Chattanooga: Choices for the City’s Transit Future

Chattanooga Incline Railway

Chattanooga, Tennessee’s most well-known transit infrastructure may be the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, a former train station made famous by a 1941 swing tune by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, or perhaps the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway, a tourist-oriented funicular currently owned and operated by the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority (CARTA).  Most days though, Chattanooga’s transit line with the highest ridership is the Route 4 bus from downtown to the eastern suburbs. Although Chattanooga was an early adopter of electric buses, starting their downtown electric shuttles in 1992, transit has not been at the forefront of its planning policies in the past few decades.  Like many other similarly sized cities without urban growth boundaries in the US, development has sprawled outwards, enabled by highways, resulting in land use patterns that are difficult to serve by transit.

That is changing.  In recent years, Chattanooga has focused efforts on rekindling the inner city, adding housing, retail, and office space downtown, and becoming the first midsize city in the US to designate an urban innovation district.  As a recognition of their efforts to build vibrant public spaces, Chattanooga will be hosting the Project for Public Spaces placemaking conference this Fall, the third city to do so after Amsterdam and Vancouver.  But in order for a city center integrated within a growing regional economy to scale up without being choked by traffic congestion, Chattanooga needs better transit.  Today, the city is starting to reconsider the role of the bus and may be ready to make major changes to its bus services and perhaps invest more in it.


The recently revamped Miller Park in Downtown Chattanooga. Photo:

We’ve been studying the transit system in Chattanooga for over a year and in June CARTA released our report outlining four possible concepts of what the future of transit could look like. These four concepts show a range of options between coverage and ridership goals with no new funding and two options with additional funding for transit. Happily, the local newspaper’s coverage is clear and accurate.

The release of this report begins the period of public discussions and surveys. The results of that discussion will inform the decision that the CARTA Board makes in August about what direction the final plan should take.

Our report discusses four possible futures but most likely, the final plan won’t look quite like any of these. The key idea — as in much of our work — is to open up a “decision space” in which people can figure out where they want to come down on the two difficult policy decisions:

  • Ridership vs coverage? What percentage of resources should to go pursuing a goal of maximum ridership — which will tend to generate frequent service in the densest urban markets — as opposed to the goal of coverage — spreading service out so that as many people as possible have some service nearby?
  • Level of investment in service? How much should the community invest in service? The more it invests the more it gets in value, but the value it gets depends in part on how you answer the ridership-coverage trade-off.

If you live in Chattanooga or know anyone there, now is the time to get involved.  Download the report, read at least the executive summary, form your own view, and share it with us here!  The more people respond, the more confident we’ll be in defining the final plan based on their guidance.

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5 Responses to Chattanooga: Choices for the City’s Transit Future

  1. Sean Gillis July 3, 2019 at 7:30 am #

    Another example of how to open up a discussion about the values and priorities that shape transit systems (and cities). I continually use Jarrett’s ideas in my land use planning work. While there are obviously transit concepts that Jarrett uses (coverage vs. ridership, be-on-the-way, transfers or single-seat, etc.) that relate to city planning, these kinds of projects inspired me to write and talk clearly about trade-offs, alternatives and how they reflect different goals and values. It’s important to know the ‘technical’ side, but I like to think that communicating what choices mean is the real goal of a useful public servant. Difficult, but necessary.

  2. Darkest Yorkshire July 5, 2019 at 8:29 am #

    Does your consulting ever include improving freight transport in cities? Do freight and transit conflict with each other, and to what extent can they coexist, or even help each other? When you mentioned a city shutting down a trolley bus line, my first thought was if the wires could still be used for trolley trucks, whether for utility vehicles, delivering mail and parcels, or larger cargoes.

    Another question that may be beyond your scope, do the principles of public transport remain true all the way up to airlines, or do the rules change at that scale?

    • El_slapper July 8, 2019 at 7:41 am #

      @Darkest Yorkshire :

      for your last question, a good part of Jarret’s work lies with geometry rules, and the difficulties of finding place in dense cities. The only density problems air transport experiments are at the airports themselves, making the whole topic rather different, IMHO.

  3. Nathanael July 24, 2019 at 10:54 am #

    Good luck. The Koch Brothers have funded very large anti-transit campaigns in this area. There will be no funding forthcoming for anything decent.

  4. Danny August 7, 2019 at 8:01 am #

    I am a big fan of this blog and Walker’s work, which has helped me think through transit in my own city of Lexington, KY. But I wonder about some of Walker’s assumptions regarding urban infill. It is hard to separate, for example, Chattanooga’s recent interest in re-urbanization of the downtown core from the upscaling (gentrification) that is driving these conversations. This interest is an outgrowth of over a decade of wealth moving into an area and deciding that _now_ is the time to make things right (for them…mostly in their neighborhood).

    When an international transit professional headquartered in Portland swoops into a city and makes statements like Walker’s above–“In recent years, Chattanooga has focused efforts on rekindling the inner city, adding housing, retail, and office space downtown, and becoming the first midsize city in the US to designate an urban innovation district”–or when he approvingly cites an international “placemaking” conference that will be held in Chattanooga, it performs the work of that upscaling without questioning who these investments will be designed to benefit. (I’d imagine the beneficiaries of this upscaling are also, like me, probably his base readership on this blog.)

    These questions do matter. Walker defines the tradeoffs of transit ridership as coverage v. ridership, which I find in some ways very helpful. And yet, ridership v. coverage is also a decontextualized framework that strips these decisions–and the deliberation process–of the very social issues that have resulted, say, in 30 years of little/no transit investment in Chattanooga. This history of disinvestment and strategic re-investment colors the claims that he makes for “participation” by Chattanooga residents, particularly transit riders, who should be justifiably leery of any political shifts to investments in urban transportation.

    Walker doesn’t have to engage directly in that discussion (he’s an outsider, not of the area, a drop-in specialist…though a specialist I’d hope that is aware generally of urban upscaling as a by-now visible trend nationally), but I hope that future posts at the least downplay the thin narrative of urban discovery that has been so over-used by those who have created and benefited from it: real estate developers, politicians, media companies like the Chattanooga Times, select business owners, a few placemaking nonprofit/ngo’s, and the gentrifiers like me who bought in cheap and stand to reap the benefits of change.

    (Sorry for the month-and-a-half late post…I’m returning to teach from a summer off and am only now re-hitting my favorite transit sites.)