Living across from an Atlanta MARTA station, Matt Duncan likes to ride the train to downtown or hop a bus to Buckhead or Inman Park. More than a way to get around, these transit lines help him feel more a part of metro Atlanta life.
“You feel more in it, not just a faceless guy in a car,” said Duncan, 29, an IT consultant.
According to a region-wide poll conducted for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, MARTA riders have a stronger connection than nonriders to metro Atlanta. More than that, the poll found that MARTA riders had a stronger connection to their individual neighborhood and the county where they live.
For the financially strapped agency, the results are a bit of good news. MARTA recently brought on a new general manager, Keith Parker, to revamp its business model, possibly privatizing some functions, over the next several years. He faces a union fight over benefits, pensions, workers’ compensation and absenteeism. The agency, which has an average of 430,000 boardings each day, may again raise fares after July — which would be the third hike in four years.
The poll results raise provocative questions as to the value of the transit service beyond getting tens of thousands of people to work each day. Do people have a deeper connection to community because they ride transit? Or do they ride transit because they already have that deeper connection?
Jana Lynott, a transportation analyst for the American Association of Retired Persons, said many people who take transit have an “urbanist” point of view, meaning they already view themselves as tightly bound up in the region’s social fabric.
IT consultant Duncan, who often rides the train to visit clients, says riding MARTA gives him “that big town feeling.”
Traveling the transit lines can enhance a rider’s appreciation for their surroundings, said Cynthia Hewitt, an associate professor of sociology at Morehouse College.
“You interact and share space with more people, and that makes you feel a part of the community,” she said.
The poll results may reflect something else: When some people are asked about the Atlanta region, their answers focus largely on the city of Atlanta.
Shawn Poole, 42, of Canton, said he has virtually no connection to metro Atlanta. He does not see his area as being part of metro Atlanta. Born and raised Cobb County, he’s ridden MARTA twice in his life.
MARTA, he says, is simply inconvenient for him to get to. Beyond that, Atlanta “has gone downhill. They haven’t taken care of the traffic problem.”
At the same time, Poole feels a strong bond with Canton and Cherokee County, so much so that he’s considering running for city council.
The poll found that 51 percent of MARTA riders said they had a strong connection to the Atlanta region, versus 23 percent of nonriders. In addition, 72 percent of riders had a strong connection to their neighborhood versus 64 percent of nonriders. A total of 64 percent of transit riders felt a strong connection to the county where they reside, as opposed to 55 percent of nonriders.
The poll was conducted by SRBI in November of 811 residents in 10 counties: Fulton, DeKalb, Cobb, Gwinnett, Clayton, Cherokee, Douglas Henry, Rockdale and Fayette. It identified transit riders as those people who had used the service within the past six months.
MARTA train and bus lines run in Fulton and DeKalb counties, though the agency noted that 11 percent of riders live elsewhere.
Experts said there’s little research on whether or transit riders feel more connected to their communities.
MARTA General Manager Keith Parker has anecdotal evidence of transit creating a sense of community.
The former Charlotte transit chief said that moves in North Carolina to cut commuter bus routes prompted a a strong reaction among riders, who conducted a letter-writing campaign that ultimately saved the service.
“They said they had created a community on the bus and they didn’t want to see it go away,” he said.
Some MARTA riders say riding the buses and trains exposes them to more people and places, as opposed to the isolated transport of riding in a car.
“I meet people from everywhere — Ethiopia, Jamaica, Canada, Michigan,” said Angel Lemond, 23, who commutes from Riverdale to classes at Georgia Perimeter College. “I talk probably everyday with somebody just to pass the time on the train.”
Many metro Atlanta residents fear they might become crime victims on the bus or the train – a view that may be enhanced because crimes that occur on MARTA trains or buses or near stations often become high profile.
“There’s too many incidents at the train stops and the bus stops of people getting harassed and asked for money,” said Michael Shields, 64, of Kennesaw. He worries that these incidents can quickly escalate into violent confrontations.
MARTA statistics show that actual crimes on its properties are relatively low. An AJC review in 2011 showed overall crime on MARTA property had dropped by 42 percent between 2000-2009. It was led by a decrease in property crime, but violent crimes were up slightly. And, in 2011 FBI statistics showed 117 aggravated assaults on MARTA, a 75 percent increase from the 67 MARTA reported for 2010.
Some say their transportation choices have little to do with a deep sense of community or lack of it.
“I live in metro Atlanta. I grew up in metro Atlanta,” said Kia Dixon, 27, who lives in downtown. “I’d just rather drive.”