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Vanderbilt Poll: Nashville wants transit overhaul; unsure about mayor’s plan

by | Mar. 4, 2018, 9:00 AM

Poll overall finds transit, affordable housing not keeping pace with city’s growth

As Nashville debates dramatically overhauling its public transit system to keep pace with the city’s growth, voter turnout likely will determine the fate of Mayor Megan Barry’s transit proposal in the May 1 referendum, according to survey data released today by Vanderbilt University.

The poll found that among registered voters, support for Mayor Barry’s transit proposal stands at 42 percent in favor and 28 percent opposed. However, 34 percent said they still don’t know enough about the plan to have an opinion—meaning the next eight weeks leading up to the referendum will be critical for supporters and opponents of the proposal alike.

These are just a few of the key findings from the 2018 Vanderbilt Poll-Nashville, a nonpartisan public opinion research project conducted annually by Vanderbilt’s Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions (CSDI). The poll surveyed a demographically representative sample of 800 Metropolitan Davidson County residents, using both cell phones and land lines, between Feb. 8-19th on a range of topics important to local voters.

Sixty-six percent of Nashvillians said the city’s transit system needs major improvements to keep up with the pace of new development and booming population, according to the poll.

Nashvillians are also fairly well informed about the 15-year transit development plan proposed by Mayor Barry. Three-quarters of residents said they had heard “a lot” or “some” about the transit plan, and more than 70 percent felt the May 1 referendum on the plan was “essential” or “very important” to the city’s future.

“It is clear the public is engaged and views this debate as important,” said CSDI co-director John Geer, Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of Political Science. “There’s a slight edge overall in support for the plan, but turnout will make a big difference in this referendum. Both sides have their work cut out for them.”

Growing pains

The urgency for transit improvement reflects broader concerns among residents that Nashville is growing so fast that the city’s infrastructure is struggling to keep up, Geer said.

This is most evident in the shrinking percentage of residents who said they thought the city is moving in the right direction: It was 72 percent in 2015 but just 64 percent today.

“What’s striking is that there’s been a real decline in optimism about the future since we started polling in 2015.” — Josh Clinton

“What’s striking is that there’s been a real decline in optimism about the future since we started polling in 2015,” said CSDI co-director, Josh Clinton, Abby and Jon Winkelreid Professor of Political Science. “Sixty-four percent of residents thinking the city is on the right track is still a very good number, but our poll reveals that there are differences in opinion about whether the city is on the right track or not based on how well-off someone is. We are seeing larger cracks in people’s enthusiasm about the future direction of Nashville.”

Concerns about the future are evident in several places:

  • 75 percent said the population is growing too fast—a sharp rise of 25 percentage points from 2015
  • 66 percent said too many new buildings are going up too fast—up 19 percentage points from 2015
  • 78 percent said more affordable housing is needed to keep up with demand

The proportion of residents who said the city’s growth is improving their own lives has declined from about a third to a quarter, while a similarly sized increase occurs among those who said it has made their lives worse.

In nearly every case, these changes are largest among the least well-off, Clinton added, suggesting that Nashville’s boom is squeezing poor and working-class residents.


There’s no question among Nashville residents that the overall economy is strong—and growing stronger. Since 2015, about 9 in 10 Nashville residents have characterized the city’s economy as fairly to very strong, but the proportion of those who have shifted from “fairly” to “very” has risen from 20 to 35 percent.

And despite widespread concerns about population growth, Nashville residents overwhelmingly believe the arrival of a major corporation like Amazon would be good for the city. “It’s hard to say no to a big company,” said Geer. “People see it as a source of high-quality jobs and a chance for a better standard of living.”

City leadership

Despite recent revelations of an extramarital affair and a year of controversial issues, including the transit plan, Cloud Hill and Nashville General, 61 percent of the city continues to approve of the job Mayor Barry is doing (see related story). Nashville’s Metro Council gets similarly strong marks from the public, at 59 percent, as does Congressman Jim Cooper, with 57 percent.


The Metro School Board has a 51 percent approval rating, while Metro Schools director Shawn Joseph has 46 percent. However, among parents of children in public school, the Board’s approval rises to 58 percent and Joseph’s approval rises to 59 percent—right in line with the approval ratings for the rest of the city’s leadership. “Given some of the tough times the Metro School Board has faced, this is good news,” said Geer.

While few Nashville residents outright oppose charter schools, the poll reveals little clarity about how much support they do have—32 percent of residents said they don’t know enough to make up their mind, and another 29 percent said they have mixed feelings about them.Among public school parents, 51 percent said the city’s elementary schools are “good” or “excellent.” Those numbers drop considerably for older grades: 29 percent rate the city’s middle schools as “good” or “excellent,” and just 18 percent said that of the city’s high schools. Opinions about the city’s public schools are lower among those without children or among parents of children attending private schools.

Crime and safety

Nashvillians are concerned about crime. Eighty percent said it should be a top priority of the city, and just under half—46 percent—said there are areas within a mile of their homes where they would not feel safe walking alone at night. That figure is somewhat higher for African Americans than whites and is even higher among the city’s poorest residents.

Despite this, Metro Police continue to earn high marks from the public, with an overall 84 percent approval rating. Police perception among African Americans is considerably lower—73 percent—but still seven points higher than last year. The researchers noted that last year’s poll went into the field during the middle of a high-profile investigation into the fatal shooting of an African American man by a Metro police officer during a traffic stop.

One third of Nashville residents report being stopped by the police in the past year—30 percent among whites and 37 percent among African Americans. Millennials are stopped most often—47 percent, nearly twice as often as their parents and grandparents. Just 8 percent of Nashville senior citizens reported being stopped.

Metro Nashville General Hospital

Nashvillians are unified in their support for Metro General. 62 percent said it’s important to increase funding for the struggling facility, while another 31 percent said funding should at least not be cut. That support is even stronger among Nashville’s African Americans.

About the Vanderbilt Poll

The Vanderbilt Poll is supported by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Vanderbilt University. The statewide poll is typically conducted just before the start of each legislative session and at the end of each session, in part to determine how closely the results of the session align with voters’ expectations and priorities. CSDI also conducts a yearly Nashville poll, as well as additional special polls. In 2015, the Vanderbilt Poll became a charter member of the American Association for Public Opinion Research’s Transparency Initiative.

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