Will Memphis Rise to the Transit Challenge?

A few months ago, I went to Memphis for a wedding. I asked the
people at my downtown hotel how I should get to the venue, which was
also downtown, on South Main Street. They told me it would be about a
ten-minute drive. Which let me know it couldn’t be that far away.

DSC_0235.jpgThe trolley in Memphis: You can use it to get there from here. Photo by Sarah Goodyear.

I
decided to look at a map, and discovered that it would actually about a
fifteen-minute walk, so we set out happily on foot. Imagine my surprise
when I saw vintage trolley cars running along the precise route that I
was walking (and would have driven if I’d listened to the hotel’s
advice). Trolley cars that cost just a buck to ride. Why hadn’t the
people at the hotel mentioned that I could get there on public transit?

Maybe because these trolleys, at least on first inspection, are
presented as a quaint tourist ride rather than as functional public
transportation. It’s too bad, because — as I discovered when riding
home after the party — they are indeed a cheap and efficient way to
get from point A to point B on their admittedly limited route.

But according to Smart City Memphis,
problems with the transit system there, which consists primarily of
buses, run much deeper than a failure to market the trolleys as a
viable transportation mode. The problem is that the city has failed to
see the economic advantage a good transit system can create.

In an excellent post today, this Streetsblog Network member blog wonders whether the city will be pushed to action by a law recently passed
by the Tennessee state legislature, enabling Memphis and other metro
areas around the state to create regional transit authorities that
could raise dedicated funding for transit:

It looks like Memphis Area Transit Authority has finally reached a long awaited point: put up or shut up.

For
years, MATA has offered up numerous justifications for the sad state of
public transit in Memphis. At a time when efficient, effective mass
transit is a competitive advantage for cities attracting talented
workers, ours does just the opposite.

For many students and
young workers who come here, MATA becomes a symbol for a city that just
can’t seem to get its act together. And it’s not a bus that they take
getting out of here fast.

We won’t repeat the reasons why we are
so focused on 25-34 year-olds because you’ve probably memorized it by
now, but suffice it to say that we are bleeding this crucial
demographic.…

Operating with the attitude that public transit is
for poor people with no other choices, MATA is a significant obstacle
to the kind of progressive image (and more important, reality) that
other cities like Nashville are using as a lure for talented workers.
Focus groups with college-educated workers here tell us that they
expected a city of Memphis’ size to have a modern, welcoming, efficient
public transit system. Instead, they complain that the recruiters’
promise of a lower cost of living was misleading because “no one told
us we’d have to buy a car.”.…

Perhaps,
just perhaps, it begins a “no excuses” era for MATA and ushers in the
opportunity for the [Memphis Area Planning Organization] to think more
boldly and broadly about the future of public transit in our community.

Other
good reading from around the network: Bikes and buses are going
together more and more often in Sioux Falls, SD, according to The MinusCar Project. Bike Portland
reports that Google’s photo-taking "Street Trike" is hitting some bike
trails. And in case you haven’t heard about the incident in New York’s
Central Park in which a FOX News writer allegedly assaulted a cyclist
with his SUV, you can read about it on NY Bicycle Transportation Examiner.

  • In NYC, every business will state in their advertising what subway lines run near it.

    In London, every business will state in its advertising the nearest tube/rail stop.

    Here is Los Angeles, it’s hard to get the businesses near the Red Line to mention it. I think it is because there are too many people who still see transit as for the “poor” and therefore not potential customers.

    My church is near the Vermont/Wilshire station. They have started mentioning this in their directions. The church board has noticed the pedestrian traffic and thinking about signage to let people know they are around the corner.

    It’s about changing a mindset that transit is only for the “poor” and that nobody walks in Los Angeles.

    It’s also a matter of business realizing, “hey, there is all this pedestrian traffic… how can we attract more of that…”

    Glad to see Memphis has a trolley. I am a big advocate of streetcars and trams.

  • cph

    “Why hadn’t the people at the hotel mentioned that I could get there on public transit? ”

    I had a similar experience in a suburb of Washington DC about 9 years ago. The hotel had a shuttle that connected with the Metro, but it only ran a few hours a day. Then I just happened to notice the bus stop on the street near the hotel…of course, no one happened to have any bus schedules at the hotel, so I had to get some from the Metro station….

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