Nashville's Public Transit Future

Client Organization: 
Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority
Project Location : 
Nashville, Tennessee
Summary of Project Idea: 

The Nashville metro area’s population is growing at a rate double that of the national average. A vast proportion of these new residents are young professionals, with growth in this demographic up 47.6 percent since 2000.  Accommodating this influx of residents will require massive investment in new infrastructure, particularly a viable public transit system. Transportation options outside of driving are virtually nonexistent currently. Expanding highways is not an option, and the average Nashville resident already spends 47 minutes per day sitting in traffic.

As a solution, city officials have proposed a comprehensive transit plan that would completely transform mobility in the region to suit the needs of a larger and increasingly denser population, while still offering public transit options to its expanding commuter base. By working on this project, students will answer the key research question: What are the environmental and social dimensions of Nashville/Middle Tennessee’s proposed public transit system?

Since the proposed transit plan is still in the process of preparing for implementation, the research conducted for this project could be used to modify the plan to maximize social and environmental benefits. The deliverables could also be used to leverage for project funding from a greater variety of funding sources.

Our two main deliverables will be (1) a triple bottom line impact study and (2) an overview of best practice guidelines for public transit implementation.

We propose to collect the following data to inform our impact analysis:

Social dimensions: match socio-economic data from the American Community Survey to the pathways of the current and proposed transit systems; determine the average rates of access for different classifications of socio-economic groups.; access will be determined by distance from transit stop(s) and a qualitative classification of the ease with which the transit is accessed

Environmental dimensions: reduction in personal vehicle emissions; projected decreases in carbon emissions and air pollution levels

Economic dimensions: property value increase analysis; retail revenue predictions along major transit lines and near transit stops

To investigate this research question, students specifically will:

  • Develop a holistic understanding of the costs and benefits to public transit
  • Learn to quantify social and environmental impacts
  • Apply GIS to better understand the land use practices and implications of public transit expansion
  • Use large data sets to identify intersections of vulnerable populations with urban infrastructure projects
  • Gain a better understanding of the environmental dimensions of urban areas

This project reflects an interdisciplinary approach by combining environmental and social analyses to gain a more holistic understanding of the arguments for and against expanded public transit outside of purely economic arguments. By examining the social and environmental aspects of the plan, this project encompasses both environmental justice frameworks and more traditional environmental impact analyses. A report on Nashville’s public transportation plan from this viewpoint helps to establish a holistic understanding of how social and environmental dimensions intersect within large-scale urban infrastructure projects. Additionally, the structure of this Masters Project emphasizes quantitative skills involving data collection and analysis, but then seeks to examine them through a more qualitative lens. This enables students to develop proficiency in quantitative analysis in an increasingly data-driven world and then practice communicating those analyses in ways relevant to policy makers.

SNRE Program Areas: 
Environmental Policy and Planning
Behavior, Education, and Communication
Environmental Informatics
Environmental Justice
Sustainable Systems
Role for each program area: 

Environmental Policy & Planning: This transit plan will only move forward with political support and appropriate long-term planning. EPP students will help design indicators that reflect political interests while still staying true to the underlying research objective of holistically examining the social and environmental dimensions of the proposed plan. Planning knowledge will be necessary to inform recommendations for moving forward based on data findings and trends.

Behavior, Education, and Communication: These students will help most in tailoring our findings for projection to a variety of audiences. Intended recipients include the general public, funding institutions such as federal departments and private foundations, as well as local politicians. The communication skills developed by people in this track will be best suited to crafting these different presentations of information. They can also help develop behavioral change-based recommendations for increasing the environmental and social benefits of the proposed public transit plan.

Environmental Informatics: GIS analysis will be key to informing the impact analysis and data collection at the start of the project. GIS will also be key to creating cartographic depictions of our findings and recommendations that are accessible to both technical and non-technical audiences.

Environmental Justice: The political ecology and other justice frameworks cultivated by EJ students will help the team develop appropriate measures of social impact. They will also help to inform what vulnerable populations exist within the Nashville area and are most susceptible to being left out of the benefits of the proposed transit plan.

Sustainable Systems: The systems thinking perspective developed by SS students will help the project team piece together the various aspects of the proposed transit plan to better model how they work in concert with each other, from the different types of transit used (bus vs. light rail) to the different types of cities served (Nashville vs. the suburbs).

Professional Career Development Benefits: 

Students will have the opportunity to make contacts with Nashville MTA and public transit professionals and policy makers in an emerging city. Through the project work, they will develop an understanding of the technical, social, and environmental aspects of new public transit systems. Also, students will learn more about the interface between qualitative and quantitative data, as well as how best to communicate the two to a variety of audiences with different interests.


Identify expected products/deliverables: 
Our two main deliverables will be (1) a triple bottom line impact study and (2) an overview of best practice guidelines for public transit implementation.
SNRE Faculty Advisor: 
Tierra Bills
Contact information: 
SNRE student
Master Students Involved in Project: 
  • Sindhu Bharadwaj
  • Kirstie Hostetter
  • Michael Stacey
Project Status: 
In Progress