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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.