‘Low expectations and low investment’: Consultant briefs officials on the state of Chattanooga’s public transit

Staff photo by Ben Sessoms / Jarrett Walker, a prominent planning and policy consultant, briefs city and CARTA officials on the state of Chattanooga's public transit system Monday.

Jarrett Walker, a prominent public transit planning and policy consultant, spoke to city and CARTA officials Monday about the state of Chattanooga's public transit system.

Based on an analysis from Walker's firm, Chattanooga's public transit is not considered useful for most people. His firm has consulted on public transit systems across the world, nation and state, including Memphis and Knoxville.

With the level of investment and current design of the system, useful public transit in Chattanooga shouldn't be expected, said Walker, known for his 2011 book "Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives."

"It's typical of what's involved in a lot of similar cities, and it's not wrong," Walker said. "It's just reflective of a legacy of low expectations and low investment."

Walker said his firm doesn't push a certain transit plan but helps decision-makers make good decisions concerning public transit.

"Fundamentally, our motto is that we foster clear conversations about transit, leading to competent decisions," Walker said.

Public officials from the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority, the city of Chattanooga and the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency were present at the meeting. Neither Mayor Tim Kelly nor any Chattanooga City Council members were present.

(READ MORE: To give passengers a place to sit, CARTA board member builds and places benches at bus stops)

Ridership vs. coverage

Walker said there are typically two kinds of transit systems: those with high ridership and those with high coverage.

Chattanooga's system is designed for high coverage but low ridership, he said. Passengers on most of the 16 CARTA routes can expect a bus to arrive at their stop with a frequency up to an hour, according to the analysis from Walker's firm.

With wait times that high, Walker said most people -- even low-income individuals who rely on public transit -- won't find the system useful.

"Because these buses come once an hour, they're probably not coming when you need them. Because they're not coming when you need them, you probably don't ride it," Walker said. "Even a low-income person probably doesn't ride it because even they do not have time to wait an hour for a bus, so you get low ridership."

  photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / A CARTA bus is seen Sept. 22.

According to data CARTA sent the Chattanooga Times Free Press in August, ridership in fiscal year 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, was nearly 2.4 million. That number dropped to 1.74 million in fiscal year 2023.

After working with Walker's firm in recent years, Knoxville opted to go with a new high ridership model.

Knoxville's new model is set to go into effect next year. According to Walker's firm, 19% more Knoxville residents, on average, can expect to be within 45 minutes of their job, via public transit, due to reduced wait times.

For low-income residents, that increase is 24%. For residents of color, it's 26%.

If Chattanooga were to pivot from its high coverage model to one with higher frequency stops and higher ridership, it would require more buses on fewer routes.

Ben Taylor, deputy administrator for the Chattanooga Division of Transportation, said during the meeting that he's concerned about how this would affect residents' access to CARTA routes.

"What's the farthest away folks would walk to public transit?" Taylor said.

In response to Taylor, Walker said people are willing to walk farther to bus stops if wait times are lower.

"The thing to remember about this is because people are optimizing their total transit time -- walk plus wait plus ride -- they will walk farther to a service that is better on those other features," Walker said. "That is why people walk farther to more frequent service and walk farther to faster service."

Johan de Nysschen, chair of CARTA's board of directors, asked Walker during the meeting if it's possible to have high-frequency stops as well as wide route coverage throughout the city.

Walker said that's only typically seen in European cities that invest more funding in public transit.

"The scale is just completely different," Walker said. "You have sort of a typical kind of lower-end transit network that is typical of what has evolved in similar cities."

According to Chattanooga's budget for this fiscal year, $5.8 million went to CARTA -- 1.7% of the city's budgeted expenses.

City spokespeople did not immediately respond to emailed questions concerning any plans to increase funding for CARTA in the future.

Inadequate for growth

Ellis Smith, the city's director of special projects, asked Walker during the meeting how the city should use public transit to plan for growth in the future.

"What would be the optimal use of our resources?" Smith said. "What would it look like to extend that out 10 years with the expected growth and replanning of the city?"

Walker said Chattanooga's public transit is not equipped to accommodate the influx of new residents the city is expected to see in the coming years.

"It's very, very dangerous to try to plan the future growth of the city around the existing transit network because the existing transit network isn't adequate to the growth of the city," Walker said.

Dan Reuter, executive director of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency, said during the meeting that he's confident Chattanooga can improve its public transit.

"I'm absolutely certain we can figure this out over the next six months, a good idea of where our city's headed," Reuter said. "It's not that complicated."

To accommodate the city's current and future residents, CARTA's existing system must change, de Nysschen said.

"Where CARTA is today is a result of a whole multitude of factors. None of them were informed by, 'Let's see how mediocre of a service we can deliver,'" de Nysschen said. "But I have yet to hear from anybody, whether it's CARTA leadership or employees or union representatives or other stakeholders, who applaud where we are. That simply tells me that the status quo can't be an option."

(READ MORE: Q&A: Famed city planner Jeff Speck talks walkability in Chattanooga)

Contact Ben Sessoms at bsessoms@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.