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

Postmortem on Nashville’s failed transit referendum

There is a new report out this week from TransitCenter on Nashville’s failed transit referendum in 2018. Steve Cavendish at the Nashville Scene previewed some of the same themes in a story he wrote soon after the vote, but this new report goes into much more detail.

It’s a solid case study and holds important lessons for Austin and other cities. I started working for Mayor Barry in January 2017 so obviously I can’t claim to be completely objective about the report’s observations and conclusions. Nor, as a regular user of public transportation, can I be completely dispassionate about the outcome of the vote here, or what I hope transit proponents and local officials in other cities will learn from it. It’s been more than six months since I left the mayor’s office and I’m still not sure how to talk about my experience there without running into the risk of it coming across as sour grapes when it comes to things we didn’t accomplish.

But given the probability of Austin voting on something similar in the not-too-distant future I feel compelled to weigh in on a few things.

As a case study, the report stops short of what you would expect from a more academic treatment in a few key areas–I would have enjoyed a more thorough discussion of how a November vote with higher turnout could have affected the outcome or what the author gleaned from exit polls (assuming access was granted)–but those are very minor quibbles and don’t detract from its value as a case study.

To be clear, while I was a senior staff member, I was not on the core planning team for transit, as it’s referred to in the report. So, what I’ve taken away from the experience reflects only the views of somebody not “in the room” for much of the decision-making process.

That said, Austin, here’s my advice as you look ahead to your next election:

Think carefully about how you apply lessons learned from earlier votes. Your postmortem of a past result or campaign might have been right on target–at the time. If you can’t set aside your biases, or, worse, refuse to recognize the fact that you could have any–and we are all guilty of it–then make sure you have people in the room who have different biases.

Welcome users of the current transit system into the decision-making circle but don’t assume that all users will be supporters. If there’s one place in the report that starts to veer into a blind spot this is it in my opinion. Get on the bus and ask a few people if they’d rather be in a car driving alone to work, even if it meant sitting in soul-crushing traffic.

Get kids involved–and not just as campaign props. Empower them to help make decisions. Yes, many will be too young to vote, but that trope is less relevant in today’s media landscape, where teenagers can command the attention of world leaders. Transit may not be as jarring as gun violence in schools; however, it is about safety. It may not lead to the cover of Time, but it is about climate change.

I’m not sure how you get there but I think it’s pretty clear by now what happens when people hear the word tax and feel that they are being asked for $5 billion or more when nothing vital is at stake.

At least not for them.