Last January the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published results of a poll it commissioned to gauge the community’s ties to MARTA, the city’s train and bus commuter system. The data showed something surprising: people who rode MARTA were more than twice as likely to feel connected to Atlanta than those who didn’t.
Of the respondents who rode transit, 51% reported strong connections to the region. Only 23% of non-riders said the same. The reporters asked a Morehouse College sociology professor why this might be the case. “You interact and share space with more people,” she responded, “and that makes you feel a part of the community.”
I’m skeptical of these findings as I’m riding MARTA’s Red Line last December, heading from the airport at the south of the city into Atlanta’s Midtown. I was there on business, working at the time for a company whose smartphone apps alerted riders when their bus was arriving. We liked this notion of public transit connecting people to their communities. Indeed, we had a vested interest in promoting the idea. As an experiment during this trip, I opted to skip the car rental counter at the airport. For the next three days I would travel all around Atlanta using public transit whenever possible, walking as an acceptable alternative, and UberX car-sharing if there were no other options. I was curious how navigable the city would be without a car, and I was eager to test the premise behind the newspaper article. Does public transit contribute to an enhanced sense of community?
My earliest impressions made me skeptical. In that first train ride, as I traveled south to north packed tight with a few dozen fellow riders in our compartment, there was plenty of opportunity for camaraderie but no takers. Quite the opposite in fact. Everyone seemed desperate to avoid even the simplest forms of contact, keeping their noses pressed against iPhones, books and newspapers. No one was making eye contact with others. No one was talking with anyone else. Physically, we were all together, but each of us was pretending we were completely alone.
If polled by reporters from the Journal-Constitution, what would these together-alone passengers have to say? Would they report a stronger attachment to the community for having ridden MARTA? Continue Reading…