Sunday, March 16, 2008

MATA Loses Race For Buses Of Future

It’s our prediction that Memphis Area Transit Authority can give away rides on excessive ozone pollution days – rather than the 25 cents special fares it’s proposing – and it’s still not going to lure anyone aboard our city buses.

MATA’s intentions are good – part of a broader attack to bring Memphis into compliance with federal air quality standards – but as long as MATA lacks even a hint of a customer service culture, it’s probably all just for show – and special funding.

While other cities are using public transportation as a hook to recruit young, college-educated workers and creative industries, MATA continues with a system built on the premise that all of its customers are people without choices.

So, why really go to any trouble to pursue a top-notch system?

Market Research

Sometimes, we wonder if MATA ever conducts focus groups with potential customers or polls residents to see what they want from their public transit company. As for us, we’d start with cleanliness, timeliness and convenience.

Each year, Leadership Memphis engages in an interesting experiment when it asks its executive class members to take public transit to and from one of its meeting days. It is the first time for many of them, and in a word, their general reaction is incredulous.

They talk about dirty buses, lengthy trips, impractical schedules and empty buses. They talk about the trip planner feature on the website as unreliable and on one occasion, laughable. That was the time when the suggested travel schedule called for a rider traveling from the medical center to Balmoral to wait for a bus at Lamar and Semmes overnight.

And keep in mind, this is the new, improved trip planner function.


It was only about a year ago that selecting trip planner on the MATA site meant sending an email with your personal information, your place and time of departure and place of arrival. Then, the website promised: “One of our customer service representatives will get back to you within 24 hours with a recommendation.”

MATA has improved the website, but nothing shows how far it has to go than the trip planner on Portland, Oregon’s TriMet system, where buses’ locations are given in real time and riders can see the exact time that it will arrive.

For example, Portland uses a GPS system to give riders detailed directions such as “walk 0.19 mile east from bike gallery,” and they are told what bus to board, how long the trip will take and what the fare will cost.

Riders can ask for real-time arrivals by clicking “transit tracker,” which gives reminders of how close the bus or light rail is.

Back To The Future

Every day, about 40,000 people here ride MATA, and we can’t help but wonder what the quality of the rides would be if the ridership wasn’t largely lower income Memphians. All in all, it’s a sad commentary on the importance that we place overall on services aimed largely at low-income Memphians.

While Memphis deals with service that’s considered basic on its best days, other cities are making impressive strides.

Like it did with the improvement to its trip planner function, MATA was equally modest when it bought enough hybrid buses that you can count them on one hand. Meanwhile, Seattle has about 300 hybrid buses and Minneapolis has started with 19 hybrids and expects to increase it tenfold in five years. Meanwhile, New York City opted for 325 hybrid-electric buses.

Back to the kinds of creature comforts that aim for a wider, more representative customer base, other cities have amped up the perks in their buses.


Atlanta, for example, upgraded the comfort of its seats and now loads news, sports scores and weather reports into televisions on its buses when they leave the bus barn. Utah and Colorado have added Wi-fi to longer commuter buses for $5,000 and report that it has resulted in added ridership. Meanwhile, the buses have reclining seats, cup holders and racks for briefcases and backpacks.

A number of cities like Portland, Oregon, now send alerts to passengers’ Blackberries, offering up-to-the-minute information about trouble spots and alternatives in the event of problems on the route.

It seems light years away for Memphis, but meanwhile, you can see the new breed of buses in cities where customer-focused service is now producing some remarkable transformations to public transit of the future.


jccvi said...


Anonymous said...

Just more of the same institutional incompetence that so typifies Memphis. Other cities forge ahead while we wallow in mediocrity, or worse.

autoegocrat said...

MATA was my only way to get around for several years of my life, and there were many occasions when I did better by simply walking.

No one uses the bus because the bus isn't useful. Instead of raising rates every few years, make the buses useful and there will be enough riders to support the system.

But when it takes a minimum of two hours just to get across town, it really doesn't matter how wealthy you are. No one can afford to spend four hours a day on their commute.

The only way MATA will ever work in this city is if they get rid of the present route schedule and start the whole thing over from scratch.
The circuitous routes like the Number 2 and the 56 Union are some of the worst offenders.

What's wrong with simply running strightforward routes along the arterial roads like they do in every other city? Put a route each on Poplar, Lamar, and Jackson, then run one around the 240 Loop and you've just covered access to half the city.

It's so simple and obvious, I really don't understand why it hasn't been done long ago.

Anonymous said...

Memphis ranked 48th out 50 in that could handle rising oil costs. The main reason. MATA sucks.
A map of he bus routes looks like spaghetti and it is impossible to find routes and stop times. The bus system in Western Samoa is better than MATA.
I think MATA only exists now in order to serve as a slush fund for corruption. What happened to that FBI investigation a few weeks ago?

MATA sucks
MATA sucks
MATA sucks
MATA sucks
MATA sucks

Goddamn I get tired of everything sucking here. How pathetic is it that we can't even run a bus system.

Amie said...

I agree with you and autoegocrat regarding the cost of the bus being irrelevant. Until the bus has better and more reliable routes, it is useless, at least for attracting new riders. I met someone who works for the city who was all excited about their 25 cent incentive, but when I mentioned this idea to him, his response: we don't have the money to fix it.

gatesofmemphis said...

the routes look like they were laid out by wandering donkeys. They've been this bad in Memphis since at least the 1970s, when I first rode the bus.

And bravo to autoegocrat's idea! Run straight along the major roads of the grid and the old highways in and out of Memphis. There has to major inefficiencies from turning right or left ever 3 blocks.

2 possible ways to create change:

1. perhaps Leadership Memphis could offer help. I figure that they stand a good chance of at least getting attention for this problem. MATA's apathy thrives in silence.

2. require by law that the MATA director, executive and planning staff take their own mass transit to and from work and during the workday. I have a feeling that they're not eating their own dog food.

marycash said...

Re: Why it hasn't been done long ago — MATA's not interested in potential ridership, only real ridership.

When asked about changing to a grid system — sometime within the last five years or so — MATA head Will Hudson held that a hub system is more appropriate for its current customer base, i.e. poor city residents who work in the suburbs.

Anonymous said...

I applaud those of you who have come to this forum to post your opinions with some hint of a solution in-tow. Perhaps you could share those opinions/solutions with the Transit Authority.? I know of a group that had some ideas for the Transit Authority, approached them with the idea, created partnerships, and as a result the buses now run on a biodiesel/diesel blend.
I too am frustrated with our city, the vacuum of leadership, and our high ranking in the Nation's most regrettable polls. I suggest that, instead of isolating your comments to this forum, perhaps you could share your solutions with a qualified individual or group that can address the problem. At the very least, if you are unmotivated to act on your frustrations, keep the whining to yourself.

autoegocrat said...

Regarding solutions, this seems serendipitous: The first result when you Google the search term "traffic modeling software" comes up with a link to Ole Miss.

Smart City Consulting said...

In most cities that have top-notch public transit, there's also a top-notch mayor who makes it a priority. As the old saying in City Hall goes, there's always money to do what the mayor wants. Maybe the next one....

autoegocrat said...

If the next mayor makes mass transit a priority, I can't imagine who that candidate for mayor would be. Sad to say, I don't see that issue being raised effectively by either of the Shelby County parties.

Perhaps the subprime meltdown combined with peak oil will wake some people up around here. I hope it's not too late when that happens.

Aaron said...

Perhaps this was an anomaly but my spouse and boys had a pleasant experience on the bus. She said it was on time as well.

Midtowner said...

GateofMemphis you're absolutely right. If the MATA officials had to use the bus system to get to work they'd change the darn thing.

I've been frustrated by the MATA system ever since I returned from Germany over 20 years ago. Wow, what a great system they had over there. I went for YEARS without driving a car and came home to this mess.

And yes, I've written the mayor, the city council, MATA, and attended the meetings. It's all fallen on death ears.

Worse, the "light-rail" route isn't much better. Attend the meetings and it becomes obvious that they want to build a rail system for the sake of building a rail system.

Sorry to say, Will Hudson needs to go but I'm afraid of who King Willie would replace him with ... sigh.

Cialis Online said...

If the next mayor makes mass transit a priority, I can't imagine who that candidate for mayor would be. Sad to say, I don't see that issue being raised effectively by either of the Shelby County parties.

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