published Friday, October 4th, 2013

Most residents like Chattanooga, but opinion of city depends on where you live

Aerial of downtown Chattanooga
Aerial of downtown Chattanooga
Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

ABOUT THE SURVEY

How this community survey was conducted and who responded:

The Office of Internal Audit sent out 10,000 surveys to randomly selected households and received about 2,400 back. Overall the margin of error was within 2 percentage points, but within districts the margin ranged from 5 to 7 percentage points. Of the survey responders, females were over-represented while minorities were under-represented. More than 50 percent of people who returned the survey were 45 and older; 60 percent have lived in Chattanooga for more than 20 years.

2013 Community Survey Results
2013 Community Survey Results

Crystal Limmons caught the CARTA bus every day from Hixson Pike to downtown until she began working the evening shift six months ago.

Because the bus stopped running to her Lupton City neighborhood an hour before Limmons' shift ended at Noodles and Company, she was forced to make a decision. She chose to move to the Westside community, she said, mainly for one reason: so she could catch the 10 p.m. bus home.

"I don't understand," she said, leaning against the window frame at Buehler's Market during her lunch break Thursday. "If you had a really good transit system, that would bring people in and out of the city easier."

Results of a communitywide survey released this week show that Chattanoogans overall are happy with the Scenic City as a place to live, work, raise kids and retire.

But a close look at the numbers shows that where people live within the city makes a big difference in how they view public transportation, traffic, access to grocery stores and perceptions of safety.

The survey from the Office of Internal Audit went to 10,000 households; 26 percent responded.

More than 80 percent of Chattanoogans responding to the survey feel safe in their own neighborhoods in the day, but that number falls by 30 points at night. And the perception of safety downtown at night changes depending on where people live. People living in Alton Park felt safer downtown at night than folks from the East Brainerd community.

Even in the park nearest their home, only 25 percent of people said they felt safe at night.

City Council Chairman Yusuf Hakeem represents the East Chattanooga area, where more than half of survey respondents said they felt unsafe in their neighborhoods and nearest parks. He said the problem is two-fold.

"That relationship with police and the community needs to be enhanced," he said. "Citizens see things happening and don't want to get involved, and there needs to be more working together for the communities to be safe."

The survey also highlights overall satisfaction with the city's functions, from police and fire service to garbage pickup, and will be used in the future as a way to measure how the city is doing.

City Auditor Stan Sewell said this is the second year for the survey, which was sent to ZIP codes across the city. It is based on one used in Portland, Ore, which has been asking residents for 20 years to rate their city and government.

It's becoming a trend for cities to attempt to measure the happiness and overall satisfaction of a community, said Matthew Murray, associate director for the Center for Business & Economic Research at the University of Tennessee, but it's very difficult to measure over time if people are getting happier and why.

"It's very important for people in the community to express their views and for politicians to take it into account when they create policy," he said. "[But happiness] is an inherently difficult, if not impossible, thing to measure. You don't find people are happier with less pollution or less crime."

Respondents overall are happier with their community than with their city government. Only half said they think the city is going in a good or very good direction.

Some of the worst scores related to public access to transportation, conditions of roads and safety at night.

• Only 22 percent said they felt safe walking downtown alone at night.

• 43 percent said walking distance to public transit is good or very good. District 1 was the lowest at 13 percent.

• Fewer than half rated pedestrian and bicycle safety positively, with 33 percent saying cyclist safety is bad or very bad on city roads.

• 42 percent rated city road smoothness as bad or very bad.

Mayor Andy Berke's senior adviser, Stacy Richardson, said officials will use the findings as part of an overall look at bettering the city, but she said the survey was conducted before Berke had been in office for two months.

"We've been looking at citizen satisfaction," Richardson said. "We're trying to be out in the community asking, 'How are we doing.'"

District 1 Councilman Chip Henderson said he knows public transportation is lacking and it's a particular challenge in his district, which spreads from parts of Hixson to Lookout Valley.

"We seriously need to look at infrastructure and transportation; how we move people from one point to another," he said.

Richardson said the city's first step is to examine CARTA routes and see where routes can be added.

Another survey finding was that only 18 percent of respondents participated in a Chattanooga Parks and Recreation activity in the past 12 months and 22 percent said they never visit any city park.

Richardson said the administration knew when it took office that rec center attendance was low, and that's why officials targeted increased programs, such as reading for kids.

"We saw a need to make them [programs] something better and we've had a huge focus to transform them," she said.

Noel Reagan, who moved to the North Shore with her husband two years ago, has felt safe in the community. But Wednesday night the gas station a few blocks from where she lives was robbed, causing Reagan to question her view of downtown.

"I do still see a need for improvement," she said. "But that's anywhere you go."

More than half the respondents said they feel safe downtown during the day, but only 23 percent felt safe there at night.

Murray said people's perception of safety is relative to what they know. But whether the belief is real or not doesn't matter.

"What people believe is reality," he said. "If people perceive downtown as relatively unsafe, [officials] need to target that."

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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