Tilting at Straw Men

So, your proposal to build light rail in Nashville has been slammed both locally and nationally. What do you do? Why, expand the proposal, increasing the expense from $5.2 to $5.6 billion.

You also defend your plan by setting up straw-men arguments against it and attacking those arguments rather than the valid criticisms of light rail. According to “transit skeptics,” says Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, “transit ridership has been declining for decades nationally, Nashville lacks the density for light rail and the rise autonomous vehicles is the answer for Nashville’s traffic.”

She responds that transit ridership has grown considerably since 1995. But, in fact, no one ever argued that transit ridership has been declining for decades. What they (or, in fact, I) argued was that per capita transit ridership has been declining for decades, which it has; that total transit ridership has been declining since 2014; and that the trends that are causing it to decline are not likely to change.

Her other straw man is that the “rise of autonomous vehicles is the answer for Nashville’s traffic.” But, again, no one ever claimed that driverless cars would solve all of Nashville’s traffic problems. What they (or, again, I) claimed was that driverless cars would be faster, more convenient, and far less expensive than light rail, so why spend billions on a light-rail line that won’t be able to compete?

“We can’t sit around and wait for autonomous vehicles to take care of us,” Barry added. Actually, Nashville probably won’t have to wait very long. While her light-rail project won’t open before 2026, Uber has already agreed to buy 24,000 driverless cars from Volvo that will be on the road by 2021. Ford, Nissan, and others have also promised driverless ridesharing by 2021. Even if that proves a little optimistic, by 2025 driverless cars are likely to be taking people all over Nashville, while the light-rail line will only serve one corridor and–based on past experience–won’t be done on time either.

In response to the density argument, Barry says, “We’re just not going to sit around and wait for neighborhoods to become dense before we build transit.” Instead, they are going to work on making it denser now. Even if the argument were valid, why should people rebuild their city and lives around an obsolete transit system? Wouldn’t it be better to build a transit system that works in the city you have?

As it happens, the density argument was not one of mine for the very good reason that it is wrong. It is not true that Nashville isn’t dense enough for light rail because that would imply that some city somewhere is dense enough for light rail.

The reality is that no density is right for light rail. Buses can more more people, faster, more efficiently, and more safely than light rail. So buses make more sense than rail at low densities; they make more sense at medium densities; and they make more sense at high densities. Only at very high densities, such as Manhattan or Tokyo, does rail make sense, and then only heavy rail, not light rail. Buses made light rail obsolete by 1930.

One of the big problems with light rail is, as obsolete as it is, once you’ve built one line, you can’t stop building due to political pressures. Indeed, the reason why the mayor has extended her proposal is because one neighborhood objected to being left out. If Nashville voters approve her plan in May, they will end up being faced with more and more tax increases to build even more rail lines into every part of the city–lines that will do nothing that can’t now be done with buses except cost a lot of money.

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6 thoughts on “Tilting at Straw Men

  1. prk166

    n response to the density argument, Barry says, “We’re just not going to sit around and wait for neighborhoods to become dense before we build transit.”

    Mayor Barry is either willfully an idiot or too dumb to know better. They’ve had the Music City Star running for over a decade. NOT ONE SINGLE APARTMENT BUILDING has been built next to a station. There’s no TOD developments that have gone in. She knows that building rail transit does not __CAUSE__ density.

  2. CapitalistRoader

    We can’t sit around and wait for autonomous vehicles to take care of us.

    Translation: I need campaign contributions from property developers, train vendors, construction companies, and transit unions now! It will be too late when AVs are ubiquitous and people stop taking dirty, expensive mass transit.

  3. metrosucks

    Msetty must have accidentally forgotten that other requirement of transit oriented development: all day subsidy service. Im sure that was a oversight on his part. He also forgot to mention a single “successful” TOD in the whole country. Oops, another oversight.

  4. Beau

    I’m as bored with this topic as the next “Me Too” sexual abuse accusation. If Nashville is stupid and immature enough in its mindset to spend ridiculous amounts of money on this very “cool, trendy” seemingly modern answer to its transportation issue than they deserve the resulting (and probably impending) economic collapse that its overvalued property and crazy sales tax revenue will bring. And if I have to get up and listen to continuing mornings of this one-sided debate on talk radio … then radio will go the same way as cable in my home … silent. There are more important things to talk about.

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