Technology of Past Won’t Take Transit into the Future

By Dave Emanuel

Dave Emanuel

As the hue and cry for expanded public transit in metro Atlanta reaches a crescendo, many options are being discussed, but chatter about extending heavy rail predominates. You have to wonder why.

The only thing lacking in the proposals to expand heavy rail is a specification to use steam locomotives. Add that, and you have the perfect 19th-century solution to a 21st-century problem.

An outmoded form of transportation at best, heavy rail (defined as rail service elevated, subterranean or otherwise separated from street traffic) is expensive to build, operate and maintain, and inefficient in its use of resources.

Consider that a single MARTA passenger car weighs 89,000 pounds and accommodates 64 passengers. Consider, further, that the typical length of a MARTA train is at least three cars. The power to move almost 270,000 pounds is consumed before the first passenger steps aboard.

Those statistics aren’t intended to throw MARTA under the bus (pardon the pun); they’re typical of heavy rail passenger service. Yet they are impossible to justify in Atlanta. The metro area does not have the population density (and consequently, ridership concentration) to justify this expensive service.

Even if it did, heavy rail transit would still be a money pit. In New York City, Adam Lisberg, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), admitted, “We lose money on every single ride, but we provide 8.5 million a day.” He pointed out that every other transit system in the nation is also a money-loser. Those transit systems also cover a much smaller land mass than the 2,973 square miles that make up the 10 county-area administered by the Atlanta Regional Commission.  

The cost of electricity for operations is merely emblematic of heavy rail’s cost inefficiency; it is far outweighed by personnel, capital and maintenance costs. Even in New York City, whose subway system has 8.5 million riders per day, more than half of its budget has to be subsidized by taxes.

MARTA operates on a much smaller scale, but its financial sustainability is much worse. MARTA’s 2017 financial report shows it collected $148,491,000 in fares and other revenue, yet had a total operating expense of $668,563,000. The difference was made up largely from sales and use taxes contributed by the city of Atlanta and Clayton County, and revenue from the federal government.

Time is another factor that tarnishes heavy rail. Unlike cities such as New York, where transit drove development, transit in Atlanta is continually trying to draw a bead on the moving targets of residential and business development.

Cost considerations aside, public transit achieves justifiable ridership levels only when it is the most – or one of the most – convenient means of transportation. For that, it must be capable of taking high numbers of people from where they are to where they want to go.

One justification for extending heavy rail is that ridership drops when people have to transfer from one form of transit to another (i.e., from train to bus). Yet, in metro Atlanta, some form of transfer – whether from or to a private vehicle, ride-share vehicle, bus or taxi – will commonly be required to complete a trip that incorporates travel on existing or future MARTA rail.

Why not look to the future instead of the past? Autonomous vehicles already are revolutionizing transportation; it won’t be much longer before autonomous Uber and Lyft services become available. These services will cost riders more than the subsidized mass transit options but will provide unrivaled convenience of door-to-door, and cost savings compared to transportation services requiring a driver.

Future regional transit plans should also follow the autonomous route. Autonomous vans or minibuses would bring practical transit to outlying areas. Full-sized buses would serve areas with higher population densities and bus rapid transit (BRT) could be implemented where appropriate.

Except for BRT, which incorporates dedicated lanes, these services require no special construction and could become reality almost immediately. They can accommodate shifts in population and centers of commerce and could launch with humans at the wheel as we transition to autonomous operation.

Significant work on new and expanded transit systems won’t begin for another year or two. The region will enter the third decade of the 21st century before any new developments are fully implemented. For transit in the Atlanta region to successfully journey into the future, it must begin by leaving the technology of the past behind.

This commentary by Dave Emanuel, a Snellville City Council member, was written for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. The Foundation is an independent, nonprofit think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (June 1, 2018). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.