The metropolitan Atlanta area has four big mass transit providers — MARTA, GRTA Express, Cobb Transit, and Gwinnett Transit — and each one has its own schedule and payment systems. Earlier this month, as a first step toward better transit coordination, the state Senate recommended creating a single website where travelers can go to plan trips across the city. By next summer, Atlanta should have one mass transit site to rule them all.
Atlanta has had its share of transit trouble in the recent past. Last year voters rejected a sales tax measure aimed at expanding and enhancing mass transit systems across the metro area. A 2011 Brookings report ranked Atlanta 91st out of 100 major metros in terms of job access by public transit. Social critics have implicated the city's poor transit system as a key factor in the region's incredibly low upward social mobility.
The strength of Atlanta's car-first culture is part of the problem, but broad opposition to regionalism also plays a role. The chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission, a 10-county planning entity, recently said that regionalism is "under attack" in the area; "I hear it every day — that somehow regionalism is negative." The result of such anti-regionalism, at least as far as mass transit is concerned, is a fragmented system that's needlessly tricky to navigate.
State Senator Brandon Beach, one of the main proponents of transit regionalism in Atlanta, recently demonstrated just how tricky. This summer Beach documented a trip he took between Kennesaw State University and the Gwinnett Arena. The 32-mile trip takes an estimated 45 minutes by car, according to Google Maps. Beach's mass transit odyssey took three-and-a-half hours.
Beach's journey took him on three different systems — two Cobb Transit buses, a MARTA train, and a Gwinnett bus. He visited three different websites to search the schedules and paid three different times (sometimes needing exact change because a system didn't accept non-cash payment). And Beach's trip was relatively smooth: he only waited about 10 minutes for transfers.
A unified transit website is a good start to making Atlanta's transit experience the "seamless" and "collaborative" one that Beach believes it should be. It's also far from a blanket resolution to the metro area's transit problems. Even the most efficient transit planning tool doesn't replace the need for broader service coordination.
That's a far more ambitious task. In the meantime, there are several steps between a website and true transit system integration that could have a positive impact for Atlanta riders. The most obvious, based on Beach's trip, is the adoption of non-cash payment systems. Beyond that, Atlanta's transit agencies should consider integrated ticketing across the metro area. One website to rule them all is great; one fare card to ride them all is better.