How does the South’s infatuation with the automobile have an effect on public transit in Macon?

By Hayes Rule

Doug Thompson wants to ride the bus. He’s a professor at Mercer University and his two young children — a fourth grader and kindergartener — attend Alexander II Magnet School. Instead of spending the extra money using a car, he believes it would be smarter to catch a bus at the stop that rests less than 100 yards from his house.

After school, his kids could wait in his office until he was finished for the day, then the three of them would ride a bus back home. But, logistically, it’s not that simple.

The route Thompson would catch goes back to the main terminal station downtown before it stops by Mercer. Thompson and his two children would be on a bus for more than two hours. He lives 15 minutes from campus.

That was his predicament nearly 10 years ago.

“There was no consistency that would move from one bus to another, so you’d have to go stand at a stop for a while,” said Thompson who is an associate professor of History and Southern Studies. “I have the luxury of having an automobile, and so in the end, in order to make the three-mile trip with two small children, it was just easier to get in the car and drive.”

Macon’s public transportation system is called the Macon-Bibb County Transit Authority, oftentimes referred to as the MTA. It runs weekdays from approximately 5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. On Saturdays, it runs from 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. There is no service on Sunday.

The terminal station downtown is where the MTA’s buses depart for routes.

Thompson, who has studied the automobile’s effect on the South, said that the MTA’s bus routes are designed to move people at maximum efficiency. Because of that, not all routes cross each other, and situations — like how he would have to ride two hours for a 15-minute drive to work — occur.

So the automobile enters the picture.

“I think the patterns are that convenience drives what we do,” Thompson said. “We want to be able to go from Point A to Point B without many inconveniences. Automobiles allow us that opportunity.”

But some don’t have that luxury. Thompson said he thinks it’s important for cities to have transit because of that, even as the automobile gains popularity.

Macon’s MTA, the city’s only form of public transportation, compares to other transit systems in similarly-sized cities in the South.

According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau, the population of these four Southern cities are within 30,000 of Macon’s: Athens, Georgia; Wilmington, North Carolina; Murfreesboro, Tennessee; and High Point, North Carolina.

The MTA offers 14 different bus routes. It offers anywhere from four to 10 stops for each route. Athens has “Athens Transit,” which offers 19 routes; Wilmington’s “Wave Transit” has 14, Murfreesboro’s “Rover” offers seven and High Point’s “High Point Transit” has 13.

Although each MTA bus comes out of the terminal station downtown, bus stops are still vital and can be found around Macon. Some are in good shape, while others are not.

Linda Parker is a supervisor at MTA. She said the number of people who wait at bus stops and the terminal station are about the same.

“We have a lot of people who don’t have to come through the terminal to get to maybe their job or where they’re going shopping to,” Parker said. “They just catch a particular bus there to that point and don’t have to swap out buses to another point.”

Many bus stops around Macon include just a bus stop sign. Others offer a bench with a covering. One stop on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard downtown is in good condition; another one near Tattnall Square Park is not, as the glass around the outside of the overhang is busted out.

This bus stop off Tattnall Square Park is missing glass.

“It should be a clean, well-lit area where just in case you have to catch the bus at night time, and it should have trash cans,” Parker said. “A lot of them, if it’s a shopping center or something, they try to have a bench. Sometimes, on the shopping areas, we have a lot of passengers — a lot of elderly people.”

The MTA does not have many routes going out to North Macon. Thompson said those going to North Macon are usually singular routes. They are a form of efficiency models, Thompson said, because there are more people with cars in North Macon.

“All you have to do is look at the buses, and there are no people in North Macon using the buses to move around in the city or the larger-county area,” Thompson said. “In our transit system, what we tend to have is high use by African Americans … It becomes racially constructed, not by Macon Transit Authority’s design or even some sinister way of understanding race and transportation. It is, by default, the folks who use it.”

Thompson pointed to a recent decision by Georgia to put “Peach Pass” lanes on I-75 in Atlanta in order to alleviate some traffic issues. He said the government could have chosen to put transit lines in that same space — like one could find in Europe or some Northeastern cities.

“Particularly in the South, we are reluctant to move ourselves over to a transit only system,” Thompson said. “We make economic decisions based on the automobile.”

As someone who tried to use the transit system 10 years ago in Macon, Thompson said he believes that public transportation is important but that people will choose convenience over other options. He suggests that society is starting to form young people who have access to cars in a way that they believe it’s the way they are supposed to move.

“The transit system is aware of its use — everybody is,” Thompson said. “If you want the transit authority to be successful, part of it is convincing folks that they could give up their cars. And I’m a good example of somebody who doesn’t.”