Middle Tennessee’s network of 11 regional buses, which ferry suburban commuters into the city, have seen a decline in ridership in recent years. That’s despite a growing number of residents and jobs, which should increase demand for transit, researchers say.
And while there have been calls for more regional service, officials say they can’t do much until existing buses start to fill — and there aren’t immediate plans for expansion.
“If ridership increases, then we can explore means of increasing the number of trips,” said RTA spokeswoman Amanda Clelland.
But at the moment, ridership is headed the wrong way. Numbers reviewed by WPLN show a 7 percent decrease since 2015.
Among the reasons, per officials and local studies:
- the existing buses don’t run at the perfect times, or often enough, for commuters
- the system’s park-and-ride lots are inconvenient
- fuel prices for cars have come down and
- perhaps most importantly, buses still get stuck in the same traffic as cars — especially on I-24 and I-65 south of Nashville — making the service less competitive.
“The buses are often beholden to the traffic,” Clelland said.
The result has been bus service that’s a tough sell for commuters, especially as on-time arrival — a key metric — comes in at around 66 percent for buses that come from Rutherford County, according to RTA data. That’s compared to about 85 percent on-time, systemwide.
For commuter Pam Marmillion, who travels on a route from the Springfield area, late buses mean that on some days she actually gets back into her car and chooses to drive.
“And there’s lots of us in that situation,” she said.
She’s also been on board when buses have broken down on the highway. But she plans to stick with the RTA.
“I can close my eyes and take a nap. Or I read a book. People are kind of quiet and respectful,” she said. “I’ve been reasonably happy with it. Of course, you can’t control the traffic.”
For transportation leaders, a big dream would be dedicated lanes for buses on the interstates, or an option that allows buses to bypass areas of bad congestion by driving on the shoulders. But that idea hasn’t made much progress lately.
Another RTA goal: obtaining more park-and-ride lots. Clelland said the agency typically relies on agreements with businesses to use portions of their lots, and there have been instances of those deals falling apart, forcing short-notice changes for commuters.
But with an annual budget of around $9 million, the RTA doesn’t tend to have the funding to buy land near the interstates, where park-and-ride lots would ideally be located.
“That’s prime real estate,” Clelland said.
One exception is near Clarksville, where the RTA’s most successful bus, the 94X, has a dedicated parking lot thanks to a land deal with the state government. That route has been a bright spot, with steadily increasing ridership. (The system’s other “express” routes — which make fewer stops —have also seen increases.)
The RTA also operates the Music City Star commuter train. While it has never met its early ridership projections, Star ridership has risen — and unlike the regional buses, the train benefits from an ideal transit combination of having consistent park-and-ride lots and a route that is independent of car traffic.
“There is a lot of desire [for regional transit], but with the current offerings of RTA, the only truly reliable option is the Music City Star,” said Michelle Lacewell, executive director for the Nashville Area MPO, which allots federal transportation funds to the region. “We are always looking for ways to assist with funding and hopefully in the next few years we will have a program of projects and system improvements that we will take back to the voters that will be supported.”
Meanwhile, in the long-term, an RTA study suggests that cities outside of Nashville will also need to beef up their local services. Researchers say that traffic in and out of Murfreesboro and Franklin could eventually be larger than flows into Nashville.
All-day regional trips will be needed, including running the distance between Spring Hill and Nashville, and smoother transfer options between local and regional options.
“These types of improvements will be critical to the region’s success,” the RTA said in its “State of the System” report. “The region’s freeways, and in particular I-24 and I-65 to the south are already badly congested.”