Daren Givens’ weekend outings used to begin with MARTA — a bus or train ride from his Fairlie-Poplar neighborhood to the zoo, a concert or an intown festival.
That changed over the past few years as MARTA raised its prices. Givens started riding his bicycle a lot more. And though they still take MARTA to work, on weekends Givens, his wife and their young son started driving more and taking the bus less.
“It’s too expensive to go on a family outing on MARTA instead of just using our car instead,” said Givens, a web developer and blogger. “I feel bad for families that don’t have the car option.”
Though the economy is improving, Atlanta has yet to experience the upswing in bus and train riders that has brought the rest of the country to transit ridership levels not seen since 1956.
Local transit advocates and agency heads say they expect to welcome back more riders as services slashed during the economic downturn are restored. But last year’s continued ridership decline — even in the absence of any cuts and fare hikes — has sharpened the debate between transit advocates and opponents about the wisdom of Atlanta’s plans to expand rail and bus service.
Fewer riders like Givens were recorded last year on all of metro Atlanta’s transit systems: MARTA, Georgia Regional Transit Authority (GRTA), Cobb Community Transit and Gwinnett County Transit, according to statistics obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
In fact, all the providers except GRTA have been steadily losing customers since 2009 or earlier. (GRTA ridership increased between 2009 and 2012, during which time it added three new routes, but declined 3 percent last year).
Transit ridership has grown steadily in the post-recession era in the rest of the nation, increasing an average of 1.1 percent in 2013 compared to the previous year.
The heads of the four metro transit agencies all cited the economy as a big factor behind the declines in ridership. And it’s worth noting that, as with transit ridership, Atlanta’s economic recovery has also lagged behind the rest of the nation.
The nationwide growth in transit use — to 10.7 billion trips in 2012 — is nearly four times greater than America’s annual increase in driving, said Art Guzzetti, vice president of policy for the American Public Transportation Association, which released the report on ridership trends in March.
The greatest increases typically occurred in regions that expanded or enhanced their bus and rail service. Miami, for example, increased heavy rail service during peak periods and saw a 10 percent surge in passenger trips, said Brian Gist, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center who writes a transportation blog.
“Cities that are reinstating service see that it corresponds with an uptick in ridership,” Gist said. “It’s not just taking the same number of riders and distributing them over more buses. When there are more trains and buses running, more people decide to use (transit) instead of something else.”
MARTA’s ridership losses in recent years came after the authority increased fares and cut services. One-way fare prices jumped from $1.75 to $2 to $2.50 between 2009 and 2012. During the same time, the authority scuttled a third of bus routes and reduced train service by about 14 percent, lengthening the wait times between trains.
Those moves cost MARTA about 25 million passenger trips over the past five years, said CEO and General Manager Keith Parker.
Last year, MARTA train trips were nearly flat, having decreased 0.85 percent compared to 2012. Bus ridership increased by a few hundred passengers.
But Parker pointed to fourth-quarter gains of less than half a percent on trains and of 2 percent on buses as cause for optimism. That’s such a small time frame, however, it’s impossible to know whether it’s a blip or the first sign of a turnaround. First-quarter 2014 data will not be a reliable indicator because of the two winter storms that paralyzed traffic and prompted MARTA to scale back or eliminate service on some days, Parker said.
“I’m thrilled about what happened last year,” Parker said. “We’ve stopped (the losses) and it’s leveled off. Now I think we’re in a position to start going up.”
Last year MARTA’s books were in the black for the first time in seven years. That allowed the authority to add late-night rail service for the Red Line to North Springs.
Beginning May 19, MARTA plans to reduce rail wait times from 15 minutes to 10 minutes during weekday morning and afternoon rush hours. Wait times will be only five minutes in places where the Red and Gold, or the Blue and Green lines share tracks along the two main trunks of the system.
Also effective May 17, MARTA is increasing bus service frequency on about 17 routes.
One other system – Cobb Community Transit – is adding back service as well. After eliminating three underperforming routes in 2011, the county now plans to spend about $4 million add a bus route, modify two others and initiate a flexible shuttle service for three “zones” in the southwestern part of the county.
The county is also looking at adding local bus service on Sundays, which it has never had, and building a bus-rapid transit line from Kennesaw to Arts Center Station in Midtown. However, no time frame or funding source has been identified for either project, said Cobb DOT Director Faye DiMassimo.
Gwinnett County Transit and GRTA have no expansion plans for the near future. But GRTA is embarking on an evaluation this year aimed at seeing where additional service may be warranted or existing services could be redirected to more growth-prone areas.
Some question the wisdom of expanding transit services in metro Atlanta at a time when transit ridership is still backsliding.
Benita Dodd, vice president of the conservative think tank Georgia Public Policy Foundation, said at the very least transit spending in metro Atlanta should be focused on buses as opposed to MARTA heavy rail and the new Atlanta Streetcar, which is set to open this summer. Atlanta is not centralized enough or dense enough to support those kinds of “fixed guideway” services, Dodd said.
“We just need to face facts that it is a losing proposition,” she said.
Driving in Georgia is increasing in tandem with the state’s economic recovery.
As people return to work and fuel prices stabilize, transit advocates say, the region must improve its transit network if it hopes to lure people away from driving solo.
“I think the demand is there, but until very recently MARTA was still reducing service rather than adding service,” said David Emory, president of Citizens for Progressive Transit. “Now they’re turning that corner, I’m hopeful that we’ll see increases.”
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