Having written and published a book about public transportation that is a novel wrapped in political satire, I have been lately asking myself, “What possessed you to embark on this journey in the first place?
Coincidentally, I need look no further than a piece I wrote called “Book Spotting,” that appeared in Like the Dew in 2011. The article mentions a fictitious book club on the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) whose basic membership requirement was to read something while riding public transportation. It was a seed of an idea that eventually became my new personal pokeweed called Down & Outbound: A Mass Transit Satire. Instead of writing about Atlanta per se, I created a faux metropolis, Atlantis City, and its public transportation system ALACARTA the Always Lovely (or Always Late) Atlantis City Area Rapid Transit Authority. I mixed in logos, a train map, photos and edgy graphics into the text as well.
Years of riding MARTA have given me a plethora of anecdotes, which I framed into Down & Outbound’s basic plot line: “In the subterranean world of mass transit there are two separate yet equally marginalized groups: the riders who use public transportation and the city officials who routinely persecute them.”
Another reason I wrote the book is to dispel the thousands of miles of irritation accumulated on my daily commute (the years do add up). Even though conditions seemed to improve (at least financially), when Keith Parker took over as the head of MARTA at the end of 2012, I have not noticed any expansion in coverage, especially on weekends.
MARTA’s new focus is branded as Transit Oriented Development (TOD) includes involvement in developing housing and retail outlets near certain stations (Avondale, Edgewood-Candler Park, King Memorial). Basically, this brings the riders to MARTA instead of MARTA expanding past the Perimeter to where residents have little recourse but to drive into the city every day. Perhaps you have seen these futuristic drawings with wide boulevards, strolling pedestrians, light rail and bicycles existing in perfect harmony — a notable absence of streets filled with traffic.
This seems like a real fiction when compared to my daily slog through dimly lit stations with their grimy floors, incomplete or inaccurate signage, and limited seating on slabs of Stonehenge-like benches. And anyone who thinks just-in-time apps will be coordinating the East-West trains with the North-South trains anytime soon hasn’t had the weekly experience of subway doors slamming on their faces just as they emerge from the stairwells at Five Points.
My daily commuting comrades, many who are fast-food and service-industry workers or students (not many urban professionals), seem to accept their station in (transit) life. And so they must, since according to MARTA’s 2015 annual report, over half of its daily commuters do not have access to any other mode of transportation.
I want to believe in the TOD vision of the future, but there is something foreboding as well — it’s like one of my characters in Down & Outbound who quips that public transit is not going to improve until the ridership is gentrified. That may seem to be MARTA’s strategy here, but that day won’t be coming to fruition in Atlanta for a long, long time. Meanwhile…