Easy listening, Nashville style

Stephen BlandWe caught up with Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority CEO, Steve Bland, to ask him how he is developing the service in face of exponential population growth. 

When Steve Bland joined the Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority as Chief Executive Officer in July 2014, he had a simple message for his new colleagues: “You do essential work, but they’re not going to mention that in the papers. If you need a reminder of why this stuff matters, do what I do: get on a bus, talk to the riders, listen to the single mom who can only keep a job because our services make it possible.”

It is a lesson learned from over 30 years working the buses in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and New York. Now, faced with the challenge of developing a transit system fit for a city set to grow by over a million citizens in the next 20 years, Steve believes that listening carefully will be more important than ever: “If there is one thing I have learned in my career, it is that you can never engage with the public too early or too often,” he says.

But it is not just about listening. Public engagement is about educating too. Developing transit isn’t simply about responding to changes in the city, supplying bus or rail as demand grows: “It is a dynamic force, shaping the communities it serves, encouraging or discouraging growth and affecting local identity and character. Understanding and accepting those kinds of change can be a struggle. Everybody wants things to be better, but nobody wants them to be different.”

And for some members of the community there is more at stake than simply losing a sense of place; for some the risks are high. Growing population and better connections tend to mean rising property values which can mean rocketing rents. Gentrification has its losers. Does the new have to drive out the old? 

The answers to such complex questions are never going to be simple: “There is no silver bullet, what we need is more like silver buckshot.”

That means that transit authorities will no longer be able to think of themselves in isolation from broader social policy concerns. They will have to work ever closer with sister agencies, recognizing that “transit is not just about buses and timetables anymore but must be understood as deeply connected to bigger urban issues such as affordable housing and social isolation.”

Steve is optimistic that the integrated future is not only achievable but already coming into view: “Ten years ago a lot of people thought the growth in places like Nashville was a flash in the pan, but now we have all woken up to the fact that it is here to stay and I have seen everyone stepping up, from university departments to local businesses. New technology makes services much more accessible, data easier to track and collect, and we have a Mayor with an ambitious vision of a fully connected city available to all our citizens.”

The next few years will see Nashville transform in size into a major city and Steve and his team will be at the center of that transformation. It is perhaps appropriate in the capital of Country and Rock ‘n’ Roll that better listening will be such an important part of that process, at least as far as transit is concerned, although it will not necessarily be the easy kind.


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