Why don't Atlantans use MARTA more? Is it because the MARTA system doesn't meet commuters' needs or is it because the rider "experience" is not pleasant? If you care to geek it out with us for a moment, we can delve into the midst of an open debate among transit planners about the best way to attract riders to transit systems. In addition to the generally enlightening fact there is high controversy in the world of transit planners, the conversation is very relevant to Atlanta. There is universal agreement that there is too much traffic here. On hand to combat it: a constantly financially-strained and insufficient heavy rail system (MARTA), a soon-to-be-installed streetcar system (the Atlanta Streetcar) and a long-range plan to add light rail (the Beltline).
The success of these systems (i.e. ridership) is intricately tied to prospects for Atlanta's growth, and since Atlanta is all about winning, we better geek it out on transit to get this right.
As Vanderbilt explores on Slate, the argument is whether having a great system (frequent stops, convenient locations) or an enjoyable experience (clean trains, nice Muzak) is more important in attracting transit riders.
The often cited criticism against MARTA is a system critique - it doesn't reach enough places where people live or want to go. Most in-town neighborhoods and places like the Ted are examples. However, if you listen a little more closely you'll hear reasons people give for MARTA usually have more of an "experience" overtone. They didn't think it is safe or clean. There is also the oft-charged criticism that racial prejudices keep many Atlantans off MARTA. Sadly, there is likely some truth to the role race plays in MARTA ridership but the race issue tends to be over-played. The more practical explanation is that the MARTA rail network is too small. If you can talk your way up one of Atlanta's tall buildings and look down, you can see the nodes of development that cluster around MARTA stations throughout the city. The problem is you can count the nodes on your hands. People will follow the trains. Riders want an efficient, comprehensive system and if it has snazzy cars with pleasant music, that's a bonus.
How do the Streetcar or the Beltline projects fit into this debate? The Streetcar project has been criticized as frivolous and not a serious people-mover. Will it attract local riders or just tourist and conventioners? What about the Beltline? While the trail / path segments of the project are moving full steam ahead, the transit portion is years off. The rough concept is that the Beltline's light rail system will reach into local neighborhoods and tie into MARTA's existing heavy-rail system. Will this be a high-system/low empathy system? Will it fill in the holes in MARTA's network? Will Atlanta use it? Will it be enough for a growing Atlanta? How do we get Atlantans out of their crawling cars on the Connector and onto to transit systems that get them where they need to go? What do you think?