FedEx has been good to Memphis. Because of the logistics giant, Memphis has the busiest cargo airport in the world, the only aerotropolis in the country, and a host of smaller businesses and industries dependent on overnight shipping.
But experts caution that the virtual reliance on one industry leaves Memphis vulnerable.
"Memphis and Detroit share one thing — they don't do enough different things," says Scott Bernstein, co-founder and president of Chicago's Center for Neighborhood Technology and an adviser to both Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley and the Obama administration. "Memphis has a really amazing economic profile with what the logistics industry has done. But it's one of the least diverse economies in the 300-plus tracked by Moody's."
Bernstein was in town last week as part of the University of Memphis' Livable Mid-South Conference on transportation, but the underlying theme seemed to be on the dangers of overdependence, from Memphis' main industry to the nation's network of highways and freeways.
The conference opened with a screening of Beyond the Motor City, a documentary that looked at Detroit as a model for both the assets and liabilities in America's current transportation system.
"I know transportation is not the sexiest topic for a documentary," says filmmaker Aaron Woolf. "I feel like the story of Detroit is our story."
In its heyday, Detroit had two million residents. Not only was it the center of America's automotive industry, but it patented modern roads and highways. Only those same highways led people out of Detroit, leaving 40 percent of the city fallow and abandoned.
With the city so sparsely populated, it's costly to provide good public transportation. But Beyond the Motor City argues that an investment in mass transit — most notably, light rail — could help revitalize downtown Detroit and, by retrofitting aging factories, its ailing industrial sector.
"No one wants to get rid of the car, least of all Detroit, but seen from across the country, Detroit could be a model," Woolf says. "We need to have a vital transportation system, not a system of last resort but a model of choice for everyone."
People do seem to be interested in, if not clamoring for, alternative transportation solutions. In addition to federal subsidies to the automotive industry in infrastructure, the current car-based transportation system takes its toll on health, air quality, the environment (evidenced most recently by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill), and the community.
"The immeasurable costs are something more profound. We've lost something in our urban centers," Woolf says, citing how moving to suburbia is often seen as escaping the crowd. "Crowd seems to be another word for community."
There is also the cost of the current system on the individual. From 1999 to 2008, the cost of gasoline went up six times as fast as the increase in income, leaving little for increases in food or housing.
Transportation also can make housing deceptively more expensive. The conventional description of affordable housing is a third of income. But the Center for Neighborhood Technology has done research that shows what housing costs if you include transportation.
"The further you go out, the housing costs are going down," Bernstein says, "but the transportation costs are going up."
Getting rid of one car would save the average American family between $5,000 and $8,000 each year, but who can afford not to have a car? In cities such as Memphis and Detroit, a car is practically a necessity.
"No one moves boxes like Memphis does, not even Santa," says U.S. congressman Steve Cohen, "but when it comes to moving our citizens affordably and efficiently, we're a far cry from where we should be."
Public transportation has its challenges, as well: funding, for instance, public perception, and how the city is designed.
"MATA does a reasonably good job with the budget they have," Cohen says. "Even if the budget was tripled, service would still be inadequate because of Memphis' density."
Because federal transportation funding comes from the gasoline tax, the thinking is that most of that money — currently 80 percent of transportation dollars — should go to road and highway projects.
But if Memphis wants to change, there may be a way. For the first time in almost 30 years, the federal government is taking the lead on transportation and encouraging more innovative approaches with merit-based grants.
"The message for Memphis is: Get ready," Bernstein says. "These funds are going to come competitively. That means more than filling out the forms.
"If you don't want the money, don't do it," he says. "You have a lot of competition."
For more on this and other topics, visit Mary Cashiola's "In the Bluff" blog at memphisflyer.com/blogs/InTheBluff/.