The state legislature might decide this week whether to kill Nashville Mayor Karl Dean’s high-speed bus project, known as the Amp. If it survives the political hurdles, a greater obstacle could be looming: how to convince bus-wary people to ride.
The basic math of the project means attracting first-time riders is critical. About 800,000 rides are taken by bus every year along the West End Avenue route. Planners expect that number to double when the Amp opens – assuming it does.
The Amp’s operating costs have been calculated under the notion that 1.6 million rides will happen along the corridor. If enough people turn away, the cost of operating the Amp could lead to financial trouble and soul-searching among Amp advocates.
It’s a situation that harkens back to the Music City Star’s less-than-stellar opening year, when the commuter rail line’s ridership was only a third of projections.
So if rides are really going to double along the planned Amp route, a significant portion of those riders will be first-time bus users. For many, that’s going to take a very convincing sales pitch.
Depends On Whom You Ask
Will the Amp change the way you get around Nashville? Many people answer like this guy did, waiting at West End stop light in his SUV:
“Ahh, public transit really wouldn’t benefit me,” he said. Why not? “Because of the location of where I Live.” Where does he live exactly? “Hendersonville, Tennessee.”
Mayor Dean is hoping that even the guy from Hendersonville will use the Amp. Maybe it means he and his buddy will park downtown to go to a Predators game and take the Amp to go to a restaurant on West End.
One ride becomes two and soon, Amp supporters say, habits are formed.
But for the most part, city leaders expect tourists, new residents, and those who already live and work along the route to use the Amp.
For people walking up and down West End on a recent afternoon, mixed feelings emerged.
Architect Clay Phillips says he’ll gladly leave his car at home to commute to his West End firm. He lives close to the Amp’s proposed last stop near White Bridge Road.
“For me, it’s a simple get on at my front door and hop off at my office,” he said.
But for every Clay Phillips there is a Josh Garcia, a 26-year-old accountant who works downtown. He says he’s too impatient to wait around in stations.
“In Nashville we have flooding rains, scorching heat, horrible winters,” he said. “And unless I can reliably zip everywhere I need to go any time, I’m unlikely to sell my car right off the bat.”
A Nashville Bus Stigma?
Studies have noted that bus rapid transit projects like the Amp might suffer from an image problem. And some bus riders think so, too.
“To be honest, I think that a lot of people in Nashville look down on people who ride the bus,” said daily bus rider Marisa Ayala. “And it’s simply not fair.”
Often, Ayala suspects, there is something unspoken underneath the convenience argument.
“What would they do in a city like New York or Boston. Everybody who’s everybody rides public transportation there. It’s no big deal,” she said.
Backers Bet On Perception Change
The project’s design, especially the bus-only lanes that are key to having predictable arrival times, has long been under attack. The mayor has since backed away from the original proposal, although planners still maintain that the Amp will be vastly different from traditional buses. Supporters say the Amp will be part of Nashville’s built environment, even one day becoming a signature piece of the city.
Under the proposal, you’ll board the from the center of the road; enter through middle doors, instead of walking up steps; and the buses are coordinated with traffic lights to speed up trips. It should have the vibe of an above-ground subway.
“Once the system is built, a lot of people see it and feel it and ride it, and they can understand that this actually isn’t as bad as it has been presented,” said Annie Weinstock, who studies bus rapid transit projects around the globe for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. “Once people experience it, some critics might be swayed to the other side. That’s what we’ve see in a lot of places. Once you have one line, suddenly people say, ‘why aren’t you serving my neighborhood with it?’ And then it becomes a lot easier.’”
But potential converters have time to mull it over. In the best case scenario, the Amp won’t break ground for another year and a half.