Three Days on MARTA: How Public Transit Strengthens Our Community Ties

August 1, 2016 — 4 Comments

MARTA Sign

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?

Flying Biscuit Midtown

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.

Atlanta's Midtown

Paul Dryden

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4 responses to Three Days on MARTA: How Public Transit Strengthens Our Community Ties

  1. Sara Cheshire had some additional bits of wisdom to share about transit and community ties. I wasn’t able to work them into the original piece, but they’re too good to leave out. I add them here to make them part of the conversation:

    Regarding community, she writes:

    “It is more being exposed to the people around you in the city with a transit commute. In a car you are isolated. On a rail or bus commute, you see a variety of people that you may not see. On transit I see a lot more diversity, or kids and older people in the community. There’s students, professionals and people struggling to make ends meet. Sometimes it provides a perspective on how Atlanta isn’t just about going to festivals, fine dining and bars in Buckhead. There’s single moms, people with disabilities, people that rely on MARTA to get to work and other transportation needs.”

    “The other community aspect is more about place. When you have a car-free commute, you also spend more time walking around on the city streets, so you see, hear and experience things you would miss if in a car. And you also are more likely to meet people in the community when on foot — they don’t have to be transit riders or ride transit — but you experience the city differently. Like yesterday I took the train to meet a friend for dinner after work, then walked a few blocks down the street to the next station to have a glass of wine at a historic hotel and the birds were singing and I was noticing buildings I would otherwise zoom by in a car. Then from there I even got on a bus next to the hotel and took it to my neighborhood and walked about 12 minutes home. I hadn’t done that in awhile, but it is also so freeing to get around without a car, and because I learned how to do it easily, I wanted to help others. And maybe some people need to get over diversity issues, but you know, it was 10pm, I was by myself on the bus with a couple other women and I felt totally safe. The was quiet and fairly quick, and yes, I was the only white person, but so what. I thanked the driver when I got off like I always do and got the added benefit of a walk in fresh air to wrap up my commute.”

    Regarding the perception of public transit, she adds this:

    “It also really nice to see all the people who help out on MARTA too and who are friendly. The news media highlights the few negative incidences, but I often see men give up their seats for women or elderly, people are quick to answer questions from new riders on how to navigate and alert you if you’ve dropped something. I haven’t had time to pull a lot of data yet, but I get so frustrated when these all-around minor scenes happen on the system, when I suspect much more violent crime happens in other cities. Washington DC had over 100 aggravated assaults and over 1000 robberies in 2012 on and around their transit system. I can’t even imagine Atlanta having more than 20 in either category.”

    Thank you Sara!

  2. Love this piece, Paul. And your writing….you getting paid for this stuff yet?

    As I reflect upon the times in my life when I depended on public transit on a regular basis, I realize that the process had indeed made me fill more connected to the locals and the landscape. But I tend to spend time spent in public as an observer anyway. I can feel connected just by watching the scenery. My most prolonged period of riding buses and trains was during dental school in Baltimore. This was before the time of earbuds or iPhones (or i-anything for that matter), but people in a large metropolitan area tend to stick to themselves on these commutes. I too often had my head in a book (out of necessity, I was in school after all…and wanted to devote time to the wife and chubby toddler once I arrived home), but was forced to interact from time to time. Just casual observation gave me an understanding and appreciation for what it meant to be a local in Charm City for the four years we were there. It even helped me develop an affection for the place that I’m not sure Deidra has, as she spent the four years fighting traffic on the beltway.

    I too love to force myself to ride public transit while travelling. It’s not in my nature normally to put myself out there like that…perhaps that’s what makes if fun from time to time. NYC, Chicago, DC, Atlanta, New Orleans, SLC…. all have unique flavors about them. The people and the places. Did you ever notice that the Metro in DC has carpeted floors, while the train cars in the NYC subway system have drains?

    Memories of Rome, Costa Rica, Nairobi, the Dominican Republic, Amsterdam, Quito, the Galapagos Islands and so many more places would be missing many of their most flavorful ingredients without getting out there and letting someone else do the driving. Still not sure if I’ll let Elle talk me into getting on a chicken bus in Guatemala next month though!

    Cheers to you for putting yourself out there in Atlanta. And for riding the friggin bus in Raleigh. And for wanting to find out how we can all be more connected… not just to where we happen to be, but hopefully to each other as well.

    • I love this, Brent. Thanks for sharing. My own tendency to stay within my bubble (which oftentimes is the comfortable confines of my own vehicle) shuts me off to opportunities for pleasant surprises…that serendipity thing. I love the idea of incorporating public transit riding into regular travel. Because my company paid for taxi fare, I regret never taking the subway during my time in New York. I missed out on noticing those drains (and perhaps some other things, too). I have ridden the camioneta/chicken buses in Guatemala, however. Talk about community building! It’s hard not to bond with people when you have adults sitting three abreast on the vinyl seats of an old Bluebird school bus. I had an elderly lady plop an actual chicken on my lap once, suggesting I be kind enough to hold it for her since her arms were full. Open yourself to that experience next month!

      • Well you see, it’s not the pollos that I’m afraid of. It’s the three abreast (which Elle assures me that five or more abreast is more typical) and no immediate access to an exit. Playing sardines as a child has left me with a healthy case of claustrophobia. But no excuse… I shall try to be open to any and all awesomeness that awaits!

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