The Argument Karl Dean Isn't Making For Bus Rapid Transit

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Over at The Atlantic Cities there is a piece on Why More U.S. Cities Need to Embrace Bus-Rapid Transit.

As the title suggests, the writer — Yonah Freemark, who is a member of Metropolitan Planning Council in Chicago, where such a project has been proposed — is plainly advocating for bus rapid transit. It's as supportive a piece as you're going to find for the sort of transit project Mayor Karl Dean wants to build in Nashville. And it's worth reading. But I want to focus on one paragraph in particular, where Freemark says something I don't believe we've heard from Dean.

Freemark notes that "BRT projects have been subject to incredibly contentious public meetings and hostile press. Drivers have complained about the prospect of increasing congestion and business owners have moaned about lost sales." And then, he writes:

Taking street space from cars and giving it to buses will change the commuting habits of the people who currently drive there. It will slow down cars a bit and it will encourage people to drive on other streets. It will also likely make auto-oriented retail stores (i.e. those with lots of parking) less appealing. But making room for BRT will also do something else: it will make taking the bus a lot more convenient and increase the number of people walking down the street to get to stations.

"It will slow down cars a bit."

"It will also likely make auto-oriented retail stores less appealing."

Anyone who has followed the debate about The Amp over the last year knows that if the mayor or any prominent supporter of the project said these things, it would likely come off as a startling admission and be hailed by opponents as a victory. But it's not startling. In fact, it's rather obvious. But throughout the debate, those pushing The Amp have steadfastly refused — or at least avoided — the notion that it would have any short term negative effects, even if there's an argument to be made that those effects are outweighed by long term benefits. (As far as we can tell, the only person on the pro-Amp side to make such an admission is project manager Steve Goodreau who told Pith in January that "There's definitely going to be an impact, you can't not say that" and 'It's going to change. You can't deny it.")

For Freemark, these are inevitable side-effects of a culture change he argues we need to embrace. Why aren't the mayor and the Amp Coalition making that argument?

I suspect it's because, whatever their initial intent, the pro-Amp side — from the mayor on down — have quickly become consumed with fighting for a transit project instead of transit in general. They may actually want to change the culture in Nashville so that the city is more oriented toward public transportation than car travel. But that's not what they've been fighting for. They've been fighting for The Amp. And that has distorted the debate in ways that have left them creating opponents where there could be supporters. (It's also created the appearance, yet again, that the administration wants what it wants because it wants it.)

Think of it like this. If you're arguing for a cultural shift away from cars and toward mass transit, you can say BRT will "slow cars down a bit." You can say that it will change commuting habits, and that it will no doubt impact businesses in various ways. You can say all this, and then make the case for why the benefits of this cultural shift outweigh the initial side-effects. That might be a tougher row to hoe, but it's the one that really matters.

If, instead, you're focus is on defending a project, like The Amp, you can't say any of this. You can't concede that, as opponents have been saying ad nauseam, automobile traffic on West End will slow down a bit because of reduced lanes. You can't admit that neighborhood concerns about diverted traffic are legitimate. You can't be fully honest about the challenges that businesses along the corridor might face. In short, you're left doing what the Dean administration and the Amp Coalition have been doing for some time now — holding the line and refusing to acknowledge anything that might be seen as giving ground to opponents.

The mayor and others have consistently said that this is not the case. That The Amp is not a one-off project, but rather the spine in a regional transit plan. But the map of that vision only includes one BRT line like The Amp.

Platitudinous as it may be, the official's favorite statement that there are opponents to any project is true. There are no doubt people in Nashville who are opposed to changes in the city that would make it less automobile oriented. And reframing the argument, of course, wouldn't make important concerns about racial and class equity in transit go away, nor would it address them. (Although, the flawed messaging coming from the pro-Amp side has only exacerbated them, and they would be much more easily addressed if proponents were not almost exclusively focused on defending The Amp as proposed.) Beyond that, the availability of funding for the project at the state and federal level remains very much in doubt.

With all that said, reframing the argument would have the benefit of making the case for The Amp more sensible and more honest.

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