Don’t Miss the Bus on Transit

By Benita M. Dodd

Most of the large-scale development in Atlanta in recent years has been near transit stations, The Atlanta Business Chronicle reports. According to the narrative, corporations are being motivated to move close to MARTA stations because millennial employees prefer staying off the highways and living closer to their jobs.  

Interestingly, none of these moves have resulted in improved MARTA ridership. Unlinked rail passenger trips dropped 1.16 percent in the first half of 2017 over the same period in 2016, while bus ridership dropped 3.31 percent. (An unlinked passenger trip is a trip on one transit vehicle; each transfer is counted as a separate “trip.”)

This decline is not temporary. It’s a national trend, a result of lower gas prices thanks to domestic fracking; crumbling infrastructure that reduces the reliability of mass transit; operations funds that go overwhelmingly to salaries and benefits instead of mobility, and a surge in ride-share use.

For MARTA, ridership declined nearly 12 percent from 2002 through 2016; Atlanta’s population increased nearly 7 percent during that period. Fares covers 35 percent of “operations,” but more than more than 82 cents of each dollar of “operations” is for salaries, wages and benefits.

When the region’s more efficient agencies resist joining forces with MARTA, they’re accused of racism. A Seattle Times columnist writing on Amazon’s headquarter expansion plans declared, “Racism is one reason badly needed MARTA extensions and commuter rail have been repeatedly blocked. The suburbs don’t want ‘those people’ coming there.”

It’s a ridiculous charge, given the diversity of metro Atlanta’s suburbs. The city’s transit plans, however, are a reminder of the adage about the definition of insanity. Atlanta should be rethinking its approach, not focusing the transit sales tax approved by voters in 2016 on introducing light rail, expanding heavy rail and extending the underwhelming Streetcar.

Atlanta could accomplish so much more by embracing the technologies set to change travel. That the city has held off since 2000 on rail expansion is an advantage, not a setback. Rail is one of the least effective, most expensive mass transit options for low-density metro Atlanta, which came honestly by its reputation as the “poster child for sprawl.”

The Georgia Public Policy Foundation has long held that the least objectionable rail corridors would be the Clifton corridor, one of the metro area’s most congested commutes. Major employers include Emory University and Hospital, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Children’s Healthcare at Egleston and the VA Hospital. These medical facilities’ round-the-clock shifts would benefit from round-the-clock transit.

But dedicating $1.2 billion for four miles of light rail in the Clifton Corridor is unwise. Instead, Atlanta should implement autonomous vehicles/shuttles as an on-demand transit on a dedicated lane. These vehicles could be quiet electric vehicles, allaying concerns in surrounding neighborhoods. Not only would this be cheaper to build and to operate, it would be a forward-looking expedited mobility solution that provides the flexibility sought by millennials and medical facility employees.

Back in 2001, the Foundation published a paper proposing SyncTrans, a system with “small family-sized cars that travel non-stop on an elevated guideway between stations. The quiet, electric-powered system and its cars require no drivers and can operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The elevated guideways are cost effective and can be erected quickly. Since the system is fully automated, labor costs are minimal.”

Back then, that was the world of the Jetsons. Today, Google cars travel through urban streets and major advances in autonomous vehicle technologies are reducing human-error collisions and improving mobility.

MARTA and the Georgia Department of Transportation are experimenting with a connected vehicle corridor along North Avenue. Imagine a demonstration project in the Clifton corridor: Lightweight, electric-powered, Google-type vehicles, each with a capacity for four people, could quickly and quietly travel along a dedicated corridor – perhaps grade-separated, but at least fenced off – and zip off the lane to a stop near passengers’ destinations before merging back onto the corridor.

When needs are greater, the vehicles can be larger, like the Atlanta airport’s “plane train,” rubber-tired transportation traveling between concourses. The lightweight fleet of vehicles could be 3D-printed; collisions are less likely for autonomous vehicles traveling at a constant speed on a dedicated lane. And unlike inflexible, fixed rail, the lane could eventually include other autonomous vehicles.

Finally, don’t lock commuters into a lengthy and costly expansion of rail funded over four decades by MARTA’s half-penny tax. The agency could immediately expand transit service: Buses and shuttles could plan to use the “virtual transit network” opportunity in the expanding express toll lane network. This increases the employment horizon for so many of the city’s residents beyond rail stations, tedious transfers and foot-dragging government options.

MARTA is already partnering with ride-share services for first-mile/last-mile service, demonstrating that transit solutions need not originate in government or be a growing taxpayer burden. It’s a short trip from there to accepting that technology and entrepreneurship will take Atlanta commuters much further than trains.

This commentary by Benita M. Dodd first appeared in the November-December 2017 edition of James Magazine.