Bucking National Trend, Atlanta's Public Transit Ridership Declines

Unlike most public transit systems in the United States, last year, MARTA continued a downward spiral in declining ridership.
by | April 1, 2013

By Steve Visser

Eduardo Schoen rode MARTA until last month when he joined a trend that has plagued the transit agency for years. He jumped back in his SUV, making him one of thousands of former MARTA riders to give up on public transportation in recent years.

Until last month the 40-year-old Milton resident rode the bus to the North Springs station to catch a train to his job at AT&T in Midtown. He found it an economical, stressless commute. That was until late buses and trains too oftencaused him to miss connections and often addednearly 30 minutes to his trip.

"I would rather use that time for family than sitting in a bus stop in the cold," he said. "I enjoyed riding MARTA. It is too bad I had to give it up."

Unlike most public transit systems in the United States, last year, MARTA continued a downward spiral in declining ridership at a time when that trend should be turning around: the economy is improving; the younger Millennials favor transit more than older Baby Boomers or Gen Xers; gas prices remain high.

MARTA calculates its buses and trains carry 123,400 people daily to jobs, school and shopping, but since 2001 that ridership has fallen by about 15 percent on trains and 31 percent on buses, according to reports from the American Public Transit Association. The APTA figures show transit nationally has been climbing out of the recession-induced doldrums for the last two years but showed MARTA buses and trains combined are down 8 percent in 2012 and nearly 6 percent in 2011. Since 2001 MARTA showed ridership losses on trains for eight years and on buses for 10 -- far worse than comparable cities or transit systems, according to the APTA report this month.

MARTA has long had trouble building its ridership because so much of the system doesn't go to residential or economic centers and is confined to Fulton and DeKalb counties, which makes the falling ridership even more of a threat because it comes from a shallow base.

Former General Manager Ken Gregor noted that MARTA has been hit by perfect storm over the decade of two recessions, which leave people without jobs to travel to, three fare increases, a short-lived expansion, service cuts and rising capital-improvement costs for an aging system. He suspected the system's shaky finances contributed to customer dissatisfaction because of breakdowns from delayed maintenance and missed schedules.

"It raises a serious question of whether MARTA can sustain its existence if it can't get any growth where the jobs are and where people live," said Gregor, who is also a former MARTA board member. "The system has unquestionably deteriorated because of the limited funds available not only for the operating costs but for the capital program."

This fiscal year isn't looking better with overall ridership down 4.4 percent so far in the first seven months. Rail boardings have decreased 5 percent, bus boardings have decreased 3.7 percent, according to MARTA's recent ridership study. If those trends continue, the transit agency could lose more than $2 million in projected revenue.

MARTA said falling ridership hasn't had a serious impact on revenues or its $30 million operating deficit because the fare rose from $1.75 in 2009 to $2.50 in 2011 for a one-way trip. The transit system blames metro Atlanta's struggling economy and service cuts over the years for the ridership numbers.

Most MARTA patrons don't have alternative transportation and their usage tends to be more tied to the economy. But choice riders who were interviewed by The Atlanta Journal Constitution said what put them back in their cars was schedules becoming less reliable, long wait times, safety concerns and rude patrons or staff.

Those issues are echoed in MARTA's surveys of customers. The strongest drivers of whether customers were satisfied or dissatisfied was whether they found the transit reliable and the staff courteous. Cabbagetown resident Tabitha Dannelly finds MARTA efficient, economical and worthy of recommendation. The 26-year-old rides it from the King Memorial station to her job near Georgia Tech, where parking can be expensive.

"I think because of the the time I use it ... it's not that bad," she said. "I only take it twice a day."

Jurena Cantrell said she and her husband noted vast difference in feelings of security and the quality of MARTA personnel on the northside compared to the west side.

Her family rode regularly for a year for work, errands and to explore metro Atlanta -- "kids like to ride the train" -- as she had with transit in other cities but quit in 2012. She found most bus drivers polite and friendly but some station staff obnoxious.

One ticket seller accused her of misrepresenting the height of her son -- children under 46-inches tall ride free -- in a loud, profanity-ridden scene that she said brought a bus driver to her rescue.

"My daughter still talks about the 'mean MARTA lady,' " said Cantrell, 40.

Jasmin Taylor rode MARTA for five years, commuting to her retail job near the Five Points station or to shopping at Lenox. She cited fare hikes, dirty train platforms, delayed train schedules for maintenance, loud patrons and on board peddlers for quitting in 2011. But she said her main reason for quitting was personal security.

"Usually during the week it is OK -- depending where you are going -- but weekends are usually pretty bad and at night," said the 21-year-old Fairburn resident.

New MARTA General Manager Keith Parker said he plans to tackle "knucklehead behavior" by patrons by expelling them and to hire employees with a knack for customer service. MARTA is installing security cameras in buses and plans to do so in trains. It is working on a mobile phone app to allow riders to text or send a photo about a safety or security problem.

MARTA says its developing a plan to address safety and bad-behavior concerns and plans to use cellphone app technology to help patrons in planning by giving them"real time" schedules of buses and trains.

"We're listening to our customers," said MARTA spokesman Lyle Harris. "Our overall goal is to focus on improving customer service and offering more reliable service."

(c)2013 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)

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