Tuesday, May 1, 2018

What Nashville Can Learn from Houston Regarding Transit

Today's a big day for transit in Nashville. Nashvillians will decide whether to approve the Let's Move Nashville transit plan.

I've been in Middle Tennessee for a few weeks now, and without a doubt, the transit referendum is the most important thing being talked about. Well, that's probably not true. It's playoff time, and the Predators are without a doubt the most talked about item in Nashville right now. They just melted the Avalanche in the first round, and are tied one game apiece in their second round series against the Winnipeg Jets.

But back to transit. The referendum to enact the proposed Let's Move Nashville plan has been covered by every media outlet and debated by many across the city.

At times, the debate has completely lacked civility and perpetuated misconceptions. Outside interests have been politicking and encouraging Nashvillians to vote against the referendum. It's been weird. Other conversations have been much more enjoyable, and have done a great job pointing to the issues on both sides of the discussion. Last week the Nashville Scene podcast had a great summary of the plan, and took a look at some of the arguments for and against the plan. Over the weekend the Nashville Sounding Board Podcast, hosted by Benjamin Eagles, featured Nashville City Council Members Angie Henderson (against the referendum) and Freddie O'Connell (for the referendum). This was probably the most in depth, helpful debate I've heard thus far, with compelling arguments for and against the presented Let's Move Nashville plan. Both council members are champions for walkability and bikeability in Nashville, and are likely Nashville's most visible representatives in terms of planning and city building.

Nashville is a growing city that has a short history when it comes to funding public transit. Early in the 1990s and again just a few years ago, attempts to add dedicated funding for transit in Nashville floundered. Nashville voters chose to do nothing about their traffic and transportation woes, and now the cost is greater. Again, voters will decide whether to approve this plan (as imperfect as it may be to some), or again, punt action for at least another year until a new referendum can be brought for a vote. While inaction may be fine for some, the cost of doing nothing is growing greater, and continued road and highway expansions can only alleviate traffic levels for so long.

Many of those against the proposed plan have touted the plan's high costs, or insistence on using light rail when buses could be used. These are certainly valid criticisms and worthy of dialogue. When looking further into details, there are challenges to using bus rapid transit, such as the banning of dedicated transit lanes on state highways, even if projects are not recipients of state funding, unless the Tennessee legislature approves of the measure. Plan opposition has sometimes also been labelled as wanting to wait for a "unicorn", a plan that will perfectly rectify and satisfy every criticism. This is certainly a challenge, and not reasonable, as every plan will likely have something that is disagreed upon, or something that could be improved. In this case, it's important to remember technical elements, such as the legislative approval needed for projects on state roads.

Those opposed to the current plan also have raised concern about voters feeling forced into supporting the plan as supporters warn that this may be Nashville's only chance at establishing a larger transit system. It certainly would not be a fatal outcome, but if history is any indication, it may not be something that is back to the polls anytime soon. Opponents who have criticized the merits of the current plan, but still support growing transit in Nashville, had best be preparing alternative plans, and beginning to develop strategies that will continue to garner support while transit is still on everyone's minds. A "strike while the iron is hot" sort of mentality. In this case, it seems as if the cost of doing nothing would be outweighing the cost of the plan. With changes in administration at the federal level, a much smaller amount of funding is being dedicated to public transit, and Nashville will likely not be the only city in coming years relying on local taxes to fund transit infrastructure.

Again, I'm new to the Middle Tennessee, so I don't have the intimate knowledge of Nashville's bus routes and ridership that locals in the debate might have. (And unfortunately, I don't have a vote in Davidson County.) But, coming from Houston, I think there are some transferable experiences related to possible light rail and transit in Nashville. Past and recent comparisons have taken a look at both Seattle and Austin. Houston might be a better fit for comparison.

Houston is a sprawling city, much like Nashville, and opponents to light rail in Houston had many of the same fears. Houston has grown tremendously in the last 25 years, not only on its periphery, but also in core neighborhoods, much like the pattern of Nashville. In 2003, Houston voters approved a METRO referendum allowing for the construction of five light rail routes. As of today, three of the lines have been built (Red, Green and Purple lines), while the Uptown Line has now become a bus rapid transit (BRT) line which is near to having buses ordered and will be beginning construction soon, and the University Line has effectively been, well, derailed, for the time being. The Red Line is the backbone of the system, with 6-minute frequencies during the week, connecting parts north of the North 610-Loop through Downtown Houston, through the Midtown and Museum District neighborhoods, into the Texas Medical Center, and to the NRG Stadium and Astrodome area. The Green Line extends into Houston's EaDo and Second Ward neighborhoods, while the Purple Line extends into EaDo, turning down into the Third Ward neighborhoods, connecting to the University of Houston and Texas Southern University campuses.

During my six years in Houston, I almost exclusively rode local buses (from the Houston Heights neighborhood), rode the Red Line (connecting to local bus service after METRO's System Reimagining), or rode my bike to work, into Downtown Houston.

The impact of transit, and especially light rail, on construction in the city is undeniable. This didn't happen overnight, but things are beginning to take shape, and higher density developments are being completed along rail lines and frequent bus routes. METRO has published their own Transit Oriented Development studies and plans, but in a city without zoning, there is a bit less that the agency can do in mandating coordinated or complementary development around transit infrastructure. The City of Houston has a number of transit corridor development options, and is currently working on additional regulation and design criteria through its Walkable Places Committee.

Here are a few off the cuff perspectives:

Affordable Housing Has Followed Rail Lines
Nashville would be wise to take note of the amount of workforce or affordable housing that has been built, or is in the works, along Houston's light rail corridors. Houston's housing and community development agencies were quick to place housing along rail corridors. Avenue CDC built the Avenue Station apartments in Houston's Near Northside along METRO's Red Line, a few blocks south of Quitman Station. Avenue CDC also built the Fulton Gardens senior apartments near the Moody Park Station. While these projects are completed and occupied, there are others interested in building in the Near Northside. The Residences at Hardy Yards, a mixed-rate apartment complex, is adjacent to the Burnett Transit Center and should be opening sometime in late 2018.

Just over a year ago, New Hope Housing expressed interest in locating a housing complex near the Near Northside's Burnett Transit Center. The location would have been close to Downtown Houston, and blocks away from Casa de Amigos, a Harris County and City of Houston health center. Ultimately, New Hope Housing elected not to build in this location due to resident outcry, as the Near Northside had recently faced the death of 11 year old Josue Flores.

New Hope Housing's Harrisburg apartments (GSMA Architects)

New Hope Housing recently opened their new Harrisburg housing facility, which will also house their headquarters, in Houston's Second Ward along METRO's Green Line. Another New Hope Housing site, the Canal Apartments, sit just a few blocks away. Both are well served by transit.

Downtown has Benefitted from Light Rail
If you look at a map of recent developments in Downtown Houston, there are a number of them situated adjacent to, or near one of the light rail lines. Hotels, apartment towers, business towers and street level retail have all positioned themselves along Houston's Main Street. Hotels like the JW Marriott and the forthcoming AC Hotel are adjacent the Red Line, providing visitors a quick trip to Midtown Houston or Houston's Museum District, Houston Zoo, NRG Stadium or Hermann Park. Apartments like Skyhouse, The Star and Aris Market Square are along the Red Line. The 300 block of Main Street is Downtown Houston's block of bars, while food halls like Conservatory are steps away from the Red Line.

There may not be direct causation between the existence of light rail and increase in apartments, offices or restaurants, but it speaks to the concentration made of assuring that light rail corridors, especially in Downtown Houston, serve as places for people to visit and linger. The improved streetscape lends itself to attracting visitors.

This perceived improvement has been backed up by scholars at Texas Southern University and Texas A&M.

Light Rail has Served College Campuses / Transit Centers
In Houston the University of Houston-Downtown, The University of Houston, Texas Southern University, and Rice University are each served by light rail. In METRO's monthly ridership reports, you can see a greater number of boardings at each school. Also, transit centers along each of the lines serve as transfer points to local buses, allowing Houston's New Bus Network to shine. (Even this past March, there was a 1 percent increase in local bus ridership compared to this time in 2017.) The same would be the hope for Nashville, where residents would be able to transfer to different lines, or be able to park their cars, augmenting some travel distance.

Ridership is High in Crosstown Routes
When Houston implemented its New Bus Network in 2015, the results were pretty instant. Ridership rose with a reallocation of resources and concentration on a more grid-like system, rather than a hub and spoke configuration. Having a strong north-south rail route, as well as east-west routes, travel times improved for a majority of riders. (I believe the number was near 90% of all riders were forecast to see travel time improvements.)

The Jury is Out on Airport Connections
Some opponents to the proposed system in Nashville still see the merit of an airport connection using light rail. I've wondered why support for an airport connection still exists when BRT can support the connection in the same way. One challenge in using BRT for a line that would heavily rely on visitors traveling from Nashville's airport may be the unfamiliarity of buses, and what BRT is. Prospective riders may be more apt to ride light rail, as opposed to a bus. For too long buses have been stigmatized, but when BRT is done right, there's hardly a difference.

I will note, that when new rail lines are discussed in Houston, there is inevitably mention of the need to connect both Houston's Hobby and Bush Intercontinental Airport to downtown by light rail. Currently, a METRO bus route connects the two airports to Downtown.

While groups are right to point out possible negative effects of increased mobility and transit infrastructure in an area, one thing that won't change for Nashvillians is proximity. It's likely that many new Nashvillians, and many moving to other cities, desire to be as close to a city's center as possible. That proximity and the challenges and benefits it brings, unfortunately, is a condition that stretches far beyond the components of a transit referendum, and will require continued cooperation not only from Nashville's governmental agencies, but from for-profit and non-profit agencies.

Nashville has a big decision to make today. One that can effectively help move more people around the city. While other cities like Portland, Seattle and Austin have provided lessons about ridership and land use related to transit, don't forget to look to Houston, often overlooked for planning and development wisdom. Houston's light rail has had a challenging past, but the benefits for the city have been unmistakable. I'd like to think the same can happen in Nashville.