SpaceX CEO and Tesla founder Elon Musk wants to transport people from Earth to Mars in 10 years.
So, if humans can get to the red planet in a decade, why can’t the Nashville area build a comprehensive mass transit system in less than 25 years?
Obviously, building a transit system is a complicated endeavor, but Musk’s dream in addition to recent advancements in technology and innovation should spark urban and regional planners’ imagination.
It is essential as the amount of time drivers spend in their cars is expected to double by 2040, per the Nashville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. Congestion is already a problem that is worsening and threatening the region and state’s economic gains and ability to attract talent and tourists.
Now that Middle Tennessee regional mayors and the Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority board have approved recommendations for a 25-year, $6 billion transit system, it is time for action.
There are three important things to do:
- Create the dedicated funding to make it happen.
- Be flexible about and open to integrating innovations like self-driving cars and ride-hailing services like Lyft and Uber.
- Remember that a large part of the transit ridership comprises low-income and working-class residents and their needs should not be set aside.
The future of transit should have, but ought not be limited to, buses and trains. While buses are presently the dominant mode in the region, technology is transforming at an accelerating rate.
So are consumer habits.
The MTA reported a 2 percent dip in ridership from 2015 to 2016, primarily due to decreasing gas prices and the rise of Lyft and Uber rides.
In communities such as Pinellas Park, Fla., and Centennial, Colo., public subsidies are financing portions of ride-shares, saving local governments money and creating a viable, affordable alternative for consumers.
A Bloomberg report in August also pointed out potential pitfalls such as how ride-shares would address the needs of disabled riders and those with access to a smartphone.
“What happens if the cities come to rely on the apps, only to have the private companies decide the partnerships are no longer a sensible business venture for them?” according to the article.
It is not an unreasonable question. Last Sunday an Uber driver refused to pick up a Middle Tennessee State University student who relies on a guide dog.
That is why government must play an important role in this public service, although it should do so in partnership with the private sector.
On Sept. 22 innovator and entrepreneur Tony Seba blew the minds of attendees of the Nashville Downtown Partnership when he talked about advances in driverless cars and how that could make car ownership and parking garages obsolete.
He said this was a pivotal, “once in a century” moment for urban planners akin to the 13-year period in the early 20th century when urban Americans’ mode of transportation shifted from horses and buggies to automobiles.
“Every vehicle will be electric, self-driving and shared,” he said.
The world’s first self-driving taxis are beginning to pick up passengers in Singapore. Select members of the public are able to hail a free ride using their smartphones in taxis operated by nuTonomy, an autonomous vehicle software startup. (Aug. 25) AP
This future is not far off. Uber is already testing self-driving cars on the roads of Pittsburgh and a self-driving semitruck is operating in Nevada.
In a Sept. 26 article in the Brookings Institute Centennial Scholar Bruce Katz wrote: “Forward-thinking urban planners and city officials should already be charting a course that takes full advantage of the transformative potential of autonomous vehicles.”
The Nashville area has the conditions to compete in this space, per Katz’s analysis, among them a critical mass of research universities, and private companies and venture capital.
Other innovations are now a reality in Middle Tennessee, like Mark Cleveland’s Hytch carpooling app, which recently launched with the help of a $100,000 grant from the Tennessee Department of Transportation.
He presented the app during the Williamson County Transportation Summit on Sept. 15. The idea would be to make longer commutes more affordable and take cars off the road.
Affordability is key. Because housing is becoming more expensive near downtown Nashville, it is pushing residents out to the suburbs and adjoining counties, further exacerbating commutes and congestion.
Those most affected will be lower-income and working-class people who need to find a viable, affordable alternative to get to work.
When Musk presented his Mars vision on Tuesday, he said he wanted to lower the cost per trip from $10 billion per person to $200,000.
That is still out of reach for most earthlings.
However, that sense of imagination, intentionality and drive should inspire our terrestrial leaders to work together to create a big, bold and evolving transit system for the future prosperity of the Nashville area.