Thursday, January 14, 2010

MATA's Chicken/Egg Problem

Posted By on Thu, Jan 14, 2010 at 11:46 AM

This week in our print edition, I wrote about MATA.

The public transportation authority is looking at several changes, including new "Smart Bus" technology, a study of the routes and service areas, and a new FastPass program, which lets people pay for a daily, weekly, or monthly pass.

All things I think they should be doing and congratulate them for taking on.

But in a world where public transportation makes good economic sense for both localities and their citizens, not to mention the health and environmental benefits, I urged MATA to try to make riding the bus more convenient and more efficient.

For the record, I like MATA general manager Will Hudson. He’s a nice guy; he’s been inducted into some state transportation hall of fame, and his story — working his way from bus driver to MATA head — is very impressive.

And I think the MATA staff work very hard to try and provide the best service they can to the customers they already have.

But I think they could help themselves — and the county — by growing a larger ridership base.

And that’s going to take creating a system that works better for everyone: more streamlined routes, quicker pick-up times, an iPhone app that tells you exactly where your bus is — they can use their new Smart Bus GPS technology! — and when it is scheduled to arrive, and automated fare machines at more than just a few locations.

For people who can afford it, convenience is as important as cost. If you make it difficult for people to use, and they have the option, they’ll drive.

You can’t have routes that squirrel up and down tiny side streets, just because they always have, adding precious minutes to travel time. You can’t demand correct change in a world where most people don’t even carry cash anymore.

MATA has to think of itself competing against automobiles and all the amenities they come with, such as credit card machines at parking garages and credit card machines at gas stations.

I think MATA officials would say that they’d love to do these things, but they take money. And they would be right.

But it’s kind of a chicken-and-egg conundrum.

If you could do these things, you could get a bigger ridership base. If you had a bigger ridership base, you could collect more fares and get the support to do more of these types of things.

At a MATA briefing last week, officials talked about how 45 percent, or $52 million, of MATA’s budget comes from the city of Memphis. In fact, Memphis is the only local funding source.

One of the MATA board members pointed out that none of the suburban communities help fund MATA though most of them are serviced by its routes.

To which I wonder: When was the last time MATA asked the suburbs for funding?

Present a case as to why MATA service is important to suburban residents and go before the governments of these communities and make the ask.

The only hitch is: MATA service has to be important to suburban residents.

I have a lot more to say on this topic, but I'm going to stop there.

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