Categories
Politics

The uphill climb for transit enthusiasts

Approximately five percent of workers in the United States take public transportation to work. In Austin it’s about three percent. In Nashville it’s less than two percent. Transit advocates are quick to point out that more people would use transit if the service was better–more frequent service, more sheltered stops, more efficient routes–and the research mostly backs that up. If you build it, they will come. The challenge, of course, is first you have to convince people to pay for building it.

In 2018, voters in Nashville opposed a $5.4 billion (or $9 billion with operating costs) transit plan by a margin of nearly 2-to-1. City officials in Austin are gearing up for another transit vote this November, with a price tag that is likely to exceed $10 billion, after a much smaller transit proposal–accompanied by millions in proposed road improvements of course, being Texas and all–failed in 2014 with only 43% of the vote.

So, what happened in Nashville? I covered a postmortem published by TransitCenter back in January, but, still, nobody from the core strategy team (or the opposition for that matter) with access to the polling data has really come forward yet with an earnest accounting for a nearly 2-to-1 margin. Many people have settled for some mild-mannered finger pointing at the Chamber, campaign, and former mayor. Most of what I’ve heard there is off-base, conjecture, or beside the point. Cooper’s team just wrapped up a series of public listening sessions to get input on the community’s transportation priorities. If there was ever a time for the serious people involved in the 2018 effort to come forward to help us understand everything we can about that experience, it’s now. I’m sure the folks in Austin would appreciate it too.

We can start to get a handle on a few things using Metro’s household survey. Some of it is surprising, given what we heard from supporters and detractors in 2017-2018; none of it inspires much confidence in future “go big” transit strategies in Nashville with massive price tags. That is, until we get comfortable with the idea of publicly discussing what we assumed to be true, why, and where we were right or wrong. Data will add considerable weight to that conversation.

Here’s what we know from the survey:

Transit is a top-five priority for Nashville residents. When asked to rank sixteen categories of city services, twelve percent of residents select public transportation as the top priority.

The other way to look at this is only twelve percent of residents think transit is the top priority, and asking people to raise taxes to cover an investment of $5.4 billion for #5 on that list is asking quite a lot. But no other service listed in the survey reaches even three percent after public transportation in first-priority votes.

The resident survey sample is now large enough to do some crosstabs, including race/ethnicity (white, black), household income (< $60,000, $100,000 or more), age (18-34, 35-54, 55 or older), location (USD or GSD), homeowners or renters, gender, and educational attainment (postsecondary degree or no postsecondary degree). We can also do breakouts looking at people who have taken the bus in the last year, commuted to work by bus (or by walking or biking), or have strong feelings about their access to transit or the quality of the system.

You can probably guess where this is going.

Public transportation fares a bit better as a first-priority service among white residents, higher income ($100,000+) households, young people (18-34), postsecondary degree holders, active transport commuters, and relatively new residents to the county. But the difference is slight, only by a few points and likely within the survey’s margin of error. It moves up to twenty percent or more in first-priority votes for people who are dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their access to transit or the overall quality of the existing system, but still trails education.

Further, people who actually ride the bus rank it no higher in priority compared to everybody else. In fact, affordable housing and public education each get twice as many first-priority votes as transit does from people who actually ride the bus.

And then there’s this:

I don’t think that chart needs much in the way of commentary. But I can’t tell you how many times I heard people on both sides during the transit debate make persuasive sounding arguments about how people would vote on the plan based on ridership, real or perceived.

So, if none of the groups we can break out confidently in the sample see public transportation as their clear first-choice priority, who are these transit enthusiasts who make up the twelve percent that do?

This is where it gets tricky because it’s fewer than 200 respondents to the survey, which means we have to be careful about saying anything with confidence until there is a larger sample. That said, here is what results show so far about the enthusiasts in Nashville:

  • 75% live in the USD (close to total population share, 72%)
  • 75% are homeowners (likely over-represented in sample)
  • 85% hold postsecondary degrees (ditto, but interesting)
  • 80% are white
  • 41% are high-income ($100,000 or more)
  • 52% are age 18-34
  • 26% have taken the bus in the last year

Let me repeat that last one, with the caveat of needing a larger sample before getting too sanctimonious about it: Of the twelve percent of residents–the transit enthusiasts–who think public transportation should be Metro’s highest priority, only about one out of four are actually riding the bus. Nearly the same rate for all respondents.

Not exactly a compelling track record for convincing an undecided voter–37% of residents are neutral or don’t know when asked about the quality of transit in Nashville today–that if you build it, they will come, even given the limitations of the current system.

Two-to-one was a painful result and an expensive lesson. As Cooper’s team looks ahead to whatever new plan they have in mind, we should be talking openly about what happened in 2018–a conversation that should be led by serious people with first-hand experience and data. We should also share as much of that wisdom as we can with Austin and other cities contemplating a transit referendum. Hopefully that’s already happening and I just don’t know about it.

If not, we are missing an opportunity to learn something we can apply to our next shot at transit in Nashville.

Categories
Politics

My two cents for Mayor-elect John Cooper

Congratulations to Nashville Mayor-elect John Cooper, who won the runoff with nearly 70% of the vote last week. The word is he may be open to some input on what the priorities should be for the next four years. While, admittedly, my usually steadfast objectivity could be a bit compromised in this case, here’s my two cents for what it is worth to them.

First, when it comes to priority setting, luckily they don’t have to rely on my objectivity. In 2018 we launched Nashville’s first recurring, random-sample resident survey, a performance management tool most communities of this size have had in place for a long time. The survey collects data from 400+ households each quarter (MOE +/- 5 on a quarterly basis and +/- 2.5 on an annual basis) and results are posted on Metro’s open data portal for public use.

The usual suspects–public education, police, affordable housing, streets and sidewalks, and public transportation–are consistently represented as high priorities, but note some of the differences in rank order and value across groups. For example, respondents who have lived in Nashville for less than five years are nearly twice as likely to say that public transportation should be Metro’s highest priority compared to respondents who have lived here for twenty or more years. Despite making up the majority of WeGo ridership, only 6.0% of low-income (< $30,000) respondents and 4.7% of black respondents think that public transportation should be Metro’s highest priority. Affordable housing, by contrast, gets 26.6% and 32.6%, respectively.

None of that likely comes as a surprise to transit advocates or political candidates and campaign staff with access to expensive polling data. But polling data isn’t usually in the public domain and open to scrutiny; thus it can’t provide the common set of facts needed to openly debate and reach consensus on controversial issues. I’m hoping Mayor-elect Cooper is serious about pushing Metro, and the city, in this direction. Increasing Metro’s investment in the resident survey to get a large enough sample for council district breakouts would be a good start.

Second, there needs to be more public engagement in Metro’s budget process. There’s a question on the resident survey about satisfaction with Metro’s budgeting and stewardship of public funds. The campaign rhetoric from Cooper’s side painted a dire picture of majority, widespread discontent on that front. In reality, 41% of respondents are dissatisfied with Metro’s management of public funds, according to the survey. Now, while 41% is not a majority, it is significantly higher than the 19% of respondents who are satisfied, so, you know, well-played and all. But that leaves 40% who say they either don’t know or are neutral on Metro’s financial management–and that’s an information gap that shouldn’t be wide enough for politicians to exploit. But it was a smart strategy. The column in the table above marked Highly Engaged includes respondents who have contacted a Metro elected official and attended a public meeting in the last year. This gets to the difference between political polling focused on voters and performance management surveys focused on all residents, but it’s probably safe to assume that the Highly Engaged crowd generally maps to voters. They are 20% of the survey sample and 58% of them are dissatisfied with Metro’s financial management.

We need to reverse that trend. Engagement should yield more confidence in Metro’s budgeting and stewardship of public funds, not less. There are several approaches worth considering. The City of Austin, for example, starts holding community meetings several months in advance of the proposed budget. Check out this summary of Austin’s FY 2019 budget engagement process and consider how it compares to Metro’s standard approach. Other communities have experimented with participatory budgeting. Results are mixed, but it’s worth considering in Nashville. It would be a logical next step in the evolution of nonprofit direct appropriations and the Community Partnership Fund.

Finally, Metro and the city of Nashville need an economic development strategy. We touched on this in our meetings of the Tax Increment Financing Study and Formulating Committee, but it was a bit outside the narrow scope of that effort. To be clear, Metro’s economic development staff is, and has been, top-notch. They are professionals in every sense of that word. But we are deploying subsidies–the “tools in the toolbox”–without a clearly articulated, consensus position on what we are trying to accomplish. In strategic planning terminology, we are deploying strategies (the how) without clearly defined goals (the what), and we’ve entirely skipped over the call to action (the why).

We have to fix that by engaging the community to help develop clearly defined, measurable goals for inclusive, equitable economic development that improves living standards for residents. That should be the goal. I’d encourage Mayor-elect Cooper to check out Austin’s economic development policy. We revamped it about ten years ago to include a publicly available cost-benefit analysis of every proposed deal–a common set of facts–and multiple opportunities for the community to weigh in before a contract was approved. It even earned an award for transparency from a leading anti-subsidy advocacy group, Good Jobs First. Restoring trust starts with transparency.

Congratulations, again, to Mayor-elect Cooper and his team. Here’s to a more data-driven Nashville.