-- Jan Holtz Kay, Asphalt Nation
From my seat in the middle of the bus, exempt from the exhaust of weary commuters, insulated from the grotesque tangle of traffic, liberated from the four-letter-driven vocabulary I adopt when I drive, it's easy to see. We're obsessed.
Never mind the asthma, the sinus infections, the ground-level ozone, the smog alerts, loss of federal funding, incalculable stress, road rage, accidents, inertia, obesity, hours lost to sitting in gridlock. Never mind that we spend so much time behind the wheel we've lost whatever intimacy other city dwellers feel for their streets. In Atlanta, cars rule.
I'm alone when I come to this conclusion. It's a rush hour in early May, and I'm the only person on the bus.
Like most in the City Too Busy To Hate, my past relationship with the car has crossed from lovesick dependence into hardcore addiction. We prefer to drive -- despite the blaring signs that driving is bad for us -- because driving is sexy, heady, empowering. To the pimply teenager with the pea-green clunker, to the moneyed twentysomething with the svelte coupe, to the taut tennis mom with the living room on wheels, car equals freedom.
And public transportation, as Marie Antoinette might opine, is for those who don't eat cake.
Also like most Atlantans, I seldom rode MARTA, save the occasional Braves game or trip to the airport. I had no idea where, when, how often, how early or how late public transportation -- particularly the buses -- ran. I only noticed a bus when I was stuck behind one, driving.
Knowing how bad pollution and sprawl suck in this city (see "Pollution Index" for the grim details), I still suspected MARTA sucked worse. When it came to the pastime of bashing public transit, I joined the fray: The rail doesn't go anywhere, and the buses go there so slowly, they're irrelevant. As for those people who go car-less by choice, they're fanatics, masochists, tree-huggers.
So I joined them. For a week, I didn't drive. I took MARTA everywhere. Or at least as much as I could bear. I tried to determine whether I and the rest of the city's car-crazed inhabitants have resigned to driving because it's the only way -- or have been whining about a transportation system of which we know nada. In order to know what I was missing, I embedded with the buses.
Armed with maps, schedules, rubber-soled shoes, MARTA's help number and a cell phone, I approximated my normal routine. Along the way, I hoped to demystify some common confusion: Who rides MARTA? Is it scary? Is it a huge pain in the ass to learn? Will it work equally well for the yuppie suburbanite and the intown hipster? What must one sacrifice to go all public transportation, all the time?
And do the masses snub MARTA because it goes nowhere, or does MARTA go nowhere because the masses snub it?
The sad state of public transportation isn't a dilemma peculiar to Atlanta. Sprawl meccas like L.A. and Houston share our woes. But it's a dilemma of increasing significance given our fattening population (both in pounds and persons), our sickening air and our maddening traffic: Why do so few people ride MARTA?
I trudge away from Creative Loafing's parking lot in the Old Fourth Ward feeling some trepidation. I'm forgetting something. My car. It's 6:08 p.m., and I fear my optimism has made off with my better sense. Why am I willingly giving up the cozy confines of my leather-upholstered coupe to expose myself to the harsh environs of travel by bus, train and foot? OK, so it's no journey to Mordor. But given the amount of planning that went into this adventure, you'd think I was traveling to the fiery mountain and back. Twice.
The yield of four hours of research on www.itsmarta.com: 83 downloaded pages encompassing a dozen bus lines; route maps; weekday schedules; weekend schedules; northbound treks and southbound treks. A veritable everything-you-need-to-know guide if you're me, a resident of Grant Park who works five miles from home, has a penchant for power yoga and parties, and is guilty of a decade-long dependence to her car.
I caught a ride to work this morning, vowing to begin my weeklong pledge to MARTA with an evening commute. As I near the bus stop, however, self-doubt creeps up from my gut. I don't trust for a second that MARTA will get me home. I dial the telephone number listed on the bus stop. It's the only bit of information on the sign. No maps or schedules are posted there -- not even the route number of the bus or buses that might pass.
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