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Car-Free in Nashville Chronicles: There and Back Again

July 28, 2012

This is the second in a series about my experiences being car-free for a year. I see it as health-related in the sense that our automobile culture is hard on the planet and exposes us to pollutants, and our reliance on driving affects where and how we live, how we move, what we eat, what information and services we have access to, and many other aspects of our lives. However, individual posts may or may not focus on health implications, and some will be fairly specific to the environment of Nashville, TN. I hope this is useful to people considering their use of cars and others with the potential to affect how cities organize themselves around transportation.

For this installment of the Car-Free Chronicles, I want to further explore the difficulties of simply getting to and from needed locations using public transportation in Nashville, TN. It can be very time-consuming to get around on the buses here, as I mentioned in the previous post on getting to a nearby library. I think the following concrete examples from my experiences help illustrate why buses are not more frequently used in this city, and why significant improvements to service schedules are needed.

*****

Getting to work:
I live 3 miles from work. For various reasons, I don’t walk the entire way or take a bicycle. According to the route planner, Nashville MTA bus options from my house include walking either 0.3 or 0.9 miles first (with no sidewalks a lot of the way), and spending 48 or 38 minutes to get to work (3 miles away!) – followed by additional walking to my specific campus location. I’ve learned that it’s actually faster to simply walk 1.25 miles from my house to a shuttle lot for the workplace, then take the 10 minute shuttle ride the rest of the way.

It took me a while to wrap my head around this – that even with free bus commutes paid for by my employer, it is still less time and less hassle to just walk more of the trip instead of taking the city bus. As is, in 90 degree weather, with a sprained ankle, walking still seemed like the better option. In the winter when it’s dark here by 4:00, I do take the city bus home more in the evenings, but I wait eagerly for having the walking choice again. If my work didn’t have that nearby shuttle lot, I would probably take the bus instead of walking the whole way, just because of the road conditions and the added time to walk 3 miles instead of 1.25, but it would take longer and be much less reliable than just moving myself around with my feet.

*****

Getting to work when the magic shuttle isn’t running:
A few times per year, I take a four-hour weekend shift at my workplace. On those days, the work shuttle isn’t running, and I *have* to take the city bus. Here’s what happened last time:

  • Get to the bus stop (an uncovered bench on the side of the road) early in case the bus is off schedule. Catch the 11:12 bus at the Fairgrounds (Route 12). The trip planner says I could get the 11:57, but that would leave only 5 minutes to get into the Downtown bus hub and catch the next bus out. If the schedules are off at all and I don’t make the connection, I could end up being an hour late for a four hour shift, which is obviously unacceptable and probably a fireable offense (definitely one for most folks).
  • Make it downtown around 11:30ish, and wait nearly 45 minutes for the 12:15 bus out (Route 7). Note that if I’d waited to come in on the 11:57, I wouldn’t have made the connection, as the Route 12 is not there yet when the Route 7 leaves.
  • Get off the bus at campus at about 12:30. Spend a few minutes walking toward my actual workplace, grab a coffee, and get in the building with 10-15 minutes to spare before my shift starts.
  • So altogether, I left the house about 2 hours before my four-hour shift started, and just made it. If I’d taken the tighter schedule (what the trip planner says is a ~35 minute trip minus the walking and waiting), I would have been 45 minutes to an hour late and probably would have lost my job, or at the very least had to call another staff member in from their day off to cover for me.
  • After four hours, turn around and do it all in reverse. It goes more quickly this time (about 45 minutes, plus walking) because I’m not front-loading the trip to avoid being late.

*****

UntitledGetting anywhere when a bus breaks down:
More than once, I’ve waited lengthy periods because a bus has broken down. Last winter, I waited until 7:00 pm for a 6:15 bus because the scheduled bus was taken offline for maintenance and a bus had to be brought in from another route to replace it. I think we stood around for half an hour before a supervisor let us know what was going on. This was inconvenient for me – I wanted to get home after a long day, and my cell phone wasn’t working, so I couldn’t let anybody at home know why I wasn’t there yet. There don’t seem to be any pay phones at the downtown hub, or at least I haven’t seen them yet. But what is a mild annoyance to me can be seriously detrimental to others – imagine if I were trying to get to a night shift at an hourly job, or trying to pick up a child from a day care with by-the-minute late charges. Having buses run reliably and on time is crucial for low income individuals who can’t afford being half an hour late for work even once or they’ll lose their jobs.

*****

Special Occasions and City Events:

  • I’ve seen several reports that, on the 4th of July, the buses stopped running too early for those seeing the massive downtown fireworks spectacle to get back home. Indeed, based on MTA’s release that they ran on the Sunday/holiday schedule, the last bus on my route to home would have left downtown at 9:15 pm. This would not have allowed time to see the whole fireworks show, much less get to the bus hub afterward.

  • I love, love the monthly downtown Art Crawl. It runs from 6pm – 9pm on the first Saturday of the month, and the city helpfully runs shuttle buses between the various gallery sites. The 9:15 bus out of downtown is probably cutting it too close depending on which gallery you’re leaving from, and the crawl really does end up whizzing by and requiring the full time. Thus, I’d have to wait around until 10:18 for a bus home, and walk several blocks to my house at around 10:30 pm afterward. So it’s possible, but for obvious reasons, when we can afford it, we just take a cab.
  • The city bus system ran on the holiday (every hour) schedule on the Martin Luther King Day holiday, *which my workplace, one of the largest employers in the mid-state, does not give as a holiday.* Seriously. 20,000 people work here, we don’t have the day off, and the buses are running once an hour.
  • I’m not even going to go into detail about certain events the Mayor has hosted at city parks, and other events like Movies in the Park, that are not at all accessible by bus, unless you want to make a considerable walk with no sidewalks or risk riding a bike in very bike-unfriendly areas.

Others’ comments on a recent alt weekly’s blog back up my observations on these difficulties. For example:

For me, my Saturday mornings are dedicated to a 4-5 hour trip to be able to go to the Farmer’s Market and the grocery store. 4-5 HOURS just to run two errands. If I have a doctor’s appointment, even if I schedule it at 8AM, I still have to take a half a day off of work and start catching busses at 6:30AM just to make it to the appointment on time and hope that I can be at work by noon.

I live in the Woodbine/Nolensville/440 area and if I want to get to 100 Oaks, I’m looking at about an hour and a half trip each way to travel 2 miles from my house and a $5.25 all day bus pass because once you commit to 3 bus trips in a day, you might as well buy an all day pass or you’re throwing away your money.

I will second this, that when I have medical appointments off-campus, I too take a half day off work just to get there and back again. Also, I am so, so lucky that my voting location is a simple walk down a hill – I never, ever early vote because it’s simply too much of a pain to get there.

*****

I know, I know, this is a lot of minutiae about my personal experience of riding the bus in Nashville, TN. I think it’s important to share these stories, though, to illustrate just how difficult it can actually be to make riding the bus work not only for getting to and from work, but for participating in civic and city-sponsored activities. I’m sure there are hundreds of these stories out there in Nashville, people who depend on a bus service that’s not so dependable, or who would like to reduce their transportation costs and environmental impact by riding, but who find it terribly inconvenient or simply unworkable.

I do not want to discourage people from taking the bus. What I hope to do is to help folks understand why it can be so difficult, encourage them to share their own stories and provide feedback to the city, and foster discussion about how to make it better.

Upcoming posts I have planned for this series will address things like the effects of being car-free on my physical health, complete streets (and the lack thereof), supply and opportunity costs vs. car-free savings, and other topics. If there’s an aspect you’re particularly interested in, or questions you have about my experiences, please let me know in the comments!

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. July 30, 2012 2:32 pm

    How about biking?

    • July 31, 2012 7:23 am

      It’s something I’ve considered, but there are a few reasons I haven’t started biking (which we discussed a little bit in the comments of this previous post as well). For one, I don’t have a bike, and I’ve been uninterested in doing the research of choosing one (I know, I’m a librarian, right? It’s like that saying about the cobbler’s kids’ shoes or whatever). Two, Nashville is not terribly bike friendly – there are only bike lanes here and there, drivers don’t seem to have any respect for or awareness of bikes, and my particular route, I think, would be iffy. Three, I’m a wee bit clumsy at times – the list of things I’ve fallen out of, off of, into, or on is long. And four, I’m not confident as a rider – I haven’t ridden as an adult, and I never learned to use hand brakes or gears, or do any basic bike maintenance, etc. So it’s something I probably *should* do, but I haven’t been willing to or interested in overcoming all of the above to do so.

      • July 31, 2012 5:46 pm

        I noticed bike lanes there where there were none 5 years ago when I moved away, so maybe it will be more wide spread.

      • August 3, 2012 2:47 pm

        You may well know about this already, but in case not, here’s a link. There is a bicycle share program, called Bcycle, coming to Nashville soon, with a preview of the program at the Farmers Market this weekend. (I know, how do you get to the market w/o a car?)

      • August 3, 2012 2:49 pm

        Oh, sorry, html fail. The link: http://bcycle.com/

      • August 8, 2012 9:45 am

        Thanks for the comments! nm, I was able to go to a bcycle demo on campus the other day, so I’ll be keeping an eye on that for sure! I was disappointed that they’re not actually setting up a station on campus in the near-term, but got a lead on a couple of other possible bike sharing services while I was there.

  2. Diane permalink
    August 5, 2012 10:00 pm

    Your bus experience resonates for me, living in Snohomish Co. Washington (about an hour north of Seattle). It takes my daughter a good 2.5 hours to get from her home at the north end of Seattle to my home. She has to navigate 2 different county bus systems (some trips require an additional city bus system!) and walk a fair bit. She’s 24, healthy and single.

    Now add a kid or two or a disability…

    Yes, we do have paratransit for disabled persons. However, you have to book rides 2 days (but not more than 7) in advance. You also have to know quite precisely beforehand when you want to arrive and when you’ll be ready to go (a problem if your doctor runs late). There is a 30 minute “window” in your pick up time that can add an hour total to your trip, not to mention routing to accommodate other riders. And that’s if all goes perfectly well, no broken bus, no bad weather, no wrecks on the freeway, etc. Add to that no bus on Sunday and limited hours the rest of the week.

    Drives me crazy when people criticize “poor” people for trying to own/operate a car rather than relying on the bus. Yes, the bus costs less in a perfect-world cash outlay but there are other costs in time and control of your time and direction.

    • August 8, 2012 9:43 am

      Thanks for your comment, Diane – I appreciate hearing your insights into your daughter’s experience and also the limitations of the paratransit system.

  3. August 13, 2012 11:40 am

    Rachel-
    Thanks for your posts on this topic; I really enjoy them. A lot of people want to use the transit system for the reasons you’re describing but like you, I think it’s important that we try to use the system we have and give the city feedback on where it needs to be better.

    I know it’ll depend on where a person works but I wonder what parts of Nashville are best served by our public transit system. Additionally, I wonder if there has been any effort by the city to try and encourage development in those areas.

    I view it as a chicken and egg scenario… if there isn’t good transit, how will people start using it but if people don’t use it, how can it get better?

    Anyhoo, thanks again for the post.

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