— The Driver Behind Public Transit’s Transformation in Atlanta : Keith Parker took over one of the most beleaguered and least loved transit systems in America — and almost instantly reversed its course | Government Technology, 10/7/2014
— If So Many People Support Mass Transit, Why Do So Few Ride? Closing the support-usage gap will be key to a strong public transportation future | Citylab.com, 9/2014
A downtown neighbor of mine kindly forwarded an awesome 1950s Transportation Map of Atlanta. Here’s a small portion of it devoted to bus use stats. Here’s the activity from one year about 60 years ago:
And from the 2013 APTA Fact Book, here are the 2011 MARTA ridership numbers for bus:
These numbers that don’t line up perfectly. We have heavy-rail transit that isn’t included in these stats and in the 1950s there were trackless trolley buses that ran on routes fixed by overhead wires.
But it’s still significant to note that in the 1950s we were able to get almost 67 million bus trips via 16 million miles traveled in one year; whereas in 2011 we sent buses on 15x that number of road miles but had fewer passenger trips.
How did 1950s bus service get more passengers with many times fewer miles traveled? My guess is that it’s at least partly because car-dependent sprawl hadn’t reached it’s height yet, eventually putting more metro residents in commute situations that were ill-served by transit. Also, Atlanta’s interstate highways were much smaller in lane size in the 1950s (message to 1950s time-raveling planners: widening the highways didn’t work! It just created more car users! Re-plan!).
Also, the difference in perception of bus travel between then and now is significant. The bus system in the 50’s, for instance, operated this “City Slicker” sight-seeing bus that went to many intown locations but also to Stone Mountain.
I can’t imagine modern-day MARTA doing the same, mostly because people have such a negative perception of bus travel — bus use is stigmatized as something you do begrudgingly because you have to, not because you’d ever want to.
Scans made by Paul Grether
A Downtown neighbor sent me this fascinating clipping from 1953, touting Atlanta’s transit system. The image is fuzzy — here’s a transcript, below.
Southern Israelite (weekly), May 15, 1953
In Atlanta more people travel transit than in most cities
A study of 15 other cities with populations similar to Atlanta’s shows that the number of rides on Atlanta’s transit system per capita is greater than that of any city in the list, except only one.
In 1952 the average Atlantan rode with us 184 times. The average person on the other 15 systems rode only 134 times — 27% less than Atlanta!
Although the number of autos in Atlanta has doubled since 1946, the number of rides per capita has decreased only 38%. The average decrease in the other cities was 43% and in one 59%.
So, while we’ve lost a lot of rider — just as every other transit system in the country has — our loss has been far smaller. And we attribute that to the fact that Atlanta has one of the nation’s finest transit systems.
The photo in the clipping shows a trolleybus. Streetcars that ran on tracks were phased out in 1949 in Atlanta, leaving the overhead wires in use by only trackless trolleys, or trolleybuses. The last run of a trolleybus in Atlanta was in 1963.
Here’s another print ad from the era that shows a great scene of a trolleybus on Atlanta’s Broad Street, in front of the Flatiron Building.
The history of mass transit in Atlanta reaches back to the mule-drawn streetcars of 1871. The city once had an extensive system of electric streetcars, with rail that reached out as far as Marietta. Many of our intown neighborhoods developed originally as streetcar suburbs of the historic Downtown commercial area.
It’s important to remind ourselves that Atlanta has been a “car town” only for part of it’s history. It was a trolley town for a long time. I think we’re heading into a future where the city’s multiple transportation modes will end up being much more evenly used, with a lower focus on personal car ownership.
— MARTA eyeing major expansion up Georgia 400 corridor | Atlanta Business Chronicle, 8.29.2013
When recent news reports told of a general rise in transit ridership in US cities for 2012, I knew to be cautious with my enthusiasm. The last time this happened, Atlanta was the odd city out, with a decline in rides that bucked the trend.
And that is, unfortunately, what has happened again. During 2012, while most cities saw encouraging gains in transit rides, Atlanta lost out, as Atlantic Cities reports.
The article offers a potential reason for the loss:
…there’s a close connection between metro areas that declined to pass funding measures tied specifically to transit last year and ridership declines. In Atlanta, which rejected a penny sales tax last summer, subway figures fell 5 percent and total transit 4 percent from 2011. In Memphis, which rejected a penny gas tax increase in November, general transit dropped more than a point and bus ridership slipped five points.
The funding-woes theory makes sense, but I wonder if there’s a common denominator fueling both a decline in rides AND a low level of support for transit funding. Could it be our stubborn car-dependent development style, lingering even in many MARTA-served areas? And maybe the lack of attractive, walkable, compact (meaning moderately-dense) neighborhoods near train stations?
I have no stats to back it up, but that’s my guess.
Which is why I’m excited to read in the Atlanta Business Chronicle that MARTA is making tracks (see what I did there?) with their effort to convert parking lots around train stations into transit-connected neighborhoods. Importantly, most of these projects have the ability to blend in with other compact urban neighborhoods in areas surrounding the stations — creating a connective urban fabric that is much needed in the Atlanta transit network.
MARTA photo by Tumblr blogger Kevin Dowling