In Friday’s print edition of Nashville Business Journal, we give subscribers a look at the intersection between traffic congestion and transit. I doubt our conclusion will be reassuring to those of you sitting in traffic. But the good news, at least, is that mass transit could offer you a way to not sit in rush hour.
During the past year, we’ve heard mayoral candidates talk about solving Nashville’s traffic woes. As we’ve previously reported, traffic counts on the region’s highways are surging alongside our recent population and jobs gains. That also has an immediate impact on Nashville’s economic output. But perhaps more importantly, there are the intangible lost opportunities for future recruitment of new businesses and workers in the region – crucial factors in whether Nashville continues its momentum.
We decided to zero in on congestion and mass transit – since the discussion has focused on fixing, or solving, our traffic. I must admit, in my past coverage I’ve probably used the same terminology to phrase the topic. It’s a complex issue that even cities we’re looking to for a “mass-transit-done-right” template, like Denver, for instance, still face.
Based on conversations I’ve had with local planners and traffic officials, coupled with national research on transit and congestion as well as data from aspirational peer cities with touted transit networks, it’s clear we need to seriously reconsider what a transit system will do for Nashville.
If there’s a takeaway from Friday’s piece, “Jammed if we do, jammed if we don’t,” it is this: Expecting mass transit to rid the region of heavy traffic is misguided.
As a city and region, we’re moving ahead with plans that could potentially cost hundreds of millions, if not billions, of our money.
And should Nashville continue to grow, our traffic likely will not be going away – even if we develop the type of best-in-class regional network the community desires.
Traffic levels today – and the delays during morning and afternoon rush hour drives – are the new norm. And admittedly, we still have it pretty easy compared to other Southern peers like Austin and Atlanta.
In Friday’s piece, planners and officials tell me the push for transit boils down to managing and containing our congestion levels, not ridding us of the issue entirely. It’s also about moving more people throughout the region. Projections by the Nashville Metropolitan Planning Organization estimate more than one million new residents (and around 750,000 new workers) in Middle Tennessee 25 years from now, excluding Clarksville. Much of that growth is expected in outlying counties like Williamson and Rutherford counties, meaning a staggering number of potential commuters driving on the region’s roadways.
You’d think mass transit would get drivers off the roadways and then lead to less traffic, right? That seems to be a reasonable assumption.
Yet the vast majority of national research finds mass transit haslittle direct impact on reducing traffic congestion(there are some exceptions). The academic research revolves around the idea of ‘induced demand,’ where additional space on the roadways causes drivers to adjust their habits: wider roads encourages more drivers to use them. In the same way, mass transit may remove some drivers from the roads and highways, but that allows for new drivers to take their place. Such a dynamic must be considered when you look at the sheer number of additional employees and people MPO anticipates in the years ahead.
That’s not to say looking seriously at mass transit isn’t worth our time.
In my reporting, I came across several worthwhile primers on what transit offers in spite of the sparse link to reducing congestion.
“Our region is really susceptible and vulnerable to traffic congestion because we don’t have alternatives,” Michael Skipper, the executive director of the MPO, told me. “Where transit comes in, it allows us to continue to grow despite that congestion.”
In the past year, we’ve seen one mass transit project, the Amp, fall by the wayside. While opponents had many grievances about the proposal, one point of contention was that the Amp would make traffic on West End Avenue worse. And thus, the plan wasn’t a good one, so the argument went.
One aspect that didn’t make Friday’s piece due to space was theengineering traffic studies tied to the Amp.
This gets at the heart of the transit-congestion matter moving forward. It demonstrates how we need to think of mass transit as a tool to move more people around the region and provide residents with alternatives to driving, not as relief for our congestion.
The traffic study for the Amp found that travel times on West End Avenue would be worse four years from now, with or without the Amp.
Opponents took this as a reason to argue the transit plan was flawed. It’s worth noting that as Los Angeles extends one of its light rail lines, one study suggests the first leg of the project hasn’t meant a reduction in nearby roadway congestion, even with higher transit ridership.
I’ve already gotten feedback from people about this piece saying something to the effect of, “So you’re recommending we do nothing.” That isn’t the intent.
Instead, the goal is to recalibrate how we discuss, debate and talk about the issue in the years ahead — because there will be plenty of discussion and debate.
If you hear politicians claim a transit project is going to relieve traffic congestion, seriously question that point. But do the same if opponents to any future transit project argue it’s not worth our time, energy and money because it won’t fix traffic.