As you’ve probably put together, dear reader, I am an adamant advocate of public transportation. One way that I haven’t been as strong an advocate for transit, however, is with my son, Evan. Seven years old, he spends a fair amount of his time riding in a car between his mother’s home in the ‘burbs, his school in Midtown, and my place near Decatur. I’ve been wanting to get him more on board with transit, and have taken him multiple times over the past few years on buses and trains, but never regularly and not lately. So, we recently experimented with catching the MARTA bus instead of driving. One experiment went pretty well while the other one… Not so much.
The first time I decided that we’d catch the bus instead of driving was simply picking him up from school. Evan’s school is located in Midtown and Route #36 runs conveniently from Midtown over to Emory where my folks live. Since I was already working in Midtown that day, the choice before me was either catch the bus an hour earlier, get the car from my folks’ house, drive back to Midtown, and then wait in traffic and the carpool line to pick him up… Or get another cup of coffee, walk down the block, hang out with him for a couple of minutes, and hop on the bus. Sounds like an easy decision, right?
Unfortunately not: out of every bus route I’ve ridden, the #36 is the least reliable bus to traverse this Earth. Rarely does tracking the real time data on the One Bus Away app or following the online schedule get me on that bus, especially during the week. I’m not sure if it’s the cluster of a route it takes from Midtown to Avondale that throws it so off schedule or something else entirely, but I’ve learned not to trust it.
This blustery afternoon, I went against my better judgement and thought that this day would be different. Standing on the sidewalk in the ~50 degree weather for 15 minutes or so, Evan was skeptical of the bus. When the #36 did finally round the corner some 20 minutes late, I threw up my arm to wave to the driver–who sped right past us.
It wasn’t the first time that a bus has ignored me, but, on top of being so late, it almost threw me over the edge. We sat down again, I looked up when the next bus would allegedly arrive, and we went back to playing Crossy Road. When that bus, too, didn’t show up, I was beyond baffled. A bus came from the opposite direction and we hopped on it; I decided waiting in the bus at the Midtown station was much better than continuing to sit in the cold.
On the ride home, I told Evan that we wouldn’t be waiting for the bus again, and it hurt me to say it. I want my son to be comfortable riding the bus, to not grow up with the stigma that “nobody rides the bus,” or thinking buses are just for poor people. My niece in Portland, Oregon, who’s not even 16 yet, rides the TriMet to her school confidently every day and I am envious of her confidence in the system. But confidence in the system has to be earned.
Considering one in every five Lyft rides is to a MARTA train station, it’s clear to see that people are choosing ride-sharing over buses.
One of the major keys to making riding transit a positive experience that consumers will choose over driving is reliability. Of course, cleanliness, safety, speed, convenience, and comfort are all crucial, too, but if the rise of ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft are any indication, reliability may be more important than anything else. Considering one in every five Lyft rides is to a MARTA train station, according to Lyft’s General Manager of Ride Service, it’s clear to see that in many cases people are choosing ride-sharing over buses.
Unreliability is the problem that plagues so many bus and transit systems. If the bus was actually predictable and reliable, I could plan around it and use it confidently, and in Atlanta many other buses are. Just not the #36.
On a Saturday morning a week or so after our original debacle, we walked down to the bus stop and caught the #6, a route I have much more faith in. Lo and behold, it arrived right on time. We rode it all the way to the Inman Park station and walked across the street to Proof Bakeshop, one of our favorites, to read and write for a few hours. When we were ready to go, I just checked the One Bus Away app and headed over to the station. We waited but a moment before the bus arrived to take us home.
Compared to our first experience, Saturday’s bus rides on the #6 were flawless. When transit works, when it’s reliable and convenient, taking kids along is a great educational experience; it allows you as a parent to spend more time actively engaging with your child instead of driving and splitting your focus between them and the road–so it’s safer, too. Also, kids love riding on trains and buses (trust me).
Even when your ride runs late like our original experiment did, there’s an opportunity to demonstrate patience and resilience in the face of the uncontrollable. That’s a lesson worth the $2.50 a ride, if you ask me.
Transit agencies, cities, public officials, transportation planners: If you want your city to retain young people, and even more so young families, do everything possible to make transit more reliable. If you want to attract more Millennials, give us more options that we can count on–that’s what we really want. The Millennial generation bikes, rides transit, drives and rides in cars, and will do whichever one is most convenient and reliable given the circumstances. There are many of us that would love to ride the bus or take the train if we could rely on it-that’s why public transportation ridership continues to climb in the United States even with some of the lowest oil prices in the past decade. And as Millennials get older and more have kids, a lot of us aren’t going to move to the ‘burbs and hang up our helmets, or toss out breeze cards.
So, take your kids on transit with you. It’s refreshing to get out from behind the wheel, leave the traffic behind, talk to your kid, and catch the bus.