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Thought Leader Transit

Both Sides of The Aisle – Experiences of A Choice and Transit Dependent Rider

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Lamar Dixon

On an ill-fated night in Buckhead, the sports car I once owned met an untimely end in an incident involving a parking spot and a spat of road rage.  In the aftermath, facing  insurance premiums which nearly doubled and an overall ambivalence toward making a new purchase, I had quite the experience using MARTA for over nine months as my primary means of transportation.

As an east coast transplant and in light of Atlanta’s purgatorial and sometimes dangerous traffic, I saw great value in public transportation.  With access to a vehicle and opting to use MARTA when convenient,  I was one of the system’s “choice” riders.  While peers couldn’t believe I voluntarily rode it anywhere besides the airport, I considered myself enlightened – using the system to simplify my commute and improve my personal bottom line.  From southeastern Dekalb County to the midtown law firm where I worked, I enjoyed a total commute of around an hour, breezing into the office free from the stress of traffic.  Fairly frequent trains and buses allowed for staying in midtown after work to do the things big city folk do, like socialize and have a life.  Once I found out that I could shorten my ride using my Breeze Card to transfer to GRTA’s Xpress buses, life was even sweeter.

Then 2010 came.

At first I thought nothing of the fare hikes and service cuts, figuring them at worst, a minor inconvenience.  However, my ire began to grow with the passing weeks.  Connections were steadily missed, wait times increased, and often I had to take a cab if I needed to work late due to bus service stopping earlier.  Gone were the days of making plans after work without driving in with the horde of commuters that swell the city daily.  As my commute ballooned to an hour and a half at peak times or two hours afterwards, and my monthly pass became more and more expensive, I began to feel like MARTA’s abused lover.  She was constantly demanding more, all the while giving less and less in return.

After the accident, I decided to brave using MARTA solely while I looked for a car.  With no access to a vehicle, I crossed the line from being a “choice” rider, to its inverse – the ironically termed, “captive” rider.  In attempting to use the system to not only get to work, but merely accomplish basic tasks, the term became quite apropos.  Aside from a commute that was unbearably long due to buses that were either too late or too early and made pickups at every stop a mere 30 yards apart.  A ride to the grocery store which is less than a five minute drive from my home took upwards of 45 minutes with two connections.   There was no hanging out on the weekends without meticulous planning, hefty cab fare, or a rental car. Attempting to catch a bus in my neighborhood after sundown was a perpetual crapshoot as drivers would often pass by without a second look.  One driver that almost did seriously suggested that I wave a flashlight next time to get the drivers attention.

Captive rider indeed.

Despite my frustration with the system’s inefficiency and the typical endurance of company of the pan handlers, the loud talkers, and  the cell phone boom box lot, my ride was made quite interesting at times and I got the chance to see flashes of what the system could foster if given the right resources.  A particular driver on my evening route home often turned his bus into a rolling talk show, engaging passengers in spirited conversations ranging from relationships, to sports, to politics.   Numerous conversations were held on the Red and Gold lines with out of town travelers about Atlanta’s charms, changes and future.   I often saw the bond of ridership spur young people who prejudices may cause some to avoid, offer their seat to the elderly or pregnant, give direction to tourists, or help the disabled on and off the bus with their groceries.  An unspoken, but shared goal of getting there together.

Having lived in the area for over six years now, I still consider myself somewhat of a guest.  I realize that there’s a certain southern attitude toward public transportation born from an interesting mix of lack of urban density and misguided planning, conservative leanings, and latent racism.  I recall reading a quote from a civic leader in one of metro Atlanta’s numerous fiefdoms during the T-SPLOST debate, and to paraphrase, “[They] were not in the business of funding transportation for the indigent.”

With as  much as Atlanta likes to either beat it’s chest or repeat until it becomes true that it’s a “world-class city”, without a competent, comprehensive ,and consistent public transportation system that can satisfy choice riders and the public transportation dependent alike, as well as present a workable option for the visitors the city spends hundreds of millions of dollars to attract, then it’s merely puffery.

Granted, some of MARTA’s problems stem from a problem of perception, and with good reason.  But by keeping MARTA in its perpetual state of need through a complete lack of state and regional support,  and overlooking simple fixes that could improve the experience and gain those coveted choice riders who are the catalyst of change for all, the powers that be are enforcing the notion of what a number of its passengers are – captives, not customers.  “You don’t have a choice, so you might as well make yourself comfortable.”

Recently, I returned to the choice rider category, having purchased a new car, but still maintain my monthly Breeze card.  Despite what seems at times to be a losing battle, I still believe in MARTA’s  promise for the region and what it can do to transform a city that historically has had great vision for itself.  I dream of the day that I can be like friends in San Francisco, New York or DC and use public transportation to reliably get to work and also enjoy the city and return home with ease at an hour of my choosing.  Once the seemingly endless political antagonizing and notions of MARTA as a tool for the “others” ends, it can become as integral to Atlanta’s fabric as Coca-Cola or Centennial Park.

Until that day, I’ll still be riding, but will make sure my car isn’t too far away.

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