Changing the way we get around

In a city as car-reliant as Memphis, getting people to explore alternate ways to travel is tough. But that's the task before Suzanne Carlson, who joined the Innovation Team this year. Along with a growing list of strategic partners, she is improving transit choices in Memphis, particularly for those dependent on public options.

Three years ago, the City of Memphis initiated a new way of tapping into the creative problem solving with The Innovation Team. With the support of the Bloomberg Philanthropies, since January of 2012 the team has tackled some of the most pervasive issues in the city by leveraging a research-based and results-focused approach. In that time, they've become known for an “exceptional drive for impact, and top-notch communication, facilitation, project management and problem-solving skills,” and have led the way for public-private partnerships that are making enduring changes in Memphis.

Now that the Bloomberg grant has expired, their work is being carried forward by the City and many community partners. And they're looking to fresh projects and issue areas to take on. A new initiative is focused on local transit, and the team has added more talent to its ranks to lead the work.

With a master’s degree in public administration, Suzanne Carlson moved to Memphis in March to accept the job of Transportation and Mobility Project Manager. Formerly, for the past two and half years Carlson worked as a private consultant in the role of Pedestrian Program Manager for the Chicago Department of Transportation.

Following the process model of the Innovation Delivery Team, Carlson is leading the charge for change. She, along with an ad hoc advisory council including representatives from the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce, Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA), the Revolutions Bicycle Co-op, Livable Memphis, and the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Sustainability, is undertaking a thorough assessment to analyze the issues and develop innovative solutions around local transportation options. The overall goal is to find ways to get people to choose not to use their cars — at least not the way they do now.
Suzanne Carlson
“Transit is a new area for our Innovation Team,” said Carlson. “Historically, Memphians are accustomed to having their own cars as their preferred mode of transportation. But that option is not a reality for everyone, and transportation can be a barrier for people being able to get and keep a job. We want to help make Memphis a world class city by improving our mass transportation offerings. My role is to improve transportation choices in Memphis, especially for lower-income people who are dependent on public transportation. My job is to be a resource for getting all the components to work together to support mobility in Memphis.”

And Carlson is “walking the walk,” literally. She does not have a car. She prefers to use a bike instead. During the work week, she often embarks on a half hour, one-way transit from her home in Cooper-Young to her job on Tennessee Street in Downtown Memphis. The time required for the trek almost doubles when she chooses to use mass transit options. Those forays help her identify some of the obstacles that people face currently when using local mass transit; some buses do not run very frequently and some routes have been cut.

When taking the bus, Carlson can choose to walk about a half-mile to one bus stop, then walk another mile from a bus stop downtown to get to her office. Or, she can walk a couple of blocks to take a different bus, then transfer from that bus to a "trolley" bus to ride through downtown, and ultimately walk a few more blocks before she gets to her destination — her job.

“Getting to work — that’s a big challenge for our team to address on behalf of our citizens. Our goals include improving affordable, reliable transportation to jobs, especially to increase prosperity solutions for low-income people and to improve transportation in terms of biking, walking and ride share options for everyone in Memphis,” said Carlson. “Although we have looked into what other cities are doing, our plan is not to just replicate what other cities have in place. We’re more about working with local stakeholders to find answers to the unique issues and challenges faced by Memphis.”

One simple solution Carlson shared was that people indicate their days go better when bus stops have “real time” information available on buses. Generally complaints are reduced because people are better able to plan their day. And for those with a smart phone, there’s an app for that — Transloc. And MATA has its own system, MATA Traveler. Those traveling with a smart phone can access the information by texting a number to [email protected] to confirm their estimated wait time. Part of Carlson’s challenge will be getting people to increase their use of these mobile apps.

Another solution is already in place for people who worry that if they take public transportation, they won’t have their car handy if they need to leave work unexpectedly. Shelby County Public Health offers an emergency ride home, up to six free taxi rides per year, in support of public transit.
Innovation Team
Additionally, the Innovation Team is working with Explore Bike Share with a goal of implementing a public bike share program for Memphis. With bicycles docked at stations on the street, solar-powered kiosks would serve as a variation on parking meters. A bike could be checked out and used as much as needed, in 30-minute increments. Tourists could opt for daily or three-day passes to sightsee without the issues inherent with finding available parking. And locals who want to incorporate biking into their regular mode of transportation could choose those options or consider an annual membership.

As part of implementing the overall plan, there is a mass transit employer program in the works. Carlson is talking with area employers to see if they will offer a tax benefit for employees who chose to use mass transit. Like cafeteria benefits plans where employees can set aside pre-tax dollars to pay for child care and health-related costs, a similar commuter tax benefit could be established. Additionally, employers could purchase MATA passes for employees as part of their overall benefits package.

Locating car share companies near large employers and universities is another possible strategy to increase the use of public transit and offer parking solutions for employees and students.

“Right now our challenge is two-fold: developing more user-friendly modes of mass transit and encouraging people to accept that there is more than one way to get around. In addition to making a difference in the lives of the people who live here now, the solutions we are seeking to implement may make a difference in our ability to attract new people and their talents to Memphis,” Carlson concluded.

For more information about the Innovation Team’s Transit committee, email [email protected].

Read more articles by Emily Adams Keplinger.

Signup for Email Alerts