Tuesday, September 23, 2008

More Farr Side

When Sustainable Urbanism author Doug Farr spoke at the Sustainable Tennessee Regional Opportunity Forum last weekend, he traced the streetcar back to early electric companies looking for a way to use excess electric capacity during the daytime.

Of course, most of the trolleys and streetcar systems now are financed by the federal government (tho Portland, Oregon, is a notable exception; that system was paid for locally).

"Once you federalize it, innovation goes out and overhead comes in," Farr said.

More importantly, for the book, he asked about the density needed to support transit systems and was told that "density is old think."

Instead of looking at population density, transit lines are now planned around nodes: the university area, downtown, the airport.

It's more connect-the-dots than connect-the-people.

Farr's discussion reminded me of our own Madison Avenue line, which links the medical district to downtown ... and judging by the ridership, didn't seem to take into account whether people wanted/needed to ride from the medical district to downtown and vice versa.

And the proposed airport extension is just another node.

I link to this cover story quite a bit, but I'm going to excerpt a bit here:

"It's little wonder that light rail has generated so little excitement. The airport-downtown line would serve only a small fraction of the residents of greater Memphis, a low-density metro area of more than 300 square miles. The train trip would take 29 minutes from beginning to end and make 10 stops. A car can make it in less than 15 minutes. Most customers would have to drive their cars to a light-rail station. ...

"With the uncertainties of $4.52 gas, tight budgets, and a declining Memphis population, the grand vision of a light-rail line from downtown to the airport is by no means a sure thing. Nor does it necessarily make sense.

'Memphis is not a high-density market, so it's pretty difficult to make the numbers work, but I don't want to prejudge them,' says Larry Cox, head of the Memphis and Shelby County Airport Authority.

The project is premised on easing traffic congestion, improving neighborhoods, and sparking development near the rail line. Connection to the FedEx sorting hub is also thrown out occasionally, but suffice it to say that if FedEx, with 35,000 area employees, really wanted a light-rail line, it would be well under way by now.

The other rationales can be easily debunked. Traffic congestion was eased by widening Interstate 240 and the Midtown interchange. It will be further reduced if people drive only when they have to. Except for a fledgling neighborhood called the Edge, Madison Avenue looks even more desolate since the trolley line was built. Ironically, the one big-bucks development MATA might have partially claimed credit for is off the line. In 2006, MATA's board killed the so-called Fairgrounds Alternative and shifted the proposed airport line from Midtown and East Parkway to Lamar and Airways. A year later, developers secured more than $100 million in state Tourism Development Zone funds for the fairgrounds."

(See? I said there would be more on Doug Farr later and here it is. I'm a woman of my word — well, I try, anyway.)

No comments: