Like many Memphians, my primary mode of transportation is a car. Part of the front bumper is attached with zip ties I bought at a hardware store and the windows rattle, but it drives fine.
I’ve never needed to take a city bus.
On Nov. 7, the Memphis Area Transit Authority introduced a route redesign for its bus system, aiming to bring the map more in line with the Memphis 3.0 Transit Vision plan – which sets an ambitious goal for the city’s public transportation system by 2040 – and reduce inefficiency and areas of low ridership. I was curious about the changes and how they affected people who rely on the bus. It seemed like they could be disruptive, if not devastating.
The 38 Boxtown route was cut, mostly replaced by portions of the 69 Winchester. The 31 Firestone and 82 Germantown were also eliminated, replaced by on-demand rideshare services. The 4 Walker now comes every 90 minutes instead of every 60. The 11 Frayser runs every hour instead of every half hour on weekdays. And the 12 Mallory and the 28 Airport now come every two hours instead of every hour.
Advocates for bus riders in communities that lost lines or decreased frequency are furious.
“They’re taxpayers and they deserve reliable, sufficient transportation,” said Sammie Hunter, co-chair of the Memphis Bus Riders Union. He thinks cutting routes leads to decreased ridership, which ultimately hurts people who depend on the bus.
“A big city like this here, we need a good, sufficient transportation system. I think if they ran the buses frequently like they’re supposed to, I think a lot of people would go ride.”
Public transportation is vital to low-income communities, and MATA is no exception. Experts and riders alike say a functioning public transit allows low-income people to reliably move around without having to own a car, which can be prohibitively expensive. But nearly everyone also agrees MATA’s current system is insufficient, at best. So why the cuts, especially when the long-term goal is more service?
On a brisk Veterans Day morning, a colleague and I went to the downtown William Hudson Transit Center to ride a bus. We wanted to ask passengers their opinions about the changes. I had a route planned and had triple-checked the schedule, so I expected it to be simple – get on, talk to people, get off.
It turned out to be a lot more complicated.
According to a MATA spokesperson, the authority generally redesigns its routes three times a year, in the spring, summer and fall. Some redesigns are light, altering only a few lines or times, but this one was more substantial.
One of the main purposes of the November change was to eliminate routes, and where possible, to address the major, immediate problem of not enough bus drivers.
Ridership has been grim, too, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, which walloped public transportation systems nationwide. In Memphis, MATA ridership plunged from more than 570,000 passengers in April 2019 to just under 200,000 passengers a year later. Even after temporarily eliminating fares, then capping them at $1 per trip, riders still haven’t returned to pre-pandemic numbers. In August 2021, MATA served about 256,000 passengers.
It hasn’t all been bad news – with the changes, one line, the 30 Brooks, now has Sunday service and added additional stops.There are also signs that replacements for the cut routes might be effective. Still, the result is unequivocally less service.
Since its inception in 1975, MATA has operated the fixed route bus system, trolleys and paratransit vehicles for people with disabilities. They service not just Memphis, but also Germantown, Lakeland and Bartlett.
In 2019, the city adopted Memphis 3.0, a comprehensive plan to guide land use and development over the next two decades. Transit Vision is the city’s transportation arm of that plan. It outlines the goal for how Memphis public transit will look by 2040, with substantially more frequent buses.
The final report on Transit Vision notes that between 2005 and 2015, ridership fell by 28%, and MATA cut service by 22%. “The danger is that, if it is not halted, transit will decline into irrelevancy,” the report notes. That was in March 2019 – a full year before the pandemic more than halved ridership.
Transit Vision hopes to “reverse the decline” by reinvesting in service. There’s a “Short-Term Recommended Network,” to be implemented by 2022, as well as the long-term goals for 2040. They require an additional investment of $30 million annually, now bumped up to $35 million with inflation, according to the authority. To date, no entity has provided that money.
The long-term vision has more routes and more frequent buses, requiring about four times the existing MATA service, plus more vehicles and staff and better bus stops and infrastructure, the report says. Buses will always come at least once an hour, though the vast majority of the routes are designed to have buses every half hour, 15 or 10 minutes.
There are nearly two decades to implement the long-term vision, though 2022 is fast approaching. But over the past two years, ridership and investment have only declined. There’s time left, but also a long way to go.
The William Hudson Transit Center is one of a few main transfer points in MATA’s system. On the day I was there, the terminal, a few blocks from the Mississippi River, was clean. Despite the “No Smoking” signs, it smelled like cigarettes. One man got in a workout, doing push-ups and mountain climbers. Another wore a Santa hat.
My colleague, photographer Andrea Morales, and I arrived early at 8:45 a.m., not wanting to miss the 9:15 bus. We’d picked the 12 Mallory, a route whose wait times had doubled with the redesign from one to two hours, and we planned to take it to the Airways Transit Center, also a major transfer point. The route would take about an hour.
As we waited, we talked with passengers. Some hadn’t known about the redesign. Some were unbothered, some were frustrated. One man initially declined to talk, but about 10 minutes later, he approached me, wanting to vent about how long his wait was. Floyd McKinney was frustrated with MATA, especially compared to the public transportation system in Chicago. He’d lived there for years before moving back home to Memphis five years ago to care for his brother.
“Things have gotten worse since 1977. It was in good shape then. Since I’ve moved back here from a big city like Chicago, it’s ridiculous,” he told me.
Maybe we were distracted talking to McKinney, or maybe the bus wasn’t as clearly labeled as I’d have expected (some had their route number identified only with a piece of printer paper taped to the windshield). But 9:15 came and went and we didn’t see the 12 Mallory. We didn’t know whether we’d missed the bus or if it was late.
I looked online. The bus was many stops south of us, though there was no easy way to tell which way it was heading. My car was at the Airways Transit Center and Andrea’s was parked near us. Could we wait for another bus?
I texted a number I’d found on MATA’s website, which required me to figure out what station number the William Hudson Transit Center was, and got an auto-reply that there were five upcoming buses before 10:10. Andrea pulled up the route map on her phone, and we cross-referenced the two documents before we realized that no bus would take us to the Airways Transit Center for more than a half hour. We weren’t even on the bus yet and we were already stuck – except we had a car.
By definition, the people who use MATA are likely forced to by circumstances, said Brian D. Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.
People use public transportation for one of two reasons, he said. Either they have to, because they can’t drive or don’t have a car, or they want to, because parking where they’re going is expensive. The second group “vanished” during the pandemic, Taylor said. When a bus system operates as infrequently as once an hour, it’s almost exclusively for the first group.
MATA data show that 71% of its riders are from households earning less than $20,000, according to a spokesperson. According to the Bus Riders Union, 90% of riders are Black and a majority are women. As a whole, Memphis has a poverty rate of nearly 22%.
“Public transit disproportionately is a conveyance for disadvantaged travelers, low-income folks and others who are disproportionately people of color, disproportionately immigrants. And it sort of doubled down on that in the pandemic,” Taylor said.
But MATA’s problems are not solely a symptom of the pandemic. It’s been underfunded for decades, said Andrew Guthrie, assistant professor of city and regional planning at the University of Memphis.
“MATA actually does deliver a respectable amount of service for what we spend on it on a dollar per dollar basis compared with similar U.S. cities,” he said. “It’s just that we spend much less per capita than even your typical mid-sized city in the American South.”
Its budget hovers around $70 million a year, said CEO Gary Rosenfeld, and in an ideal world, he would like to see that doubled. At the very least, he said, they need the $35 million that Transit Vision counts on.
The city provides the majority of MATA’s local funding, Rosenfeld said. Federal funds make up about 35% to 40% of the budget, while Tennessee supplies about 10%. The remainder is local funding, including money from the city and collected fares.
The city operating budget for fiscal year 2020, which was created before the pandemic, allocated about $29 million to the authority. This year, it was $19 million. By contrast, the city allocated $281 million to police this year, up from $273 million in the last budget. (For this fiscal year, the city also allocated about $2 million in Capital Improvement Project funds to MATA, plus another $2 million that’s carried over from prior years.)
In the past, Shelby County has directed some money to MATA but it’s not a substantial funding source. Mayor Lee Harris proposed a tax on every third vehicle to help fund MATA in early 2020, but it died without strong support. As of November, the county allocated $2.5 million to the authority entirely for capital spending, a spokesperson said, and in June, they appropriated $1.3 million in operating funds.
City Councilman Martavius Jones chairs the Transportation Committee. He knows MATA needs funding, which is part of the reason he proposed a 31 cent tax this June. About $10 million from the revenue would have gone to the authority, but no other councilor supported it.
The budget shortfall is a long-term problem, but the immediate issue is that MATA is short 67 bus drivers and mechanics, plus eight administrative positions, according to Rosenfeld. Without licensed drivers, it doesn’t matter how ambitious MATA routes are.
“It’s not just important to have a schedule. It’s important to be able to meet the schedule,” Rosenfeld said. “And we were looking for ways to reduce the number of CDL drivers that we needed on a day in, day out basis, yet increase different other types of services.”
The different types of services Rosenfeld is referring to are two on-demand ride-hailing services that use eight-person passenger vans, like public versions of Uber or Lyft. One service, Ready!, will ultimately have six zones within which riders can request door-to-door ride service; three are currently available. The other, Groove On-Demand, operates largely Downtown. Ready! is currently free and Groove is $1.25 a ride.
Ready! and Groove zones have replaced some of the discontinued bus routes, including the Firestone route, which is now served by Groove On-Demand. There are also Ready! zones in Northaven and Frayser; Boxtown, Whitehaven and Westwood; and Cordova. From Rosenfeld’s perspective, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
Rosenfeld said Ready! has transported around 13,000 people since it began in August. “So not only are we providing a different type of service, it’s widely accepted, and we’ve got plenty of positive comments coming from the public with respect to the ease of its use.”
The benefit to MATA of the on-demand services is that drivers of the van (which can also seat two people who use assisted devices) don’t need to have the special commercial drivers licenses required for bus drivers. For the 38 Boxtown, for example, MATA was able to replace one bus with six Ready! vans.
And while the bus transported 723 passengers in September, Rosenfeld said the Ready! vans in Boxtown are transporting about 6,000 boardings per month, on average.
Not everyone is excited about the Ready! service. Some bus riders prefer the convenience of knowing exactly when and where the bus will stop and feel comfortable planning their rides around a fixed route. There’s no guarantee that vans will come on time, and riders’ routes are also dependent upon the other passengers’ requests.
In an August 2020 MATA board meeting, advocates pleaded with Rosenfeld and the authority to not cut the 6 Northaven, the 31 Firestone and the 38 Boxtown, according to the meeting’s minutes.
“It is morally wrong to force on-demand transit service on underserved neighborhoods such as Boxtown, which would rather have regular bus service with more frequencies, not a transit service which will demand grown men and women to call for a transit ride every day,” said Johnnie Mosley, founder of bus advocacy group Citizens for Better Service.
Mosley, who’s seen bus routes disappear, is worried that the one-year pilot Ready! program will go the same way.
Rosenfeld said that shouldn’t be a concern, since interest has been substantial enough to continue the program. MATA would be “foolish” to discontinue it, he said.
But for bus riders who feel that public transportation options are dwindling in their neighborhoods, the promise might not be enough.
“You have been given money to do certain things, but you have not been using that money to provide adequate public transportation,” Mosley told me. “It’s not a funding issue. It’s a priority issue.”
We decided to ride the route in reverse. Andrea and I drove to the Airport Transit Center, and finally boarded the 12 Mallory bus heading north just before 10 a.m. Two other riders got on with us.
As we wound our way back Downtown, we spoke to some of the dozen or so bus riders. Some, like one man who was willing to talk but didn’t want to be identified, were heading to work.
He works in a restaurant in East Memphis, he said, and five days a week he catches the bus at his house in South Memphis. He rides it Downtown, then transfers to a different line that takes him out east.
In total, the trip takes him more than an hour. He’d boarded the bus a little after 10:30 a.m. so he could be at work by 1 p.m. – the bus wouldn’t come again until 12:30 p.m. Someday, he said, he’d like to own a car.
Also on the 12 Mallory were two men, both heading Downtown to look for special Veterans Day meals, though they weren’t together. They were retired from the Army; 73-year-old Dwight Moody served in Vietnam and 68-year-old Lonnie Brack in Germany.
Brack, a former bus driver himself, said he’d waited for nearly two hours for the 12 Mallory. Like many others, he hadn’t realized the schedule had changed, and he said he saw a bus – ostensibly a number 12 – fly past him. Though it’s not clear why the bus wouldn’t have stopped for him, by the time he eventually boarded at around 10:45 a.m., he said he’d been waiting since just before 9 a.m.
Cuddling at the back of the bus were Romeo Boddie, 33, and his partner, EgyIpt King, 19. They’d left Living in Christ Restoration House, a shelter where they were staying to sightsee Downtown, they said. Both are anemic, and the morning had been cold and rainy, so they found refuge on the bus until the weather cleared. Boddie’s lived in Memphis for 25 years and wanted to show Beale Street to King, who just moved from Colorado, then grab a bite to eat.
The bus is better than walking or calling for a ride, Boddie said. But the new schedule is “stressful,” since missing the bus means waiting hours.
You can’t always explain to your boss that you missed the only bus for two hours, King added. And what about people like herself, she wanted to know, who can’t stay in the cold without getting sick?
“What if there’s a storm and the bus is the only shelter some people have? Then they have to wait outside two hours in an ice storm because they came three minutes late?”
The short-term problem of the lack of drivers and mechanics may resolve itself as the labor market evens out. A MATA spokesperson said the authority is developing a program for people to get CDL training and licenses that also may help staff drivers.
But long-term, it’s not clear who’s funding MATA’s shortfall.
“If it’s not coming from the city, I don’t know where it’s coming from,” Jones said. And with an upcoming election, he doubts officials will want to raise taxes. When I said I’ve been trying to figure out how MATA will fulfil the Transit Vision plan without more money, he laughed.
“The answer is they’re not! It’s impossible,” he said. He plans to introduce a tax increase next year, though he doesn’t have high hopes for it.
“If we’re not making the commitment to fund MATA in order to provide the service levels that MATA says it needs, the result of that is going to be reduced service levels. You directly get what you pay for.”
There will be new money coming from the recently-passed infrastructure act, Rosenfeld said. In all likelihood, some money will go to operations, but there will certainly be federal funds allocated for capital spending, like the purchase of new buses or shelters.
One of MATA’s major shortcomings is also one of the things it cannot change: It’s trying to serve a city designed less for pedestrians and public transit and more for urban and suburban sprawl.
The bus routes have never had a major redesign, Guthrie said, and many follow old streetcar lines that no longer make sense for the city’s layout. Over the past 60 years, Memphis has also seen massive geographic expansion, roughly doubling in size since 1960 but without experiencing an equivalent growth in population, from just under 500,000 in 1960 to 633,000 in 2020, Guthrie said. That population density doesn’t make public transportation impossible, but it means “you have to really want to do it.”
And traditional, fixed-route bus systems just aren’t ideal for low density cities, “no matter how committed a transit manager might be to serving low-income, disadvantaged populations, and even if they have a good budget,” Davis said.
It’s not a very cost-effective system, Davis said. It’s expensive to run a single bus, let alone a whole system. And no one seems to want to fund it.
The city’s Transit Vision website says the plan will cost $30 million, but is vague on specific funding options, saying “local governments… are working together to identify new sources of funds.” Rosenfeld said money could come from anywhere, but that none has been identified.
“MATA does not have the ability to create its own dedicated funding source and there’s nobody stepping up to hand us a check for $30 to 35 million on an annual basis,” he said.
Rosenfeld said that to move toward the 2040 vision, MATA will rely on new technologies as they emerge, including autonomous vehicles, bikeshares, scooters and tech not yet conceived. MATA also has plans for a rapid transit bus line called mConnect that will link Downtown and the University of Memphis via Union Avenue. Those buses will come every 10 minutes and be all-electric, according to the plans, and the majority of that funding is from federal grants, though the state, city and county have also allocated some money.
I didn’t understand how public transportation in Memphis could escape from the cycle of low ridership and disinvestment, especially in a city primed for automobile usage and with a population already unlikely to take a bus. After riding the bus and speaking with passengers and experts, I’m not sure I understand any better.
The 12 Mallory arrived at the William Hudson Transit Center at 11:05 a.m. – one minute early. I thanked the entire bus, since nearly everyone had generously spoken with me. Andrea made a few more photos; before I got off the bus, I chatted with the driver a little more.
Then I hopped back in a car and headed south.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.