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Will Memphis Rise to the Transit Challenge?

9:00 AM PDT on June 11, 2009

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.

Foryears, MATA has offered up numerous justifications for the sad state ofpublic transit in Memphis. At a time when efficient, effective masstransit is a competitive advantage for cities attracting talentedworkers, ours does just the opposite.

For many students andyoung workers who come here, MATA becomes a symbol for a city that justcan’t seem to get its act together. And it’s not a bus that they takegetting out of here fast.

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

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

Perhaps,just perhaps, it begins a “no excuses” era for MATA and ushers in theopportunity for the [Memphis Area Planning Organization] to think moreboldly 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.

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