Wednesday, August 10, 2005

the future of public transit

Picture a long dark tunnel. Peppered with short bursts of painfully ephemeral illumination provided by the occasional terminally ill 50 watt bulb mounted on the wall. Imagine that this illumination follows exponential decay, which means that the illusion of light persists, yet it's actually getting darker. That my friends is the future of public transportation in the US of A. My point of reference will be Atlanta, since that's where I exist as the satyakaam of transit travel.

What we have is an idea called "Atlanta". Why an idea? Because in cities like Chamblee or Marietta (which fall in different counties as well), you can get by with an "Atlanta" in your postal address. Which means that "Atlanta" extends to accomodate and supersede other cities. Which aids the idea of a sprawl very well. And what a sprawl. The dregs of the city and the expanse of the suburbs have colluded to make this interstate highway-based "living[sic] space" a challenge for public transit.

And "public transit" is also an idea, instead of a wonderfully managed city or state-supported entity. We have disparte systems in place that intersect at politically defined rendezvous points: I know of MARTA, CCT, and Gwinnett County Transit. Note that the first entry in that list is the only one that does not betray its county (Fulton, BTW). Administrative granularity ensures that no one gets along. Counties supersede city and state regulations (very few of which seem to favour public transit, based on what I read on a regular basis). Your taxes do not help public transit in any way.

The only "transit" your taxes support is the kind that you sink $$$ into and get only frustration, hypertension, injury, high medical bills (aren't they always?) and death. And everyone seems to be fine with it.

A high percentage of Americans (the last I read it was about the same figure as the percentage of Americans who didn't have some form of health insurance ... but don't draw any correlations there). Yet people want to have their cake, eat it, and belch freely too. So people constantly rant about how allowing public transit into their area is going to infect it with undesirable social elements. Of course, they're fine with road rage and wasted time and $$$ getting to and from work (which occupies a bulk of their week). And their representatives in the administrative offices help to present this counter-argument to discourage any useful legislation in the support of public transit (see the end of this rant for more).

This "city" is already splitting at its seams (and running over) with traffic. And it's not multi-modal. Well, in a way it is, thanks to the large gas-guzzling vans and space vehicles that terribly incompetent drivers seem to hurl at you from different directions. Makes for a great horror movie. As long as you are not in it.

The only thing going for MARTA is the train. And they just slashed the schedules yet again. The reason the train gets more points is because the buses never offer a clear advantage. Buses have to share lanes with frustrated and frustrating drivers. Now, if you are stuck in traffic, wouldn't you prefer to be stuck in your own vehicle (and perhaps exercise some more options of escape) than in a bus? And guess what, the buses are being progressively slashed as well. It's a great way to reduce your losses. But it's also a great way to discourage people who want to use your system. Rest in peace.

The CCT buses are nicer than the MARTA buses. The latter have had fuelling issues with their CNG systems. The latter also enjoys the recent addition of Transit Television Network screens that only serve to add to the unwanted chatter you have to deal with in the bus (see also: jack- and jenny-asses talking ever so loudly on their cellphones in aggravating pitches and frequencies). Both bus systems share the same basic problem of trying to cover as many points with as few buses as possible. Which means that the routes taken are so sub-optimal, Edsger Dijkstra would collapse in shock several times over. All this happens for "cost optimisation" (put a 'z' there instead of an 's' if you're waiting on your green card).

I haven't used the GCT, but I don't expect a grand

And then there's the yet-another-attempt-to-unify-every-system from GRTA, which "works with those counties in Georgia that have been designated nonattainment under the federal Clean Air Act standards. Currently, there are thirteen counties in the metropolitan Atlanta area that are non-attainment for ozone. Those counties are Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, Coweta, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Forsyth, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry, Paulding and Rockdale." Good luck. All that has happened is akin to the creation of a committee to decide which committees need to be created. And it's no longer funny.

And why am I ranting in abandon? Because I saw a blurb on one of those tiresome screens at the MARTA train stations that play silly pixels for Cingular, The Home Depot and the iPod, in addition to providing MARTA Standard Time, and useful information about the next Northbound/Southbound train (while one chugs in and the announcer gets her timing wrong yet again). The blurb was about Clayton County and commuter rail. And I had to dig up the newsitem in question (you might have to sign your life away to read it; instead just use Here's the relevant extract (let us pray that they are touched with the flames of wisdom or burnt to ashes as an alternative):

The Clayton County Commission has agreed with the Georgia Department of Transportation and the Georgia Rail Passenger Authority to take part in the proposed Macon-to-Atlanta commuter rail system.
But while Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell and three members of the Commission were happy with the agreement, Commissioner Wole Ralph was not.

Ralph thinks commuter rail is a good idea, but doesn't think Clayton County taxpayers should be saddled with paying the debt on it.

"I do not believe the state should ask the property owners of Clayton County to pay for rail services that will be used regionally by individuals from surrounding counties to provide them with increased access to Atlanta," Ralph said.

Ralph's thinking: metro Atlanta's traffic problem, specifically in Clayton County, is a regional issue and not one to be solved by county property tax owners.

Clayton County taxpayers will be on the hook for an estimated initial $4.5 million annual debt, Ralph said.

"Those are not Clayton County roads," he said. "There's no reason Clayton County taxpayers should pay to alleviate traffic on state roads."

Other fantasies include the Georgia Association of Railroad Passengers (not to be confused with a movie that included a scene about the importunate consequences of ill-timed ill-placed fellatio [see also: The Man Who Wasn't There]) and the promise of separate lanes for buses. It's time to listen to Aerosmith's Dream On chorus again.

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