Moderated by Tom Sabulis
Wait times and ridership are inversely proportional, a MARTA official told me recently: If wait times are increased, they lose passengers. So it’s no surprise that the deficit-troubled agency has been losing customers since it cut service on trains and buses in 2010. And with fewer riders, how do you justify improving the long wait times that frustrate commuters? It’s a tough fix, but something needs to be done, as I write today along with a local transportation advocate.
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By Tom Sabulis
When visiting family in upstate New York, I usually take the Metro-North rail line from Grand Central Station in Manhattan, which glides up the east bank of the Hudson River to my stop in Beacon, just south of Poughkeepsie. It leaves roughly every half-hour during peak travel times, and every hour otherwise.
Like many people, I consult a schedule before I go, lest I wind up with a lot of time to kill on the platform.
This routine reminds me of riding MARTA. I also consult a schedule when using MARTA trains or buses, in order to budget my time productively.
But here’s the rub: I shouldn’t have to.
While Metro-North is a commuter rail service, MARTA’s mission is “rapid” urban transit. It says so right in its name — Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority.
But on what other major rapid-transit system do you need to check the running time? In most major cities, you just show up at the station, knowing service will be along momentarily. Here, in Decatur or College Park or Dunwoody, you find yourself plotting and planning. And stressing. Because if you miss your ride, it won’t be back for a while.
Since budget and service cuts were enacted in 2010, MARTA trains operate roughly 15 minutes apart, with buses every 25 to 30 minutes, for much of the day. That’s less frequent than many other transit systems among the 10 largest in the United States (MARTA is ninth in size). In Boston, the “headways” — defined as intervals or time between trains or buses — are often less than 10 minutes and as frequent as six minutes.
Recently, the Atlanta streetcar, now under construction, made headlines when it was revealed that wait times along the 1.3-mile route would be 15 minutes. Mayor Kasim Reed even spoke urgently about raising money to increase the frequency — all for a system that, at least for starters, will cater to tourists and lunch excursions, not commuters.
Think about that for a minute: We’re going to have the same wait times for a streetcar to the World of Coke as for a rapid-transit train in rush hour to the world’s busiest airport — and it’s the streetcar people who are dissatisfied!
MARTA officials are aware of the frustrations. Recently, they told me the top complaints the agency receives are about service and bus-operator attitudes. But increasing frequency is a complex, and expensive, business.
“It’s an additional bus or train (along the route) in order to increase it,” said John McMath, supervisor of bus scheduling. “To increase that frequency, we have to add a vehicle, which includes an operator, power, maintenance.”
Said Don Williams, senior director of transit system planning, “When we start looking at adding additional service, we’re talking about adding money to the budget, and we may not have it.”
By increasing rail wait times for the 2010 budget reductions, MARTA saved $1.5 million, agency spokesman Lyle V. Harris said. Yet that figure seems low for an agency with a $434.9 million operating budget — a business whose Job One is moving people through town quickly.
CEO Keith Parker’s proposed new budget reportedly would put MARTA on a path to restore, by 2018, half the service cut three years ago. Is that enough to stop the customer fallout? Ridership on buses and trains combined was down 8 percent in 2012. Train ridership has fallen 15 percent since 2001.
MARTA is considering a 25-cent fare increase in the coming years. But Harris says the agency is serious about trying to restore service. (MARTA is also coming out with phone and computer apps that show customers where buses and trains are on their route, to help them time their travels. And it’s working with Georgia Tech on developing others.)
“The expectation, the hope, is that if we start seeing some of these savings” from belt-tightening measures suggested in the recent KPMG audit, “and if we start turning around our ridership numbers and our sales-tax revenues, we may be able to avoid a fare increase. And we might be able to restore some of the service cut in 2010,” Harris said.
Anything to put the “rapid” back in MARTA.
By David Emory
It is one of the most frustrating experiences a transit rider will face: You arrive at the platform just in time to see the taillights of your train pulling away from the station, without you on board. You take a seat, resigned to the reality that a full 15 or 20 minutes will pass before the next train arrives.
This scene has become all too common in Atlanta. For decades now, we have seen a steady and relentless deterioration of service levels on our buses and trains. Take MARTA’s rail system: in the 1980s, trains ran every 6 minutes, a tolerable wait time for most riders. Since then, the wait time has gradually crept higher and higher: to 8 minutes in the 1990s, to 10 minutes in the early 2000s, and eventually to the 15-minute waits that riders must endure today.
The importance of frequency to a successful transit system cannot be overstated. Transit expert Jarrett Walker, author of the book “Human Transit,” has helped make “frequency is freedom” a catchphrase for transit planners. “Your car or bicycle is always ready to go when you are,” Walker explains. “Frequency is the measure of how close transit comes to that same freedom.”
By that measure, the freedom afforded by Atlanta’s transit system today is quite low, and that is increasingly putting the city at a competitive disadvantage. No comparable rapid transit system in the country makes its riders wait as long as we do here.
Local officials often point to budget shortfalls when explaining the current service levels. Of course, most of our peer cities have also been battling severe transit funding challenges, but they have found ways to economize that don’t require such drastic service cuts. There is an understanding in these places that frequent, reliable service is absolutely essential and must be prioritized.
Unfortunately, that message is often lost here, where service quality is typically the first thing to go when budgets become tight. This is true even of brand-new projects like the Atlanta streetcar, currently set to open with skeletal 15-minute service. While transit advocates are genuinely excited about the expansion of our rail system, there are legitimate concerns that excessive wait times could cripple the streetcar’s effectiveness from Day One.
While the current situation may be discouraging, viable options for improvement do exist. Even modest increases in capacity can yield dramatic improvement for riders. The streetcar, for example, could cut its wait time by a third by adding just one vehicle to the route. And MARTA could look to innovation in places like Europe and Asia, where metro systems are increasingly employing high-tech solutions such as fully automated trains to improve efficiency, and are seeing impressive results.
However we get there, one thing is clear: Atlanta’s transit system will continue to lag behind if quarter-hour wait times continue to be the standard. Frequency is freedom, and Atlanta must be willing to offer its transit riders that freedom if it is going to compete on the world stage.
David Emory is president of Citizens for Progressive Transit, a transit advocacy group.