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Can Nashville Serve as a Transit Model for Sun Belt Cities?

The plan focuses on relatively quick, incremental steps that can have big impacts.

Nashville officials released their much-anticipated 2020 transportation plan Wednesday, offering a series of recommendations they believe will create a more efficient system of movement and better use of public space in the rapidly-growing city.

Chief among those recommendations: the creation of a Metro Nashville Department of Transportation.

As it stands the city has a planning department as well as a public works department. The region has a metropolitan planning organization too. But Nashville itself has no transportation department.

“(T)his contributes to stagnation in terms of innovation, commitment to complete streets, active transportation, and ultimately accountability to move Nashville forward,” the report read, touting the need for the new office.

Produced jointly by the city of Nashville, the Urban Land Institute, and former Chicago transportation commissioner Gabe Klein, the report offers dozens of strategies for the city.

But this plan is unusual in its scope. Often cities and regions produce big, sweeping planning documents that are intended to cover timeframes of 10 years or more. Instead, in the new “Gear Up 2020” document, leaders offer immediate, short-term steps the city can take in less than four years that are still expected to have big impacts.

The recommendations come as Nashville, one of the fastest growing cities in the country, is rapidly adding population but also experiencing growing pains as a result of the expansion. It follows the high profile cancellation last year of “Amp,” the proposed bus rapid transit system that would have provided an east-west connection across the city.

The new study warns that while Nashville is booming right now, there is a general “uneasy feeling” that the pace could quickly slow unless the region thinks hard about the way it grows.

Gabe Klein. Image via flickr/DDOT.


The study is worth a look, even for those who don’t have a stake in Nashville. That’s because, in many ways, the plan could be applied to many (if not most) medium-sized, rapidly growing Sun Belt cities. It offers insights on how cities that came of age in the era of automobile can pivot to the more pedestrian-friendly preferences of today’s consumer. At the same time, it outlines incremental steps that can be achieved without decades of work or massive amounts of funding.

Among the recommendations is a “vision zero” goal — increasingly popular in cities across the country — that strives to eliminate traffic deaths. It also highlights the need for equity within public spaces, more compact and mixed-used development and public-private partnerships.

The outline also warns that the city is not competing effectively for dollars with the regional MPO and stresses that “bold plans are often shelved in favor of incremental, or little change.” It proposed the new city-level DOT office as a way of addressing both hurdles.

Interestingly, the plan urges leaders to foster an “entrepreneurial” spirit in government by establishing a DOT enterprise fund that would allow the new department to potentially generate revenue from undervalued resources such as parking.

The proposal also calls for taking another stab at a major transit system, despite Amp’s failure. It recommends that leaders finalize a plan to build regional support for an initial transit line segment. “The goal should be to position the region to build something that will be successful in garnering initial support, through to ridership, allowing a larger system plan to be undertake,” the plan reads. “The end goal is to create walkable neighborhoods and business districts linked by high quality transit for longer trips (and) bikes for medium trips. The car becomes an option versus mandatory.”

Another interesting idea: the team said it’s worth studying whether existing parking facilities should be converted to affordable housing or open space. They argue that Nashville has too much parking, and as subsequent generations have less interest in driving, it’s time to rethink those garages and surface lots.

It calls for developing an inventory of both publicly- and privately-owned parking facilities, calculating the value of each of those properties, and then overlaying that data with future growth. The idea is to consider how to convert “lowest-use” to “highest and best use” in a way that would benefit society and maximize returns.

Check out the whole plan at

This article appeared on The Urban Edge, part of The Kinder Institute for Urban Research, a multi-disciplinary ‘think-and-do tank’ housed on the Rice University campus in central Houston, focusing on urban issues in Houston, the American Sunbelt, and around the world.