CHATTANOOGA, TENNESSEE—I’ve never taken so many cabs in my life, and the city was “sustainable” Chattanooga. I was thrilled to come to this city on the Tennessee River for the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) conference.
I’ve been to Chattanooga before, and I know all about its groundbreaking electric bus shuttle, which serves the downtown corridor. But the limitations of that service became apparent as soon as I arrived at the airport. Despite a LEED-certified airport building, travelers needing a ride downtown have the choice of cabs or, well, cabs. An added irony is that the Chattanooga Choo Choo occupies the old and beautiful railroad station. And it's a hotel. Guests can walk through the restored lobby, and they can stay in a rail car, but what they can't do is take an Amtrak train. The federal rail service skirts this city of 300,000.
The only airport shuttle is sponsored by Marriott, and if you’re not staying there you’re out of luck. My cab driver told me he wants to start a airport shuttle, and nearly everybody I talked to thinks the airport should be served by one. An ideal solution would be a light rail system but Michael Mallen, an environmental attorney and brownfield developer in town told me, “The light rail plan is moving as slow as molasses. Transportation is the lagging element in Chattanooga’s sustainability.”
Chattanooga has a pioneering pedestrian bridge, a gleaming solar-powered Volkswagen plant, a great riverwalk that abuts along the Tennessee River, abutting Chattanooga Creek, which used to be one of the country’s most polluted water bodies. And the electric shuttle, in place since 1992, is quite popular—but limited. Some 16 battery buses are on the road, but they basically hit the main tourist destinations downtown. That’s fine, but it did me no good when my hotel in South Chattanooga was just 13 blocks from the downtown core.
The River City Company, which has done much to shape a sustainable vision for downtown Chattanooga, envisioned a light rail system as part of its “greenway corridor,” but right now none is in the planning stage. Kim White, president and CEO of River City, told me, "We absolutely do need a light rail system."
Former Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield, now a city planning consultant, was instrumental in setting up the plug-in bus shuttle, and points out that at one point the city was exploring reviving its old trolley system--only to discover that many of the the tracks (buried under asphalt) had recently been torn out. This sad story was played out in many cities. The U.S. probably had 300,000 miles of rail around 1910 or 1920; today, it has half of that.
A city can’t really be truly sustainable unless it shrugs off its dependence on the combustion engine. Chattanooga is strongly encouraging of electric vehicles. There’s a solar-powered EV charging complex along the Riverwalk. What there isn’t is any kind of affordable and green-themed airport link (other than buses, which go to the airport only by special arrangement). I say it’s time for an electric or hybrid shuttle to the airport, an interim step towards light rail.
I was told the aging electric buses Chattanooga has downtown probably don’t have the range to reach the airport, though it’s less than 10 miles. Hybrid buses could easily ply the route many times a day, or newer electrics with longer range. Chattanooga’s municipal bus service, CARTA, could add such a subsidized service—probably supported by state and federal grants—for less than $1 million.
Getting downtown cost me $32 and a significant contribution to Chattanooga’s carbon footprint. I think this city—so thorough in its other approaches to sustainability—can do better to serve its airline passengers. And what applies in Chattanooga would work in many other green cities. Don’t let transportation be the hole in the environmental doughnut!