Innovate Memphis pushes to revamp Memphis bus system from the ground up

A transformative plan to revamp Memphis’ transit system is in the works, a proposed undertaking that promises better service and buses running more frequently across a coverage network that’s been refined to better reflect ridership as opposed to the city’s sprawling geography.

It’s a plan that requires some $30 million in new funding to implement and would go a long way toward correcting the reality that public transit has long been one of those perennially underfunded services in Memphis.

That’s according to stakeholders like Suzanne Carlson, the transportation and sustainability program manager for the nonprofit Innovate Memphis. She’s part of a group of public transit supporters working behind the scenes to pave the way for a reimagined Memphis Area Transit Authority network that emerged out the Memphis 3.0 strategic planning process.

Among other things, it essentially scraps what had been MATA service that stretched itself too thin and instead starts over, cutting back on routes while increasing the frequency of buses. 

The plan would require a MATA funding increase of $30 million a year, $26 million of which would go toward investing in new buses with the $4 million balance going toward an increase in operating costs.

MATA’s operating expenses at the end of its 2017 fiscal year stood at almost $56 million, and it was funding current year capital purchases and improvements with almost $8.6 million in capital grants.

Which is why Carlson and others from Innovate Memphis are going beyond maps and charts and ridership projects to help make the case for why this is needed.

The group’s efforts include enlisting Memphians from all walks of life and turning them into advocates for a future that relies less on cars. Innovate Memphis plans to start what it calls “transit academies” in earnest next year as part of an effort to get more Memphians involved in the process of thinking about, talking through and providing input as the city’s public transit system is refined both now and in the future.

The nonprofit is also talking to citizens about what they need and want to see. And it’s likewise in the early stage of building what amounts to a transit coalition — bringing interested citizens together and arming them with the messaging and data needed to help push for a stronger transit system that’s seen as an indispensable city service and gets a higher place in the pecking order when resources and funding are allocated.

And there’s Commute Options, a still relatively new Innovate Memphis program that launched about two years ago that’s designed to incentivize people to use cars less and try walking, biking, ride-sharing and the use of public transit.

“Memphis certainly has its challenges,” Carlson said in an interview with High Ground. “But I think the same patterns also play out in any city. We’ve got a huge geographic area, and we’ve got pretty low density. So we’ve created a really challenging community for transit to serve.”

In Memphis, she continued, it’s not that people are any more or less inclined to take cars instead of a bus, compared to other cities. It’s just that “competitive choices” don’t exist here, really. The reality of the way the city is laid out creates a “difficult to serve network” and leaves you with situations like a Memphis rider who wants to go out to Germantown endures a bus ride of something like an hour there and an hour back.

The draft recommended MATA network prepared by Jarett Walker Associates for Innovate Memphis.

Innovate Memphis' efforts to reimagine the Memphis bus system are needed as MATA is continuing with a trend of stretching the budget while reducing routes.

The MATA Board of Commissioners is planning to vote on proposed service changes and improvements on October 25 in a 3:30 p.m. meeting at MATA headquarters, at 1370 Levee Road. Between now and then, the commissioners are trying to incorporate public comment into their final route decisions, which would go into effect in December.

Leading up to the meeting, MATA was proposing to alter about 30 routes in addition to cutting seven. The new coverage map includes four routes along Poplar and Lamar Avenues as well as Elvis Presley and Airways Boulevards along which buses would run every 15 minutes, and the agency says the proposed changes it will be voting on will be posted at http://www.matatransit.com/ in advance of the meeting.

To be sure, the proposed changes have not been received with a universal welcome. The Memphis Bus Riders’ Union has been trying to get the word out that the elimination of many routes, it says, will have a disproportionate effect on poorer neighborhoods. Seven routes have been proposed to be eliminated, including routes that service communities like Whitehaven and Boxtown, which is why Justin Davis, organizing coordinator for the bus riders’ union, said it’s hosting another in a series of community town halls later this month.

Following one in recent days in Whitehaven, this next one is planned for October 8 from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Orange Mound Community Center. It follows others held recently in South Memphis and Frayser.

“When we look at MATA’s route changes, they’re not only talking about cutting seven whole routes from places like Whitehaven and Boxtown and New Chicago, but they’re also talking about cutting a lot of late-night service, weekend service — all of which really impacts working people a lot,” Davis said of the route cuts, which including the Firestone route that serves New Chicago. “That’s why we’ve been really trying to get the word out, making sure that people know.”

As far as what he’d like to see? A boost in investment into MATA, even before you talk about tweaking the route map.

“I mean, for us as a city, we need to get out of this kind of trajectory where we cut service, ridership goes down, so more service gets cut and it really creates this dangerous cycle where eventually what we’re left with is a bare-bones system,” he said. “Neighborhood service is really important for many people to get from where they live to where the jobs are.”

And while Innovate Memphis' work is separate from the cuts proposed by MATA's board of commissioners, the nonprofit hopes that a revamped bus network may prevent the need for piecemeal coverage cuts and restructuring. 

Innovate Memphis has completed the group’s solicitation of public feedback and engagement (with input from the Memphis Bus Riders Union) around designing the network. There’s now a draft recommended network that you can see on the Memphis 3.0 website, under “transit” and available here.

Here’s the thing with a plan like this, though. You can’t just create it and hope it works. There’s a chicken-and-egg component to the patterns of riders and rides.

Riders, stakeholders like Carlson and others explain, tend to take the bus less when they see declines in service. Likewise, it’s harder for the city to defend investing in the bus system when ridership declines. So, part of the challenge is convincing more people to, well, get on the bus.

That’s the reason for the other side of the coin in the work Innovate Memphis is doing to recruit new riders who would usually take a personal vehicle.

Carlson said the transit academies will start in 2019 with a few small workshops around them this fall.

“When we did the Memphis 3.0 vision process, we had a group of stakeholders we ran through some pretty long workshops to give them a sense of how transit works, why it’s important, what impact it can have on our communities,” she said.

“And that allowed them to be really informed and help make these choices about what kind of system we want to design. So our hope now is that we can not replicate that but take some of that same messaging and inform and engage new rounds of stakeholders.”

Colin McDonald, who manages Commute Options for Innovate Memphis, said the nonprofit is in an expansion mode right now related to this work. One thing it’s just rolled out as a pilot program is a partnership between the nonprofit and employers. The idea is to give any employee who wants it a free month’s worth of Explore Bike Share and MATA passes, and then all they have to do is take six one-way trips to automatically get another month’s worth of those passes.

The nonprofit is trying to reach more people to spread the word to more audiences about buses and even options like Explore Bike Share. Because once you’ve broken through and convinced someone that it’s practical, viable and might even be better to take a mode of transportation other than a car — well, then, the battle is halfway won.

“There’s really just a state of inertia when it comes to transportation for most people” in Memphis, McDonald said. “Most people haven’t really even considered changing at all.

It’s so ingrained we’re such an auto-centric city that the hardest part is just getting them to first initially consider it and be open to contemplating that biking is realistic or taking the bus is realistic. Because once we have them, then we can start showing them the financial savings, the health savings, all these other benefits. It’s just a challenge to get people first to initially see it.”

Read more articles by Andy Meek.

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