Nashville transit plan lessons as use soars in seattle and charlotte, dives in atlanta and austin electricity meme

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"Where we have invested in frequent service, every 15 minutes or better, those are the places where we are seeing ridership growth," said Todd Hemingson, a vice president at Austin’s Capital Metro transit authority. "If you look at places that are leading the pack in terms of growing ridership, Seattle and Vancouver, they are investing in quality service and are seeing big ridership gains as a result."

Critics of the Nashville transit plan also point to the lower density in Nashville compared to cities where transit has been successful. In 2010, the last year where U.S. Census data includes density, Nashville had 1,265 people per square mile, which pales in comparison to Seattle’s more than 7,250. Salt Lake City, where transit usage has increased 6 percent since 2012, the density was more similar, with 1,678 people per square mile.

David Hartgen, a transportation consultant and former professor at University of North Carolina – Charlotte, said Seattle’s transit has benefited from its geography, which limits sprawl. In other cities, commuters’ travel does not sync with transit lines. Instead of transit investments, he recommends widening highways and adding roadways.

Jarrett Walker, a transportation consultant in Portland, Ore., said ridership will go up and down as gas prices and other external factors influence commuters’ decisions, and it is not the metric that Nashville voters should base their transit decision on. Portland missed its ridership projections in the years after its light rail system opened, but its transit lines have shaped the city’s growth patterns to increase density and provide an alternative for commuters seeking to bypass congestion, he said.

"Short-term ridership is the wrong question," Walker said. "I would advise people in Nashville to think instead about what kind of city they want. If you want a denser city, you will have to have high-capacity transit. If you want a sprawling city and a car-dependent city, then that is a good reason to vote ‘no.’" Austin

The city is preparing for a third referendum that could come as early as 2020, six years after the last failed vote, according to the Austin Statesman. Hemingson said he is confident the next measure will pass because of better, regional messaging, but mainly because the city’s rapid growth demands it.

Austin’s overall transit use fell 2 percent from 2006 to 2015, and the decline in Austin’s ridership stems mostly from bus use, according to TransitCenter. The city’s 32-mile commuter rail increased by 4 percent in the past two years; and bus rapid transit, which is more frequent and reliable than the regular service, has increased by 24 percent, according to Capital Metro system data.

The drop in Austin’s bus use reflects many factors, Hemingson said. He points to shifts in student housing, lower gas prices and increased ridesharing. Traditional bus riders have been pushed from the urban core and moved to areas where housing is more affordable but where bus service is scarce. Ridership falls as a result.

Charlotte’s Lynx light rail line opened in 2007. It was over budget and delayed, but doubled average daily ridership projections in its first year, according to the Charlotte Observer. Average daily ridership has since declined to 15,400 in February from a 2008 high of 18,600, city data shows.

In March, the city opened an extension of the line, bringing its total distance to nearly 19 miles. New construction has followed the light rail path, with more than 10,000 new residential units built along the line, according to the Charlotte Observer, citing Charlotte Area Transit System.

"The transit system as a whole is in pretty bad shape," Orcutt said. "What you don’t want to do is put billions into one or two corridors and hope that is going to solve your transportation problem, because it won’t. You need to keep adapting the bus system as you add rail and treat them all as intersecting corridors that have the same function."

"It’s basically a huge cost subsidy from taxpayers to developers who have been able to purchase land along the corridor," he said. "We spent $1.6 billion and have not moved the needle on any of the criteria that were suggested, neither congestion or air quality or development or mobility."

The Utah Transit Authority serves seven counties and 80 percent of the state’s population. Its light rail includes commuter rail and eight light rail projects built ahead of schedule and under budget, between 1999 and 2013, its website says.

In 2016, overall ridership fell by 2 percent, a decline UTA attributed to decreases in fuel costs. But the most recent dip in overall ridership follows 5 percent growth in the previous two years. From 2010 to 2015, rail use increased by more than 51 percent as bus increased by 6 percent, according to TransitCenter.

Since 2009, when the first light rail was opened in Seattle, annual local bus ridership has increased by 8 percent and regional transit ridership more than doubled. The city’s transit system has been heralded nationally and in Nashville as a poster child for effective transit.

"Seattle is a great example for Nashville," Orcutt said. "It’s a boom town and it has been doing it right. It has been investing in buses and rail at the same time. It is not neglecting its buses, and it is in fact moving huge numbers of new riders on its bus system."

Seattle officials also emphasized the importance of investments in both the core and suburbs to their system’s success. They said they have aligned transit goals with affordable housing efforts, and that 60 percent of transit riders have fees paid for by their employers.

While congestion is still a problem downtown, the number of cars driving in each morning has dropped by 4,500 since 2010, while the number of jobs increased by 60,000, said Jonathan Hopkins, who leads a government-funded nonprofit Commute Seattle that partners with Seattle, King County, Sound Transit and the Downtown Seattle Association.