Will Memphis Rise to the Transit Challenge?

A few months ago, I went to Memphis for a wedding. I asked the people at my downtown hotel how I should get to the venue, which was also downtown, on South Main Street. They told me it would be about a ten-minute drive. Which let me know it couldn’t be that far away.

DSC_0235.jpgThe trolley in Memphis: You can use it to get there from here. Photo by Sarah Goodyear.

I decided to look at a map, and discovered that it would actually about a fifteen-minute walk, so we set out happily on foot. Imagine my surprise when I saw vintage trolley cars running along the precise route that I was walking (and would have driven if I’d listened to the hotel’s advice). Trolley cars that cost just a buck to ride. Why hadn’t the people at the hotel mentioned that I could get there on public transit?

Maybe because these trolleys, at least on first inspection, are presented as a quaint tourist ride rather than as functional public transportation. It’s too bad, because — as I discovered when riding home after the party — they are indeed a cheap and efficient way to get from point A to point B on their admittedly limited route.

But according to Smart City Memphis, problems with the transit system there, which consists primarily of buses, run much deeper than a failure to market the trolleys as a viable transportation mode. The problem is that the city has failed to see the economic advantage a good transit system can create.

In an excellent post today, this Streetsblog Network member blog wonders whether the city will be pushed to action by a law recently passed

by the Tennessee state legislature, enabling Memphis and other metro areas around the state to create regional transit authorities that could raise dedicated funding for transit:

It looks like Memphis Area Transit Authority has finally reached a long awaited point: put up or shut up.

For years, MATA has offered up numerous justifications for the sad state of public transit in Memphis. At a time when efficient, effective mass transit is a competitive advantage for cities attracting talented workers, ours does just the opposite.

For many students and young workers who come here, MATA becomes a symbol for a city that just can’t seem to get its act together. And it’s not a bus that they take getting out of here fast.

We won’t repeat the reasons why we are so focused on 25-34 year-olds because you’ve probably memorized it by now, but suffice it to say that we are bleeding this crucial demographic.…

Operating with the attitude that public transit is for poor people with no other choices, MATA is a significant obstacle to the kind of progressive image (and more important, reality) that other cities like Nashville are using as a lure for talented workers.

Focus groups with college-educated workers here tell us that they expected a city of Memphis’ size to have a modern, welcoming, efficient public transit system. Instead, they complain that the recruiters’ promise of a lower cost of living was misleading because “no one told us we’d have to buy a car.”.…

Perhaps, just perhaps, it begins a “no excuses” era for MATA and ushers in the opportunity for the [Memphis Area Planning Organization] to think more boldly and broadly about the future of public transit in our community.

Other good reading from around the network: Bikes and buses are going together more and more often in Sioux Falls, SD, according to The MinusCar Project. Bike Portland reports that Google’s photo-taking "Street Trike" is hitting some bike trails. And in case you haven’t heard about the incident in New York’s Central Park in which a FOX News writer allegedly assaulted a cyclist with his SUV, you can read about it on NY Bicycle Transportation Examiner.

  • Is MATA the problem, or is inadequate funding of MATA the problem? I’m not asking this as a rhetorical question, I honestly don’t know the answer. Perhaps the MATA administrators make excuses because they don’t have the resources to do otherwise. Here in NY State, the MTA is routinely demonized while the real culprits of our transit dilemma are pols outside the agency.

    In any event, the mere presence of an embryonic light rail line is a fabulous first step. Once people see it in operation, they immediately understand that it’s a real-world option, that it works, that it’s pleasant to ride, and maybe they’d like more of it. City centers need boots on the ground and wheels between the rails!

  • I live in Memphis, and I really wish that we had some better options. I was in New York and Boston a few months ago, and I loved not having to drive everywhere or worry about renting a car.

    Memphis isn’t like a lot of metro areas – it’s fairly spread out and tough to walk a lot of places that aren’t in midtown or downtown because of traffic. I would love to be able to catch a reliable and safe bus or train out to other parts of Memphis. I think it would encourage us to walk more, to be more engaged with the city, and to rely less on our cars (and maybe our rank as some of the worst drivers in the country would go away).

    Right now, if I wanted to take the trolley to work (about 3 miles from my house), I would have to ride my bike to the nearest trolley stop (and the trolley doesn’t have a bike rack on it), take the trolley to the closest stop to my job and then bike / walk the rest of the way. It would probably take about three times as long to get to work as it does in my car.

    I would love to see the trolleys expanded to reach more places and sped up a bit so that they’re a practical option for errand running and commuting.

  • As a matter of fact, the first public transportation we saw in Memphis after Kerry and I returned from New York and Boston was a MATA bus being pulled by a tow truck.

    Telling, really.

  • J-Uptown

    Memphis has plans for a (non-vintage) light rail line to the airport, but it doesn’t seem to be moving very quickly. The vintage trolley was expanded several times in the last decade, but service is sparse and there doesn’t seem to be a correspond increase in density along the line. Downtown Memphis has made a decent push lately to develop residential spaces, but they are largely attracting wealthy folks who want a place to crash downtown after a night out. Downtown Memphis is still sorely lacking a proper grocery store.


  • These legacy streetcar systems don’t seem to have a particularly good effect on the reputation of . Banking on nostalgia only makes the technology look like toys, reinforcing the image that it’s 19th century technology.

    Spending a some time on the lines like Charlotte’s and Vienna’s all the railbuffs were exuberant, and families enjoyed the trip, but they didn’t take it seriously, just like nobody takes the Disney Monorail seriously. I’ve never heard anyone come out of the Washington Metro talking about how cute it was, but they did come out of it talking about how mass transit was viable.

  • “reputation of light rail transit,” I meant to say.

  • Memphis can develop an excellent mass transit system that can push up this city to an advanced futuristic city level. But then depending on this old system of tram network will not do as it was built many years ago when it appeared to be best system at hand.Well it creates a laid back atmosphere and lots of nostalgia for a bygone good old world. But in the process it also draws the city backwards.A very fast moving and air-conditioned mass transit system in an elevated track would be suitable.It may move in a circular loop touching the areas of high settlement. For a glimpse into the world of future transportation please visit the website http://www.eloquentbooks.com/MegalopolisOne2080AD.html

  • LoboSolo

    MATA is definitely the problem. MATA says it the lack of money, but then, MATA will never accept responsibility for such a poorly designed system.

    The planned light rail route from Downtown to the airport is pretty much dead the water. This is a good thing because it was a poorly designed route with little or no purpose other than to have a modern light rail system in the city. I attended numerous planning meetings and read a couple of stacks of material provided by the planners. It would be nothing but a boondoggle and kill any future chance of an effective system.

    As for the Trolley. I ride every chance I get. But you’re right, it’s not touted as a transportation option by the locals. Some joke you could walk faster than the Trolley moves. Not true, but perception is reality.

    As you may have noticed while walking, a large portion of Main Street is blocked off from automobiles. Unfortunately, there is a move afoot to reopen it to cars on the claim that it would help the businesses. I’m old enuff to remember when Main Street was a main artery … It didn’t help the businesses then and won’t now.

  • LoboSolo

    BTW, didn’t you notice those rails running down the middle of the street and the catenary above?


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