Conservationists offer green solutions to Memphis public transit

The aim to alleviate climate change could inform the future of Memphis' public transit system. 

Gary Rosenfeld, interim CEO of the Memphis Area Transit Authority, spoke to the local chapter of the Sierra Club about group about MATA’s hope of debuting new bus routes in August, the return of the trolley cars to downtown by the end of 2016, and how millennials and aging Baby Boomers are getting away from owning a car when possible.

“Transportation is important for all of us, especially for lower-income people who can’t afford a car, but it important from a broad environmental point of view because 28 percent of all of our energy usage is for transportation,” said Dennis Lynch, Sierra Club Chickasaw group chair and transportation chair for the state of Tennessee.

“And if we’re ever going to deal with the issues of climate change, then we need to find ways to reduce our usage of energy for transportation.”

Meeting attendees had the chance to discuss ways to improve Memphis’ public transportation system, including ideas for using circulator buses for getting people to more dense retail areas and installing permanently displayed, clear, colorful route maps at every bus and trolley stop.

Many of the problems in implementing the changes needed to take the transit system to the next level come down to lack of funding. MATA operates on a budget of $62 million and is seeking an additional $30 million.

“The city needs to decide to do it and find a dedicated funding source,” said Lynch, who mentioned how other cities have done so by tapping a portion of the available sales tax or Downtown parking fees.

He also cited the fact that 34 percent of carbon dioxide, a major climate change contributor, comes from transportation sources. His hope is that MATA considers making the switch to using all electric buses in the near future.

Rosenfeld told the group that MATA is working on a grant application that could result in up to 16 new electric buses to add to its fleet, and one electric bus is being delivered this week for MATA to test out around town.

“One of the things that‘s been a priority for many years is to reduce the number of miles people travel because obviously that means less fuel usage, less pollution, etc.” said Lynch.

“How do you get people to drive less miles? Make workplaces and living be closer together and also encourage people to coordinate their trips with carpooling, vanpooling (and riding public transit).”

The Sierra Club is involved with issues that are directly involved with the environment like clean water and clean air, and it also works with city and community facilities that impact the environment. Historically the Sierra Club has focused primarily on wooded areas and “wild places,” but for the past 20 years, focus has shifted to man-made places.

“We want them to be as environmentally sensitive and livable as possible,” said Lynch.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Michael Waddell.

Michael Waddell is a native Memphian who returned to Memphis several years ago after working for nearly a decade in San Diego and St. Petersburg, Fla., as a writer, editor and graphic designer. His work over the past few years has been featured in The Memphis Daily News, Memphis Bioworks Magazine, Memphis Crossroads, the New York Daily News and the New York Post. Contact Michael.