MARTA has 400 buses that carry roughly 500,000 people every week. The transit agency wants to know how to carry more.

Should the buses come more frequently or should they serve more people? The agency hopes to answer these questions to make a more robust system.

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MARTA bus

Photograph courtesy of MARTA

Buses are the workhorses of transit—not as flashy as rail but just as impactful, if not more so. Every week, more than 400 MARTA buses shuttle roughly 500,000 passengers across Fulton, DeKalb, and Clayton counties. The vehicles play a key role in metro Atlanta’s overall transit network, yet they receive nowhere near as much attention from the public. Late last year, MARTA hired Jarrett Walker and Associates, a well-regarded transit planning firm based out of Portland, Oregon, to re-imagine the system’s entire bus network. Led by Jarrett Walker, a bonafide booster of buses and one of transportation planning’s sharpest minds, Human Transit will spend a year speaking with riders, residents, businesses, and others about what they want the bus system to do for them and their communities. The firm will then present a proposed overhaul to Jeff Parker, MARTA’s general manager and CEO, and its board. Do they want buses to come more frequently, or do they want to see buses to serve more people? Both options have trade-offs. Atlanta magazine spoke with Walker and Parker to learn more about the project. This conservation has been edited for clarity and length.

Why pursue this initiative? Why now, and why choose Jarrett and his team?

Jeff Parker: I share your sentiment, that buses here in Atlanta have been historically a bit of an overlooked resource. And to some degree, our bus network here in Atlanta has been unchanged probably since post-World War II. We’ve made a lot of incremental changes along the way, [but ultimately] there wasn’t an overall objective to what we were trying to do. In the MARTA organization, the bus system was treated a bit like a second-class citizen. It didn’t feel to me like we’ve used the heavy rail and our bus system as equally important assets.

While Collie Greenwood [MARTA’s deputy general manager] worked on rebuilding the bus system and improving customer service, the City of Atlanta created its department of transportation to align with Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’s One Atlanta plan, which laid out a roadmap and goals for transportation in the city. One of those areas of focus was increasing access to frequent transit service. Conversations around this led to the notion of redesigning bus service.

Jarrett’s team and the success that he’s had in other parts of the country, it just seemed like a really strong fit. Initially we looked at just the City of Atlanta network. Roughly a year ago, before the Covid-19 pandemic, we had a charrette, and what I think became apparent to us was that we struggled with being able to separate out a redesign for Atlanta versus a redesign for the system. We had a decision to make about where we are with service today and where we need to go with service. It makes a whole lot of sense that we’re focusing on the entire network.

Jarrett, can you explain the process that you use and your thinking?

Jarrett Walker: People have a whole bunch of different things that they want transit to do. Because MARTA is a public agency, every resident, every taxpayer also has a valid opinion. Decision leaders also want transit to do things for the city and the community—helping with emissions, helping with economic development, helping with correcting historic patterns of racial injustice, and other goals. Before I’m going to draw a line on the map, we need to have a conversation about how we’re going to prioritize all those expectations. The key to it is to recognize that these different goals really belong to two categories based on the kind of networks that would implement them.

So, if you were to tell me to go design a network for maximum ridership, then there’s a particular kind of network I’d draw. It would run very good service in places where there are lots of people and lots of jobs. And it would run no service at all in places where there aren’t very many people or very many jobs, or people are further apart or harder to get to, for whatever reason. And that ridership-maximizing network would deliver on certain policy outcomes that people value. It tells the agency how it can get the most revenue from fares, how you deliver on all of the environmental benefits, reducing emissions, and benefits of managing congestion by replacing vehicle trips.

On the other hand, if you want the transit system to go everywhere, and that’s your top priority, then I’m going to draw what’s called a coverage network. But by spreading it out, I’m spreading it thin, so there’s less frequency. If I spread it out over a larger area, that means on each route, the bus is going to come less often. It’s less likely to run on Sundays. If you run a very low frequency, the buses come only when people need it, [and] then not many people use it, and as a result, the ridership is predictably low. That’s the trade-off.

There are good reasons to support both goals. It’s very easy to say, “leave nobody behind.” It’s very easy to say, “access for everyone.” But as soon as you say, “everyone,” you’ve said, “everywhere.” And when we go everywhere, there’s going to be a limit to our ability to provide a useful service anywhere.

I don’t have a point of view about this. My job has been to help communities think about how they want to balance those competing network types with their competing benefits. What I will do, and what we will all be doing, is helping people understand why you really do have to think about it this way.

We are also here to help people understand what the consequences are going to be one way or the other, or doing more of one type of network as opposed to the others. Our process is built around making sure that the community, ultimately speaking to officials on the MARTA board, makes that decision rather than us having any role in that decision. We’re going to be sketching out two contrasting possible network maps, one of which shows what the network would look like if the goal were primarily ridership, and the other which shows what the network would look like if the goal were primarily coverage. People will get to see actually how this affects different areas, and they’ll also be able to see how the total impact of the network and what the network achieves is different depending on which of these things you prioritize.

How do you factor equity in there?

Walker: Here’s the challenge about equity. If you mean improving average access to opportunity for say, the average low-income person, a high-ridership network will do that. But if you mean providing some service to every last [member] of the public, then you want a coverage network. There is a question here to be asked of everyone who is thinking particularly about equity or racial justice. It depends which of those things you want to accomplish.

Keep in mind, a high-ridership network will serve a certain percent of the population. We don’t know the exact percentage yet, but a lot of people will be on it because that population lives in places that are relatively dense and walkable. Those people will benefit enormously from a ridership network. And I’m quite sure that access to opportunity for the [average low-income person] tends to be much better in the ridership concept.

Parker: One way we will strive to build an equitable network will be through public participation. So if we were to, as Jarrett describes, just implement something in a vacuum that we thought was best. Built into this process is a significant amount of public outreach, public participation, and public influence in answering Jarrett’s question. He’s asking the question; he’s not answering it for MARTA. So that’s been the key to this process. And then the other piece of it: Whenever we design changes to a bus network, we have to make some analysis to make sure that there isn’t some bias in terms of how the system serves different populations. It’s a very clear-cut process to measure that.

Parker: The important piece of that public participation is trying to articulate so people can understand those trade-offs. The trade-offs exist because of limited funds, right? We have only so many resources to apply here. Let’s build a bus network that equitably meets the goals that the policymakers are going to challenge us to build.

Jarrett, you talk often about grids. When you look at MARTA’s service map, are you seeing opportunities?

Walker: It’s not just the grid shape of the street network. There are parts of Atlanta where you have continuous density and high walkability to the point that I’d expect there to be a high-frequency grid in that area. A high-frequency grid is distinct from the street network grid. Frequent means that the next bus is coming soon and that the routes cross each other in such a way that if you come in on this bus, it’s easy to change onto [another] bus because that bus is also coming soon. And it is the way that the lines connect with each other through frequency—that’s how you put together an effective network. If you’re only running a line every 30 or 60 minutes, and it crosses another line that runs every 30 or 60 minutes, it’s a little bit like two roads flying over each other without an interchange. They are physically on the same GPS coordinates but you can’t actually get from one to the other very easily. I always emphasize not just frequency, but frequent lines that are perpendicular so that there are lots of useful trips you can make by connecting from one to the other. The rail system is an immense part of the frequent network, but there’s a lot more that could be done to build a frequent network here in Atlanta.

Parker: The convenience of transferring from a bus to a bus is sometimes so much greater than transferring to a rail system. I think we sometimes in Atlanta view the bus network as a bunch of disconnected routes that connect you into a rail network. I suspect some of Jarrett’s work is going to help build that fabric that’s more than just bringing people to a frequent and high-capacity, heavy rail system. We’re blessed to have [rail] but the bus-to-bus network is important as well.

Walker: When we draw a map of existing high-frequency services in the metro Atlanta area, they are not mostly the gridded services that are running across the line. I think that the network already shows strong signs of having been built with the idea of “the buses are feeders to rails.” When bus lines get to rail stations, that’s where their use ends in the current network, as opposed to being part of some larger system where the rail is all supported.

It seems like what’s being proposed here—or what’s about to be studied—is that not only can this make the bus network stand strong on its own, but it will coexist and benefit the rail network at the same time. It’s almost like couples counseling for the rail and bus system. It’s going to get them to work together much better.

Walker: You’ll find us trying to not use the terms “bus network” and “rail network” because there is one network. It has bus and rail. And yes, the goal is for them to work together much more, but also to maximize all the ways that the buses work better for themselves. Say somebody in Bankhead or Vine City wants to go to Ponce City Market. A short [bus] trip that happens to run perpendicular to the rail line shouldn’t be that difficult. But then you look at it in terms of, No, the bus is going to end at the rail line, when you have the potential to keep the bus going in the other direction. I think there are real things we can work on there.

During a work session with the MARTA board, you said that process was going to be controversial. It seems like there’s a special kind of anger about changes to bus routes.

Walker: There are a number of reasons why changes to bus routes are very controversial. One is because you’ve got a significant part of the population who feels they have absolutely no alternative. You can refer to MARTA’s own experience with some of the major service changes they made in response to Covid of retreating to a smaller number of more frequent lines, and basically no longer serving a lot of places. And the [negative] reaction to that is always understandable.

There’s also just a broader resistance to change that happens all the time. This is one of the reasons I’m a big fan of doing big service changes. When we go big—like we’re proposing to do here—and propose to redesign the whole network at once, it becomes very clear that we’re aiming for a big benefit that is measurable across the whole city, as opposed to just doing one little thing in one area that has some benefits but are too small to measure.

Parker: Every time you make a small incremental change, you’re adding something here and you’re taking away something there. That’s simply all you’re doing. You’re fine-tuning the engine. You’re not articulating that the network is better; you’re articulating that there’s people over here that need more service and there’s people over there that I’m going to take away to give to them. And that’s how we do service changes.

This process may lead to certain areas of coverage being eliminated. That’s something that we’re hiring Jarrett’s team to consider. There’s still potential controversy here. But what we’ll be creating inside the overall network is so much more efficient.

How has Covid changed our cityscape? How are you factoring not just the future of density, but the future of Atlanta into this? Those unknowables?

Walker: Basically, nobody knows very much about how Covid is going to affect the shape of cities. By all means, let’s bring people to the table and have them compare their crystal balls. We need to be able to tell a story about why the network that we’re developing is resilient in the face of a number of different possible futures. One of the things we know is that lots of people still want to live in places where they can walk to things, walk to jobs, have things close by. Lots of people still want cities. If more people work at home from now on, there may be some exodus from cities. But I think we can take the baseline assumption that Atlanta’s not going to drop, dry up, and blow away. If a lot of nine-to-five jobs either stay at home permanently or, more likely, start coming in two or three days a week, you’re going to have a decline in rush-hour commuters. This has pros and cons. One of the potentially good things about it is that rush hour can be very expensive to serve. And in terms of the efficiency with which you can put out an hour of bus service, it’s cheaper to do it if you’re doing it all day than to pull out a bus just for a couple of hours.

I think that the other thing we’ve learned [during] Covid is where ridership hasn’t fallen. Ridership has not fallen among the people who are getting everyone’s food on the shelves at the grocery store, and at the jobs that have been essential for civilization in the last year. Folks who have jobs that they cannot do online and who also travel all over the clock, not just during nine-to-five—they’re a big part of the market that transit can serve in the most effective way and for whom transit can be economically liberating. When you bring this back to equity, it is important to talk about racial and social justice as a criteria. But it’s also important to recognize that as we invest generally in all-day, all-evening, and all-weekend patterns of service, we are also moving in that direction. Not just for ridership reasons, but also because lower income and minority people are most likely to need to travel seven-days-a-week and at all times of day. If [the aftermath of the pandemic] allows for some rebalancing away from a lot of one-way, rush-hour trips and over toward more consistent patterns, that can be a win-win on several levels. We have to build resilience into the plan [so it] can adapt to whatever the market turns out to be. Because [right now,] nobody knows.

Jeff, you seem excited about this. What do you see coming out of this? How can it add to MARTA?

Parker: What excites me is that, first and foremost, this is a city in a region that is growing incredibly fast. And I think that the importance of investment in public transportation is critically important. You look at Microsoft making a decision to invest substantially next to Bankhead Station. Public transit is also connecting less-affluent and Black and Brown neighborhoods to jobs across the city, including higher-paying jobs that tend to be on the northern side of Atlanta.

Public transportation can play a big role in [helping people access those opportunities]. And I truly believe that the most impactful way that we can do that is to efficiently and effectively use what we have. We’re going to build [bus-rapid transit] corridors, like in Summerhill, and we’re going to build light rail in this city. BRT is planned between the Bankhead station and Ponce City Market. Those projects are going to take, in some cases, years. Other projects are going to take decades to build, and some will probably never get built. You can’t build roads quickly, and you can’t build heavy-rail extensions quickly. But in relative terms, we can make some really hugely impactful things with buses.

Correction 6/3/21: An earlier version of this story and headline stated that MARTA buses carried more than 400,000 people per day. The agency’s buses carry about 500,000 people per week.

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