Things I do not miss about living in New York City: the summertime scent of eau de trash; the sky-high rent; loud Wall Street guys hogging all the bar stools.
One thing I definitely do miss: affordable, accessible public transportation.
Like the vast majority of Atlantans, I don’t live in walking distance to a MARTA train, a useability issue that transit experts refer to as the “first-mile/last-mile problem.” To address that problem, MARTA has piloted a creative solution: an on-demand rideshare system dubbed MARTA Reach. Similar to Uber or Lyft, the service takes passengers on short distances around town, generally from a stop near their house to a MARTA station or bus stop. You can call a MARTA Reach ride via an app or by phone, and pay for it like a bus ride with a MARTA card or cash. During the pilot program—which runs Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.—a ride costs $2.50, the same price as a MARTA bus or train ride, and transfers are free.
Always looking for a way out of Atlanta traffic, I decided to download the app and catch a ride with MARTA Reach.
Here’s how it went.
Part 1: Calling a ride
Reach is still in pilot phase, so it currently operates in only a few specific zones. I don’t live within a zone, so I drove to the nearby Avondale Estates MARTA station to begin my journey. I planned to ride to Perc on Hosea Williams Drive in Oakhurst, one of my favorite coffee shops.
The app, which MARTA built in partnership with Georgia Tech, was instantly familiar: it looked a lot like the apps for Uber or Lyft, with options to select a starting location and desired destination. I quickly made an account, where I could add my preferred payment method and any accommodations (the Reach shuttles are ADA-accessible).
Once I selected a starting point, a shaded zone indicated the area where I could travel from that point (you can’t travel between zones). Reach isn’t quite as flexible as regular rideshare, in that available pickup and drop-off spots are indicated by pins on the map. I thought that would mean I’d have to walk a bit to get to my final destination, but the map turned out to be blanketed in pins: I could select a drop-off spot just a few steps from PERC. Reach also gives you an option to request a new spot on the map.
Part 2: The Ride
Once I confirmed my ride, I got an estimated wait time for my shuttle to arrive. On the website, MARTA says the approximate wait-time for a Reach shuttle is 15 minutes, but Anthony Thomas, program manager for customer experience innovation at MARTA, later told Atlanta that the program has exceeded expectations: average wait times have been closer to 7 minutes.
Because I was already at the Avondale station, my wait time turned out to be nothing: the shuttle was already parked in front of the station entrance. The shuttle driver was expecting me, thanks to the same rideshare technology that alerts a driver when a passenger has requested a ride.
On board, I paid with my Breeze card, and took a seat. The shuttle was empty, but the driver told me business has generally been quite busy. And though we didn’t pick anyone else up during my trip, the service is designed to pick up multiple people along a route.
The driver used a navigation app to deliver me to my destination, which also felt familiar, as the digital voice intoned coolly to “Take the next left onto Commerce Drive.”
I could follow our route on my own app, while an “in vehicle” message let me know how much time was left in the trip.
The driver dropped me off at the pin I’d selected, right in front of Perc. Success! I grabbed a coffee and didn’t even have a chance to sit down before bumping into a friend. (I love when a big city feels like a small town!)
Part 3: Getting back
When it was time to leave, I pulled up the Reach app again and requested a ride in the opposite direction. I waited about five minutes for a pickup. I wasn’t sure exactly where to wait, but figured the MARTA bus stop probably doubled as a Reach pickup. The shuttle, with a different driver, picked me up across the street. The ride back was just as smooth, and I was still the only passenger.
The driver dropped me at the same spot at the Avondale station, and just like that, I was back at my car. For the cost of two train rides, I’d hailed a city-sponsored rideshare.
On the service itself, I’d give MARTA Reach top marks. The app was extremely easy to use and both my rides were timely, clean, and enjoyable. I primarily use MARTA to get to sporting events downtown, and if I lived in a Reach zone, I would definitely use it rather than driving to a station.
That said, I don’t live in a zone, so I can’t imagine I’ll use the Reach app anytime soon. Thomas, MARTA’s customer experience innovation program manager, said that if the program continues it will expand to more zones, but when I asked if it would eventually be available everywhere, he said likely not. “This is dependent on the results of the pilot,” Thomas explained, “But if they do decide to continue . . . I think it would be in sensible pockets around the metro area based on where our fixed route service is.”
Clearly, MARTA Reach won’t be the silver bullet to solve all the city’s transportation woes. Atlanta desperately needs miles of road and sidewalk repair, safer routes for walking and biking, and more robust transit options via bus and rail. Those improvements are coming, if slowly: Mayor Andre Dickens has made transportation a top issue of his administration, and City Council has kept up a steady drumbeat of support for new rapid bus lines, improvements in sidewalks and bike lanes, and expansion of the Atlanta Streetcar and Beltline-adjacent light rail.
“Atlanta’s economic and environmental future depends on expanding transit options across our city and region,” City Council President Doug Shipman wrote to Atlanta.
And while a rideshare program like Reach won’t solve any of those concerns, it does address the thorny first-mile/last-mile problem, which limits MARTA access for people without cars—precisely the population in greatest need of public transit. Most of the zones where Reach currently operates are in lower-income areas further away from rail lines, where would-be transit rider have previously been left out, said Thomas: “Folks that might live or work a bit too far away from existing MARTA services, they might have the desire to use it, but that extra 15-20 minute walk at the end, it might be a little too much.”
MARTA’s ride-share program is part of a larger trend. Los Angeles recently piloted a similar service, Metro Micro, and Salt Lake City launched UTA On Demand in 2021. Other cities have experimented with subsidizing Uber and Lyft rides. And the small Georgia cities of Valdosta and Gainesville have both introduced a fleet of ride-sharing vans that residents can order for pickup via an app.
These initiatives are part of a wider bid to boost public transit usage, which plummeted nationwide during the pandemic. And they’re an innovative use of new tech to solve old problems: MARTA’s Reach service uses a cloud computing platform developed by Georgia Tech researchers, through a grant from the National Science Foundation. “Georgia Tech’s mission calls us to develop leaders who advance technology and improve the human condition,” Tech president Ángel Cabrera said in a statement when the pilot launched.
But given Atlanta’s crumbling infrastructure, where we drive daily over endless metal plates and walk our dogs on the jagged remnants of sidewalks, a program like MARTA Reach had one additional, enormous appeal: it was doable right now. On my trip to Perc, MARTA solved my first and last mile problem without ever having to lift a jackhammer.
And in a city where getting from project vision to project execution can feel like wading through a Kafka novel, that is an achievement worth reaching for.