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?
The ride has me reflecting on my own first bus experience in Raleigh. When I joined the transit app company I had grand ambitions for eating my own cooking, taking the bus to work each day and tasting what the users of our product consumed on their rides. But the excuses for not riding started piling up. First I discovered that I would have to leave home around 7:30 to get into the office at 9:00 am, exchanging my easy ten minute drive for a convoluted multi-bus, mulit-route commute. My fallback was to do it just once a week for a full month, but I put that test off week after week after week. Why? I think I was scared. I had never been on one of Raleigh’s buses, and I didn’t really know how to ride it. The most basic questions piled up and paralyzed me from taking that first ride: where’s the stop? How do I pay my fare? Where do I even get a ticket? How do I tell the driver where I need to get off? How will I get home if I miss it? They all seem trivial in retrospect, but I believe they prevent many would-be passengers from ever giving public transit a first chance.
I finally took the bus when my boss insisted on it. Seriously. He handed me a prepaid fare card and informed me a new term of my employment was to take two trips each month. He called the program Ride the Friggin’ Bus, everyone had to do it, and it broke me out of my paralysis. In no time I figured out all those mysteries of riding the bus and was using it on a regular basis. When we moved our office from Raleigh to Research Triangle Park, I even opted for bus commuting more often than driving.
Still, when I got on the bus, it became “me” time. I put my earbuds in and cracked open a book. I opted for being together-alone. It was a way to get to and from work – a mode of transportation – not a place to bond more tightly to my community. And pretty much everyone else was taking the same approach. The bus just doesn’t seem like the place folks are looking to build new relationships.
So again, how is it that transit riders have this enhanced sense of community?
Back to the Atlanta trip, I pose this question to Sara Cheshire one morning over breakfast at Midtown’s Flying Biscuit Cafe. Sara is a public transit enthusiast. I call her Atlanta’s rider maven. She moved there several years ago after finishing college in Indiana. She didn’t have a car, so MARTA became her only choice for getting around town. Rather than grumble about it, however, Sara embraced the opportunity to ride. She wasn’t paralyzed by first-time-rider anxiety like me, though she recognized the process can be intimidating. She turned that into opportunity by creating a first-time rider’s guide to navigating MARTA, a list of answers to frequently asked questions that no one else (including MARTA) was addressing. She pitched the concept to some publishers for a travel book, and when there were no takers she opted to put the information online instead, launching martaguide.com. She added to it over time, curating a list of events, shops, and restaurants at each major MARTA station. It’s become a tremendous resource to the Atlanta community, and I used it extensively in planning my hotel and food options for this trip.
Sara has a car now, but she continues to ride MARTA at least a couple times each week. “Why?” I asked her, hoping for some insight into this transit-community conundrum. She digs around the scattered remains of her breakfast as she considers my question. After a while she responds with a single word: “Serendipity.”
Part of the beauty in riding MARTA is that you meet interesting people you wouldn’t meet otherwise, she continues. They aren’t part of your normal social circles, so you wouldn’t run into them in any setting other than MARTA. It doesn’t happen on every ride, but it happens every once in a while if you ride enough and are willing to take off your headphones and strike up a conversation every now and then. You’d be surprised at the people you meet and how fascinating they are. Serendipity can happen when you ride enough and open yourself up to being part of the riding community.
On that wisdom, our breakfast ended. My three days in Atlanta would come to a close that afternoon with a flight back to Raleigh. I had managed to navigate the city as planned, and it had not been too difficult. The biggest challenge had come my first day. How could I get to and from Marietta, a suburb, from one of MARTA’s northernmost stations? The solution actually provided the best connection building opportunity. This is where I dipped into the option of using UberX, the car-sharing service, to bridge the distance from MARTA to the campus where I was meeting. The driver assigned to my fare just happened to be in the area because his child had a doctors appointment nearby. We chatted the entire 20 minute ride. Driving for UberX was supporting his family, paying for his car, and covering tuition payments as he finished a degree. For my return to Midtown that evening, the guy I was meeting with let me hitch a ride with him for an impromptu carpool. Both rides were delightful. Both made me feel more connected to the people I was with.
But the rides on MARTA trains and buses had not left me with that same sense of connection. On public transit I remained in my own little bubble, traveling with others but acting very much alone.
I was pondering Sara’s serendipity message on the final leg of my Atlanta journey, a MARTA train ride from Decatur to the Five Points Station where I would transfer lines and head to the airport. It was beginning to sink in. You don’t get a sense for belonging to a church or a civic organization by showing up to their meetings every once in a while. The connections come when you dedicate yourself to being a part of the group; participating time and time again; becoming a familiar face to the others making a similar commitment. I can see how the same holds true of feeling closer to a community by riding transit. You have to keep showing up, riding with some frequency, to get the benefits of those chance connections with people you’ll find interesting.
I’m now at the Five Points Station, switching from the Blue Line to the Red. There’s a mass of people rushing from train to train intent on making their connections late this afternoon. Earbuds are in. Feet are shuffling. Heads are down. Eyes rarely meet. Everyone is focused on getting on their car before the doors slide shut. This is the familiar mass transit experience: people mashed together in confined spaces, united in their need to get from point A to point B but desperate to avoid even the slightest contact with their fellow travelers. I slip down the stairs, through the crowds, and onto the platform to await my train. I’m wondering how this together-alone chaos binds anyone more tightly to their communities.
My train arrives. I stand off to one side as its doors open and passengers alight. The rush subsides, and as I begin to step on I run headlong into a young woman going the opposite direction. She doesn’t look up as she bounces off me yet manages to flash a tinge of a smile while muttering some form of apology. In the split second of this collision, before beginning her dash away, there’s a faint hint of recognition and my brain triggers an instinctive response. I grab her elbow.
“Sara!” I say as she spins around. She’s startled, understandably, by the unexpected physical contact on the subway. But her face breaks quickly into a broad smile as she now recognizes me, too. It’s my niece (a different Sara) whom I see maybe once a year at family gatherings. She’s a student at Georgia State University in downtown Atlanta, and she’s using MARTA for her commute to class.We hug in an ever-so-brief reunion before I jump to beat the doors on my train and she moves along to class.
What are the odds, I think on my way to the airport, of that chance encounter? Of both of us being at that exact spot – at that exact time – in a crowd of thousands?
I must have smiled the rest of my trip home, feeling suddenly a bit more positive about the idea of public transit. Understanding deeply, and now personally, the full pleasure of serendipity on MARTA.