A Tale Of Two Cities: Memphis By Bus & Memphis By Car

Memphis, TN – Every weekday about 41,000 Memphians ride public transit. They are some of the city's poorest residents with some of the longest commutes.

Using the Memphis Area Transit Authority, or MATA, buses it takes me three hours and 21 minutes to get from where I live, off Highway 64 in Cordova, to WKNO which is right off I-40 at Whitten Road.

I have to get on one bus and ride all the way downtown, then get on another bus and ride all the way back up again.

It's a trip that in my car takes me 15 minutes.

But the bus system wasn't designed for me. I live in Cordova. Most people who ride the bus live in Memphis; service is better in the city, and best inside the I-240 loop.

I also chose to ride the bus. Most riders are on the bus because they can't afford a car.

But even among regular riders who live in Memphis, there are some long commutes. Keeva Boyd takes the bus every weekday to get from where she lives in Binghamton to her job at Patterson Warehouse. Binghamton is at the center of the I-240 loop, Patterson is just outside it, near the airport.

"I get on the bus about five thirty in the morning," Boyd said. "I get to work by seven."

"It could get tiring," says Johnnie Mosley, "it definitely could get tiring."

Mosley is President of Citizens For Better Service, which advocates for bus riders. He also rides the bus to work. "Something needs to be done," Mosley said.

Almost three years ago MATA came out with a coordinated plan. That plan included four "Vision Statements" for public transportation. On the list were "regional coverage" and no "political boundaries" for service--that's the kind of thing that would help someone like me out taking the bus. But the number one vision was this: "Public transportation should not be viewed negatively as a service for the poor."

After I read that I went to talk to Alison Burton, MATA's Director of Marketing and Customer Service. We sat under a picture of Rosa Parks. I asked her what that first vision statement means, exactly.

"You'll find individuals who view MATA as a service primarily for African-Americans," Burton said. "I think the statement may be related to that."

Mosley doesn't think this is about race. He sees Memphis as divided in a different way.

"Right now we are a city composed of two groups--bus riders and car drivers," Mosley said.

Mosley says the negative view MATA is trying to combat is all about the quality of the service, not the people who use it.

"For them to write that particular statement, it's just words to MATA," Mosley said. "I don't think anything has been done to transform that dream into a reality."

But there are barriers to better service. Memphis is not nearly as dense as some of the big cities with the best public transit systems, like New York, Washington D.C., or Boston.

"Urban sprawl does not work well with public transportation," said Thomas Fox, Assistant General Manager at MATA.

And unlike smaller cities with more comprehensive public transit, Memphis doesn't have a dedicated funding source. A dedicated source would guarantee MATA a certain amount of money every year and allow the authority to plan. As it is, MATA is apportioned money yearly, and it never knows exactly how much it is going to get. So MATA ends up perpetually balancing its annual budget. Still, Fox says, better service would take more cash.

"With a budget of 50 million, we would need 75 million," Fox said.

And that would mean more taxes for everyone, not just people who ride the buses. Mosley says that is money worth spending, because, he says, Memphis can't be a cohesive whole while inefficient service is exhausting the city's working poor.

"We definitely can't be one Memphis that way," Mosley said.