Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
A photographer for the EPA explored the city’s new regional transit service, a big improvement over what it replaced.
MARTA, Atlanta’s public transit authority, ran its first buses in 1972. Formed through the Georgia General Assembly in 1965, getting dedicated funding to start up service wasn’t easy.
With the state unwilling to contribute to the transit authority’s operational budget, a new regional service depended on individual counties voting for a 1 percent sales tax increase. In a historically segregated region, the desire to keep black Atlanta out of white Atlanta is understood to be the main reason why a 1971 referendum failed in Clayton, Cobb, and Gwinnett counties. It did, however, succeed in Fulton and DeKalb—meaning MARTA would begin as a two-county system.
At the time, city residents without a car were stuck with an unsatisfying service. As recalled by then-mayor Sam Massell in Atlanta Magazine:
“We were going to buy the existing bus company, which was then charging sixty cents and a nickel transfer each way—$1.30 a day—and they were about to go out of business. I promised the community we would drop that fare to fifteen cents each way immediately[.]”
MARTA officially purchased its predecessor, the Atlanta Transit Company, on February 17, 1972.
MARTA then introduced a rail system in 1979, and started running buses in Clayton county this year after voters approved a 1 percent sales tax increase in 2014. The county hadn’t had bus service of its own since 2010. Gwinnett and Cobb counties still remain outside of MARTA’s boundaries, although one regular bus route does cross into Cobb county. Perhaps more so than unrealized rail expansion, the lack of a unified regional bus service helps maintain Atlanta’s position as one of the nation’s worst places to drive while making far-flung suburban jobs hard for Atlanta’s poorest residents to get to.
In 1974, the photographer Jim Pickerell checked out the new service for the EPA’s Documerica project. In the photos, packed buses, stations, and park-and-rides (including Fulton County Stadium) prove MARTA’s value. A caption under one of his photos describes the new public service winning over urban Atlanta:
In 1974, the system carried 73,727,000 passengers, an increase of 27 percent from 1970. Almost 90 percent of the increase came from the sector of [the] population who had not ridden the bus before. They were attracted by a combination of a fare decrease from 40 to 15 cents, new buses, new routes, night service, passenger waiting shelters, and fringe parking.
To this day, MARTA receives no state funding towards its operational budget.