Circulators to Increase Quality of Service, Attract Choice Riders
Transit service choice riders expect a higher quality of service than those who are otherwise transit captives. It may be a difficult fact to swallow but, outside the transit advocate community, most individuals in Atlanta just feel more comfortable and at ease in their cars when compared to bus or rail transit. Barring specific trips where MARTA provides massive convenience bonuses over automobiles (e.g. rail trips to Hartsfield-Jackson), this means that individuals who can afford to own and use a car regularly will choose it, and not transit, for the majority of their trips.
There is a long list of issues including safety, cleanliness, and privacy that might contribute to a choice rider’s perceived discomfort or dissatisfaction with a service such as MARTA. These issues of perception, only really treatable with social advocacy and vigilance in safety and maintenance routines, can be extremely difficult to fix. There are more immediate service design elements that can be implemented to attract choice riders who in the past scoffed at the idea of using MARTA for most of their trips. Choice riders expect high quality of service, particularly for leisure and shopping trips that originate more spontaneously than commute trips that are often started at the same time each day. For these non-critical trips, choice riders expect high frequency service with clearly marked routes and regular timings in order to make transit worth eating into their valuable recreation and shopping time.
While there may be nothing terribly wrong with a forty minute headway on a bus route that primarily serves commuters and captive riders, such infrequent service requires a rider to have prior knowledge of the route and timing of the line or to make use of real-time bus data to ensure that they do not end up spending forty minutes of their planned leisure time waiting for a transit vehicle! Most MARTA bus routes operate with long headways; most of them are designed in a radial fashion to help move commuters in and out of the central city and thus these headways are not a critical issue. Choice riders, however, particularly for leisure trips, will never be satisfied with this quality of service, especially for their non-essential trips. Leisure and shopping trips demand a high quality of service that can only be offered by high frequency shuttle and circulator services.
Private shuttle services already capitalize on this fact in order to increase commercial activity in their operating areas and, in some cases, promoting transit commuter trips. The Atlantic Station shuttle service provides high frequency transit to Atlantic Station from Arts Center. This makes transit an attractive option for choice riders when traveling to Atlantic Station. The Tech Trolley provides another great circulator service in the Midtown area; open to the public, it allows transit riders arriving at Midtown Station to avoid what might otherwise be lengthy walks to their final destinations away from Midtown’s three rail stops. These high frequency services make transit an easy option when travelling to Midtown. But what about other areas of the city where commercial and leisure trips often end? Only a few of Atlanta’s most attractive commercial and recreational hotspots are served directly by rail transit, and even these spots stand to benefit economically from circulator and rail feeder shuttles operating in the area. Even Decatur, with its downtown, central rail stop surrounded by a myriad of bars, restaurants, and boutique shops might benefit from a small circulator service designed to shuttle passengers from Decatur Station to the blocks located at the fringe of the commercial area. While many people enjoy the walk to the farther shops, no one would deny the convenience of a shuttle after a late night at one of these spots.
Other areas stand to benefit even more from circulator service. Little Five Points is somewhat effectively served with rail service by Inman Park Station. However, the nearly one mile walk from Inman Park to Little Five is certain to deter the majority of choice riders looking to visit the area on a day off or for a leisurely night. A high frequency circulator from Inman Park to Little Five Points would turn transit into a viable option for the area, enhance commerce, and alleviate the struggle for parking in the area. The same case can be made for the area from Oakland Cemetery to Grant Park. While the King Memorial Station provides easy access to the Cemetery, the shops and restaurants to the south, as well as the Zoo at Grant Park, would be made more accessible for leisure and shopping trips with the implementation of a high frequency circulator. The same might be said for the Old Fourth Ward area. The Virginia Highland corridor, another hotspot, is currently poorly served by all forms of transit. While there are no rail stops nearby, a circulator service from Midtown Station to Virginia Highland travelling along the shops and restaurants on Ponce de Leon would allow high quality transit service for a wide area that contains some of the most popular leisure destinations in the city.
The mark of a truly great transit system is the presence of a wide variety of riders from all classes, backgrounds, and occupations taking a wide variety of trips. A transit service that can only effectively and conveniently move individuals to and from their workplaces is not good enough. Real ridership gains can be made through the implementation of high quality circulators that take advantage of MARTA’s existing rail infrastructure to attract choice riders who feel more comfortable and satisfied with high frequency rail and shuttle services than infrequent local buses. MARTA will have become a truly premier service when Atlanta’s non-captive transit riders become comfortable taking transit for their shopping and leisure trips.