Transit planning has taken center stage in public policy discussion across the Nashville region in recent months. In January, the Nashville MTA/RTA unveiled a new strategic plan that outlined three scenarios for investing in mobility and transit services across the region, with costs ranging from $800 million to $5.4 billion over the next 25 years. Citizens are participating in planning conversations throughout the region, and lawmakers are passing legislation to enable new funding mechanisms like public/private partnerships. Consensus is growing in Nashville that the time has arrived for a major commitment to transit infrastructure and services.
Nashville arts organizations need to participate in this conversation in a big way. During my time working at the Nashville Symphony from 2012 until February this year, parking difficulties in downtown Nashville went from being a significant source of patrons’ frustration to the hands-down, no-question-about-it, number-one complaint. Based on conversations I’ve had with people from other artistic organizations and the sheer number of references to parking I see in advertising materials, I’m confident that parking and traffic are constant sources of woe for many artistic organizations in Nashville.
One of the biggest hurdles to implementing a more visionary approach to mass transit across the Middle Tennessee region is ridership. Paradoxically, securing federal funding for transit projects requires a local municipality to demonstrate a significant density of riders along the proposed transit corridors. Upgrades to the system cannot be completed until lots of people are riding the current system. But lots of people say they won’t use the transit system until significant upgrades have been made. And so we get caught in a cycle that is very difficult to break.
Organizations like the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville Symphony, and Country Music Hall of Fame, and venues like the Ryman Auditorium, Tennessee Performing Arts Center, and Bridgestone Arena have the name recognition and marketing power to make a real difference in growing ridership and influencing decisions about mobility in Nashville. Let’s face it: being stuck behind a bus in rush hour is probably the greatest level of interaction most people ever have with Nashville MTA, so it’s difficult to imagine that thousands of people across the region are going to respond to calls from Nashville MTA to start taking the bus to work. But arts organizations have thousands of fans who regularly visit downtown Nashville to spend their leisure time. Developing strong partnerships between Nashville MTA and local artistic organizations and venues could drive transit ridership and alleviate patron complaints about parking and traffic.
The obvious first step is for artistic organizations and venues to add information about transit options to their marketing materials. A quick glance at the websites of the Frist Center, Country Music Hall of Fame, Ryman Auditorium, Nashville Symphony, Bridgestone Arena, and TPAC was revealing: none of these organizations include any information about bus routes or the Music City Star on their sites. All of these venues lie within no more than three blocks of multiple bus routes. TPAC is 0.1 mile from Music City Central, yet does not advertise the fact that you could take pretty much any bus heading downtown and end up at their lovely theaters.
TPAC does not advertise the fact that you could take almost any bus directly to their doorstep.
Nashville MTA can help this process by creating customized maps for their new artistic partners. Why not stick Schermerhorn Symphony Center on a map that highlights major bus routes that run near the concert hall? Or make a map of downtown Nashville showing routes alongside the Frist, Ryman, TPAC, and so on? It’s a chance to create easy marketing opportunities for the venues and connect transit ridership with fun experiences in the city.
This type of partnership could deepen in myriad ways. A major limitation of bus service for organizations like Nashville Opera, Nashville Ballet, and Nashville Repertory Theatre is that their performances often end after 10:30 p.m., when buses do not run nearly as frequently. With new, targeted opportunities to build ridership, perhaps Nashville MTA would be willing to run additional buses on select routes to accommodate their artistic partners’ schedules. Organizations could also explore collaborative ticketing arrangements: show your concert tickets to the Ryman to get a discounted fare, or purchase your bus ticket when you buy your Symphony tickets.
Forward-thinking artistic organizations in Nashville will see the current momentum toward mass transit as a major opportunity to build audiences and ensure ongoing relevance in the community. For the arts, participating deeply in growing mass transit offers an added benefit that is of interest to many leaders in the city: connecting excellent art with a more diverse audience. It will surprise nobody to learn that the heaviest usage of bus service in Nashville is along Charlotte Pike, Nolensville Road, and Murfreesboro Road. These corridors are the most culturally and ethnically diverse neighborhoods in Nashville. Metro Arts and the Nashville Chamber‘s recent Culture Here report (PDF) indicated that these neighborhoods also tend to be the least connected to the city’s rich cultural activities. If arts organizations want to get serious about attracting diverse audiences to their performances, concerts, and exhibitions, building collaborations and partnerships with Nashville MTA can put them on the fast track to success.