By John Cooper
Candidate for Nashville Mayor
Nashville will grow more in the next five years than in the last five years. As we grow, we need to make sure that Nashville remains a livable city. That requires investments in infrastructure — in roads, traffic lights, sidewalks and crosswalks and in public transportation that residents use. We need transportation improvements that allow residents to get around the county better and experience all that Nashville has to offer.
We all agree that Nashville has traffic and transportation problems. Time spent in traffic is increasing. Pedestrian deaths are on the rise; 62 pedestrians have been killed in the last 3 years. Significantly less than half of Nashville’s streets have sidewalks. We have an inadequate and under-resourced bus system.
Nashville needs to address these problems. But instead of developing a plan to address them, the current administration is avoiding them. Instead of improving bus service, the mayor’s budget cuts services. Voters rejected last year’s transit plan supported by this mayor because it cost too much and delivered too little. Last year’s vote was on a specific plan and therefore should not be interpreted as a lack of countywide interest in funding the right plan. Instead of listening to these criticisms and developing a new plan, Mayor Briley has announced that if he is reelected there will be no plan in the next four years.
It’s time for a different approach. Nashville can’t wait five more years for transportation solutions. As mayor, I am committed to developing a people-first transportation plan that is focused on helping you get to where you work and where you live in a timely, safe, and cost-effective manner. Here are my guiding principles:
Upgrade our bus system. One in four urban residents does not have access to a vehicle. Only 12.9% of Davidson County households live within a ½ mile of high-frequency bus service at rush hour. I’m committed to increasing that to 25% and also bringing the percentage of households living within a ½ mile of all-day frequent service up from 0% to 12.9%. I envision a robust bus network as the backbone of Nashville’s public transportation systems. This mayor’s budget underfunds WeGo by $8.7 million. The subsequent cuts in bus service are yet another example of the current administration not prioritizing the essential. The current mayor’s budget proposal would result in fares increasing by ten percent, the elimination of seven bus routes, and a reduction in service on another seven routes. Cutting routes and increasing fares harm those who rely on public transportation in this city. WeGo needs more funding, not less, to ensure that it is accessible, fast, frequent, and reliable. Let’s stop placing bus stops in ditches and instead create covered, well-lit stops where people can wait safely and comfortably. Let’s expand our sidewalk network so more people can walk to those bus stops. Let’s actually listen to the requests of those who use public transportation by having buses run more frequently and extend the hours buses operate. Other cities have had success making incremental improvements to their existing systems.
Four years ago, Houston switched from a spoke-and-hub system similar to what Nashville has now to a grid model. It saw an immediate increase in bus ridership and decreases in trip times. Changing to a grid system and increasing the frequency of buses on key routes enabled Brampton, Ontario’s bus system to double ridership within 12 years. It is clear that Nashville would benefit from a move to more of a grid model as well, with more cross-town and connector routes.
Tackle traffic, not just transit. I recognize that not every resident or visitor to Nashville will use the bus as their primary mode of transportation moving forward. Most won’t. Therefore, I will invest in common sense solutions to reduce the time spent in traffic, such as fixing problem intersections, utilizing smart traffic signals to better control traffic, widening turning lanes on key routes, and limiting construction lane closures. That said, it remains critical that we reduce our reliance on single-occupancy vehicle trips in order to both reduce street congestion and carbon emissions. Around 80% of downtown employees drive to work alone. I am encouraged by efforts like the Nashville Connector Transportation Demand Management (TDM), which encourages downtown workers to find transportation alternatives to driving. Moving forward, this program should have sustained support and all corporations that receive any sort of incentive funding from the city should be required to have strong TDM plans in place. Our downtown grid is made up of narrow streets; this means we must reduce the number of cars downtown by encouraging more people to ride the bus, carpool, or bike to work.
Neighborhoods need infrastructure too. Sidewalks make walking safer. They encourage people to get out, exercise, and know their neighborhoods. Yet Metro hasn’t kept pace with the need for sidewalks. Metro has 1,900 miles of streets without sidewalks, and the WalkNBike plan identified 91 miles of high priority streets. Yet Metro has built only 6.2 miles of new sidewalks since 2016. Mayor Barry rightly made sidewalks a priority, but there is room for improvement in a system that still only has 16.2 miles of projects in progress. One hurdle is our expensive outsourced process including project management and right-of-way acquisition. We need to find ways to significantly lower our cost per linear foot of new sidewalk, which is over $1,000 per foot. As a cost savings measure, we should bring some of the sidewalk project work in-house at Metro Public Works because we know sidewalks are going to be a stable long-term capital spending need. My transportation plan will include funding for sidewalks because we can’t have an effective transportation system without them.
Improve safety. Keeping people safe is the most fundamental job of government. Our notion of ‘public safety’ should include pedestrian and driver safety. The first year of my term will be focused on safety while we formulate a broader transportation plan. Improving safety means sidewalks, protected bikeways and intersection improvements. Nashville is a dangerous city to walk in. Twenty-three pedestrians were killed in Nashville in each of the past two years. Back in 2014, Metro Public Works took the time to identify the fifty most dangerous crossings for pedestrians in our city. How many of these intersections have been upgraded since then? Just four of them. Funding has been secured for improving many of them, but the work is happening too slowly.
We can do better. As a candidate, I have held many conversations with residents who have mentioned that they would like not to rely on their car for each and every trip they make, but that they feel unsafe being a pedestrian. I want Nashvillians to feel safe as they move about the city. Given our level of pedestrian deaths and our lagging infrastructure, I am frankly unsurprised that many don’t choose to walk or bike — or that many scooter riders stay on the sidewalk. Building safer crosswalks and making strategic sidewalk connections should be prioritized in our city budget. Calming traffic in pedestrian-heavy areas using actual physical measures such as reduced lane widths, speed tables, raised crosswalks, roundabouts, curb extensions, and better lighting are reasonable cost solutions and best practices that we must implement. Cars drive too fast in our neighborhoods. I support the recommendation of a 25 mph maximum speed limit for neighborhood streets to ensure that residents are kept safe. Protected bikeways should be expanded; a recent study showed that protected bike infrastructure nearly halves the number of fatalities and results in fewer deaths of drivers and pedestrians too. Existing bikeways and sidewalks must be kept clear of parked cars, debris, and scooters. Scooters need to be effectively regulated, and that starts with enforcing existing regulations. We know where the problems in our neighborhoods are; Nashville needs a mayor who will address them.
Create a Nashville Department of Transportation. Creating a Metro DOT was one of the recommendations within the Nashville Community Transportation Platform. If implemented well, a Metro Nashville Department of Transportation would help streamline and accelerate sidewalk construction, make safe street designs more likely to be implemented, and create a more effective home for an ambitious transportation demand management (TDM) program. Consolidating transportation functions that currently exist within Metro as well as bringing some contracted work back in-house would increase efficiency and cohesion of our transportation work.
Develop a new transportation plan within the first year. Last year, Mayor Briley supported a transit plan that cost too much and delivered too little. Instead of figuring out what we could afford to spend and developing a plan that spent those dollars in the most cost-effective way possible, mayoral aides figured out how much we could borrow and came up with a plan to go big. That was a mistake, but this mayor hasn’t learned the right lessons from it. Instead of coming back with a more responsible plan, Mayor Briley has said that if he is reelected, he will not bring another plan before voters in the next four years.
Nashville can’t wait five years for solutions to our traffic and transportation problems. As mayor, I will bring a fiscally-responsible plan to voters within my first year in office. I will start by listening to the residents of this city. I commit to creating and publishing a public engagement plan for transportation planning, something the current Mayor has not done. Creating an equitable transportation plan starts with changing the public planning process to make it more inclusive. We need a planning process that seeks community input as the foundation for our transportation plan, so that the final product is a plan that voters support. My administration will listen to your ideas and concerns, and propose a plan to directly address those ideas and concerns.
Many were wary of the 2018 transit plan because it used a regressive sales tax to fund a plan that concentrated benefits in a relatively small percentage of our neighborhoods. If, in the future, we move to use a regressive funding mechanism for a transportation plan, we need to be hyper-vigilant that improvements are distributed equitably across the county.
Voters overwhelmingly decided that last year’s transit plan wasn’t the right plan for Nashville right now. The Let’s Move Nashville plan was built with too little consultation with residents and neighborhoods. It was driven by a desire to go as big as possible, not a realistic assessment of our needs. I was the only countywide elected official who campaigned against it, and I did so because it simply was not the right plan for Nashville.
But rejecting a bad plan is no reason not to present a good one. I believe that Nashvillians are ready to address this problem. Doubters will say that it isn’t possible to come up with a transportation plan in a year. But we aren’t starting from scratch. There were good elements in last year’s plan and we largely know what needs to be done. The outline of a cost-effective transit plan is already visible in proposals such as the Nashville Community Transportation Platform. I was the first candidate for mayor to endorse it. I have too much optimism in Nashville to believe that we need another four or five years to come up with a comprehensive transportation plan.
These are my ideas. What would you like to see Metro do to improve your experience moving throughout the county? Send me your thoughts. With your help and support, we can create a city that works for everyone — and that moves everyone.