Originally, we were supposed to subsidize transit to help people who couldn’t drive or couldn’t afford cars. But according to 2014 census data, just 3.5 percent of Atlanta-area workers live in households without cars.
How do people without cars get to work? Nearly 24 percent drive alone (presumably in employer-supplied cars) and 20 percent carpool. Less than 36 percent take transit, showing that transit doesn’t even work for most people without cars.
More recently, we’re supposed to subsidize transit to get cars off the road, save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Yet transit uses about the same energy and emits about the same greenhouse gases to move someone a passenger-mile as a car does.
Moreover, building rail transit lines requires huge amounts of energy and greenhouse gas emissions. Instead of building more rail lines, we could more effectively save energy by simply giving people Toyota Priuses.
What is MARTA’s answer to this? It wants to spend billions building light-rail lines, commuter-rail lines, and expanding the existing MARTA rail system.
Unfortunately, the high cost of rail transit is one reason Atlanta transit ridership is declining. Rail lines only reach a few places and can’t survive without an effective bus system. Despite rapid population growth, however, MARTA has cut bus service more than 11 percent since 1985.
It might be said that MARTA practices transit apartheid, building rail lines to middle-class neighborhoods while cutting bus service to poor black neighborhoods.
Transit as we know it isn’t dead yet, but it will be as soon as self-driving cars are perfected, which will happen in the next five to 10 years. Companies like Uber and Lyft are already planning to have fleets of shared, self-driving cars on the road.
Counting all subsidies, it costs almost four times as much to move someone a mile by transit as in an automobile today. Once shared, self-driving cars are available for those who can’t or don’t want to drive, why will we need transit at all? Rail lines will become urban white elephants and, if the streetcar system is anything to go by, Atlanta already has enough of those.
Instead of planning even more white elephants, MARTA should figure out how it will compete or even survive in the coming era of self-driving mobility.