on other goods rather than transportation.  Yet ridership is low. (I do not know the number, but know it is low. We need the numbers in order to say:  “X number of people commute from Murfressboro to Nashville everyday, yet only X percent takes the express bus service.”)  

Regional transportation is also a State public good. Metro should not pay the lion’s share for regional transportation. The more people who take the Murfreesboro to Nashville bus, the more it helps the State, since it reduces traffic on the interstate highway. We need regional support and state financial support for efforts to increase mass transit.  Our Nashville legislative delegation should advocate for regional transit to get TDOT support for every vehicle that is taken off a state road due to someone using mass transit. 

Express Bus service is a bargain.  One can take a bus from Murfreesboro t o Nashville for $4 for one trip or 20 trips for $70. That is only $7.50 a day!  To park at the 701 Church Street garage is $5 for one hour, $8 two hours, and a $13 daily maximum if one can find a place to park.  So to take the bus for a month is $7.50 x 20 days= $150 a month; to take a car is $150 parking (assume one leases a space by the month), gas $200 (assume a tank a week at $50 x4= 200) maintenance and oil changes assume $50 a month, and assume the wearing out of a car used mostly for work $400 a month. (Assume a $20,000 car for 5 years plus interest). So the cost of taking the bus is $150 a month and the cost of driving is $800.

So, how do we get more people to take the bus? Assuming it is a pubic good and we want more people to take the bus, and it is a bargain, why won’t people take the bus? It could be that it is inconvenient to be at the bus stop on time, one may want to stay in town to have dinner, one may have to pick up the kids or stop at the grocery store and the bus does not take you to the door of your business.  Other people may not take the bus because they just love their car, and you would have to pay them to take the bus.  However, many people do not know of the option of express bus service or have never even considered it.  One thing government does not do well is advertise its services and most of the time with good reason.  Most government services do not have to be advertised because people have to have them, want them or not.  Other services are government monopoly and people have no choice of provider. For other services, if more people use the service such as libraries or parks we will have to build more libraries or parks. However, getting people out of their cars can save money and solve a problem. We need to “sell” people on using the bus.  We need billboards and ads touting the benefit of taking an express bus service. Any RFP for a private company to take over an express line should include a proposal for advertising and increasing ridership and perhaps provide an incentive for increasing ridership.  Even if we do not privatize the line, we still need to advertise.

Use Technology, synchronize lights, and build roundabouts and pedestrian passageways:
My favorite bad example of uselessly sitting at a traffic light is Craighead and Bransford.  The light takes forever to change with traffic going neither direction.  Often I have been tempted to run the red light. This would be a great place to build a roundabout or turn the light to flashing red and flashing yellow after 8PM unless there is a function at the Fairgrounds.  I am sure this is only one of a thousand examples in town. I have traveled in Europe and I know roundabouts take some getting used to but they are safe and keep traffic moving. Also, by reducing idle time, they improve air quality and reduce air pollution.  All lights should be automated to be timed to move traffic most efficiently.  On super busy roadways with pedestrian traffic, we should construct pedestrian bridges or tunnels.  This will increase safety of pedestrians and reduce the light timing necessary for pedestrians to cross the road.  This would not be something for downtown where we want to encourage pedestrian traffic and slow traffic, but I am sure there are some areas where this would be beneficial, such in Greenhills. I have seen these used European cities. It works.

Make the city more walkable by stopping building sidewalks stupidly and require new developments to have a “pedestrian plan,” just as they must now have a traffic plan, a lighting plan and a storm water plan. I have examples of poor planning and building sidewalks stupidly that I could show you.  It seems as if some streets were designed to ensure people never walk. 

Most people do not work downtown.  A lot of people do, but I have never worked downtown.  If we moved masses of people from Murfreesboro to downtown, then how we would they get them to their jobs which are scattered throughout the city and the region?  Before we focus on a massive investment of a Murfreesboro to Nashville route or similar routes we need to figure out how to get people where they want to go once they get downtown.  Private paratransit could help accomplish this. 

We must realize that it is difficult to retrofit a city build mostly after the advent of the car to accommodate mass transit.  Cities with really good mass transit are cities like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston.  These are all cities that had large populations and were built prior to the advent of the automobile.  We should not over promise on mass transit. Atlanta has a large rail system but its job centers are not clustered, making that rail system less useful.  

Realize the future may be here before you know it and needs may change. It was not that many years ago that everyone did not have a smart cell phone. That technology has changed much of how we live from how we find places, connect with people, and decide the routes we take.  The demand on our roads and use of one’s own car may decrease. More people may work from home. UPS, Federal Express, pizza delivery and running to another office to deliver a set of document may be done mostly by drones in five to ten years.  To go somewhere, you may click an app on your phone (or key bob type device or whatever) and a driverless pod rushes to your house and takes you where you want to go. We will still need roadways but some problems may take care of themselves and it is difficult to plan for a future 75 years down the road when technology we have not even dreamed of yet, may appear at any time. 

This originally appeared in this blog on  July 15, 2015. In the mid 1980's I Iead an effort with my friend Roger Bissell to stop a proposed special tax to support mass transit. During that process I studied the issue of transit in some depth. Also from my service on the Planning Committee of the Council and work with an engineering firm I had more exposure to traffic planning issues. I believe the time is now to develop a primarily private forward- looking transportation system. With new technologies emerging we do not need to build the system of the past. Nashville could break the mold and do something cutting edge if we had the right leadership. Rod Williams

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