In Memphis, we all know about the rich music history and the award-winning Barbeque. We’ve all been to see the Grizzlies play, or maybe you’ve gone to the Liberty Bowl to see the Tigers play a football game—they’re pretty good right now.
But when was the last time you took a bus to see a band play at a bar in Midtown? How about the last you waited at the bus stop, in the rain, so you’d arrive to work on time? I would wager to guess, and statistically it’s not that much of a gamble, you’ve probably never stepped foot on a public bus in Memphis. Most people in the city haven’t.
So maybe catching a bus isn’t part of your daily life, but for many Memphians, the public transportation system in the city is their only means of getting from point A to point B.
How well does the public transit system do at getting them from A to B? That’s what we wanted to know.
In the inaugural season of Mirror Mirror, we’re going to take a close look at public transportation in Memphis.
The five-episode podcast takes in-depth look at the past, present and future of public transit in Memphis. Each episode focuses on a specific aspect of public transit in Memphis—from its history to its future, and everything in between.
You’ll hear from the people who ride the city buses, the people who manage the Memphis Area Transit Authority and the people who are working to make public transportation more effective.
In 2017 Memphis Area Transit Authority has 43 support vehicles, 200 revenue vehicles, and even more complaints. Controversy and criticism has forever surrounded the transportation company, and it has, throughout its history, been plagued by budget cuts, cars, financial troubles and other priorities. But to fully understand the transit problems Memphis faces, one must look back at phases of history, taking a trip through time and traveling back to a period before MATA, support vehicles and buses themselves.
Part One: Horses, Streetcars and Buses, Oh My!
The year was 1866. The Civil war was over, the Memphis population was 40,000, and the city’s railroad, having been chartered, was set to become the town’s very first public transit system. Five miles of track were laid, mule cars were made, and routes were planned for Beale, Lauderdale, Jefferson, Poplar and Jackson.
The first horse cars made their debut on June 2 of that year, and, by most accounts, were considered to be a success. “A bright red car, drawn by two jumpy horses, went rumbling down Main Street,” the Memphis Press-Scimitar wrote years later, “as ‘huzzah for rapid transit’ went up from hundreds of cheering citizens.’”
Memphians were thrilled at the prospect of public transportation in the city, and local newspapers unloaded heaps of praise upon the new mule cars. The novelty of the city’s transit system soon wore off, though, and the system experienced criticism.
Complaints of long wait times emerged as early as 1875, and in 1885, drivers went on strike, demanding wage increases.
Still, the city’s transit companies persisted, and it reinvigorated itself with newer, fresher types of transit. The first electric streetcars were introduced on Oct. 6, 1890, and in 1895, current transit companies in the city merged to form the Memphis Street Railway Company, which would go on to control transportation in Memphis for the next 60 years.
Time passed, and in 1920, the Memphis Street Railway Company was doing relatively well. It had carried almost 5 million passengers in the month of May, and it had made a gross income of almost $300,000. The profits outpaced the cost of service, and rides costed just under 6 cents.
For the next 10 years MSR performed in the way it needed to, and it did, for the most part, maintain a profit. But in 1930 the company decided to introduce something that would both modernize and hurt the company.
In September of 1930 MSR announced it would bring buses into its system, and the company’s president, W.D. Kyser, proclaimed it would be met with “immediate public favor.”
Kyser, however, was wrong, and the new buses left the company with a $13,000 loss and a $12,700 deficit.
Problems for the MSR continued, and it was reported in 1932 that the company had suffered from a $428,000 drop in streetcar revenue and a loss of nearly 10 million passengers.
This of course, was not entirely the fault of the buses. It was in large part due to the increasing unemployment rate caused by the recession- and spirited do-gooders picking up bus riders in their cars.
Surprisingly, citizens picking up passengers in their private cars became such a problem that MSR employees would hide out near a bus stop, wait for a citizen to pick up a would-be transit passenger, jot down the person’s license plate number- and later call and complain to that car owner.
But this problem would fade, and buses would eventually find the “public favor” Kyser had spoken of, with buses replacing streetcars completely by 1947.
But an increases in the buses’ popularity didn’t do much for the Memphis Street Railway Company long term. In 1957 it was reported that the company was $88,000 in the red over just a two and a half month period, and MSR’s woes continued. By 1961 it was gone. The Memphis Transit Authority had taken over.
Part Two: Adding the Extra A
Flash forward to 1969. Eight years had gone by since the replacement of MSR with MTA, and things were, overall, looking up for Memphis’s public transportation.
The Memphis-Press Scimitar had written that MTA was on “a firm economic base” and improving, while Frank Ragsdale, the MTA chairman, had asserted in the same article that his transit company was economically “at the top of the list.”
But just four years later, in 1973, MTA was asking for a subsidy of 2.3 million dollars from the city council.
Mike Tate, the President of Memphis Transit Authority, argued that it was needed to improve service, but the city wasn’t having it. The council had already given the company money at this point, and since it didn’t think it had seen significant improvements, it was hesitant to dole out a substantial subsidy.
“It was a trade-off,” said Henry Evans, a Chief Administrative Officer for Memphis in the 1970s. “The question is, what are we getting for the dollar that we were spending, and the consensus was that we weren’t getting the bang for our buck already.”
Evans and the council knew Tate was at least partially right, though, and that real, noticeable improvements to transit would require more funds. But in the 1970s, the Memphis budget was already spread too thin, and the city had more lucrative projects to fund than public transit.
“The need to expand the transit system beyond its existing limit was going to take more money,” Evans said. “I think the city understood that. But money was extremely tight in the 70s, and transit wasn’t the top priority.”
Mayor Wyeth Chandler and the council went on to approve a much smaller, $600,000 subsidy, which a frustrated Tate declared to be “self-defeating.”
However, it was still money from Memphis, and to Mayor Chandler and the council, this meant that the city should have more control.
MTA agreed to this, and in April of 1975, MTA was abolished, and thus MATA was born. The previous three person MTA board was done away with in favor of a new seven person board chosen in agreement with the city council. The Memphis Transit Authority had become the Memphis Area Transit Authority, and the extra A had, in a since, created an entirely new company, one with more input from the city.
MTA agreed to this, and in April of 1975, the MTA was abolished. Four additional board members chosen in agreement with the city council were added to the previously three-person MTA board, and the Memphis Transit Authority became the Memphis Area Transit Authority. The extra A had, in a sense, created an entirely new company- one with more control from the city.
Part Three: An Extra Letter won’t Always Help
When Frank Tobey accepted a position as MATA’s CFO in 1975, he had taken a position absolutely no one wanted. MATA was in a dire financial state, and as Tobey would soon find, in serious debt.
Hired in November, the newly named financial chief was notified by the bank just a month later that the company was overdrawn by $750,000- with no additional funds.
“We were pretty much dead in the water,” he said.
Tobey made efforts to correct this, but it was a steep hill to climb, and things didn’t get better immediately. If anything, they got worse.
In January of 1976, it was announced that a $450,000 payroll and vendor obligation wouldn’t be met, which forced the city to shell out an emergency $840,000 loan with hopes that a federal grant would repay it.
MATA wasn’t off to a good start, to say the least, and things were sloping downhill for the company. But through the help of Tobey and good fortune, things did turn around, at least for a time. In May of that same year, MATA did receive a federal grant, one of more than $700,000.
Tobey was able to retain more funds from the city and sell several of the company’s vehicles, a vending that would equate to almost $400,000. The company was stable.
But, as it never really has within the city’s transit system, the period of positivity was not to last, and by the 1980s, MATA again ran into problems, and this time, it made a decision from which it would never truly recover.
According to Tobey, a union contract negotiation in the early 1980s resulted in MATA giving an award that he dubbed to be “basically unfundable.” To pay for this, the company was forced to cut weekend service at night and lay off around 50 percent of employees.
Tobey said it took around ten years for MATA to come back from this, and admitted it has never been the same.
Part Four: Looking back, Moving Forward
Since this period, MATA has been inconsistent at best, though Memphis has never really been able to pride itself on the consistency of its mass transit. Throughout its history public transportation in the city has been mismanaged, financially erratic and underfunded.
In part three, Evans said public transit wasn’t one of Memphis’s top priorities in the 1970s, as the city had other projects to focus on. One of these was the restoration of downtown Memphis, which was “deader than a doornail,” according to the former CAO.
The city pumped money into the area, and today, you can see the results. Main Street is thriving, as is Beale. People love these places, and they’ve given the city financial boosts.
But there was a group that benefited less from the decision to reinvigorate the downtown area, one that relies on public transportation continuously.
In a recent conversation, Otis Sanford, a University of Memphis professor and author of the book From Boss Crump to King Willie: How Race Changed Memphis Politics, spoke on the buses, and their ties to those less fortunate.
“Most people who have a car in this town don’t even think about the bus,” he said. “They just see it as something in the way when they are trying to get where they are going. So, it is mostly for poor people, or a lot of poor people, and with that you are going to have a lot of issues around race. You are going to have a lot of issues around people feeling like they are being taken advantage of. So the bus system might be a metaphor for poverty in the city of Memphis.”
In 2017, MATA has 43 support vehicles, 200 revenue vehicles, and even more complaints. It has never really found its footing, and due to cuts, cars, financial troubles, and other priorities, it has been, and continues to be, inconsistent as a service to the public. The title of this article is Busing Backwards. But is that more relevant as a reference to looking at the past, or a statement on MATA today?
Memphis is known for its food, music and history. What’s it not really know for is a history of great public transportation.
MATA serves the greater Memphis area's transit needs, and the stigma haunting MATA and public transportation usage more generally is felt throughout Memphis.
The Memphis metropolitan area spans roughly 319 square miles, which comprises a population of of roughly 1.3 million. MATA services 42 bus routes and three express routes in the metro area, and an additional three trolley routes in Downtown Memphis. The corporation receives funds annually, mostly through federal grants; however the federal and local dollars just aren’t enough to adequately fund the city’s public transportation needs.
For one, MATA made its largest budget cuts since the 1980s in fiscal year 2014. Several routes were affected by these cuts—service was cut by 22 percent from 2005 to 2015 and ridership fell by 28 percent, according to a report by Jarrett Walker and Associates.
"There are certain areas of town that MATA buses just do not go to," said Justin Davis organizing coordinator of the Memphis Bus Riders Union. "When service gets rolled back, the areas that are affected are mostly black or low-income neighborhoods. Some routes stop running around 5 or 6 pm, and some routes run so infrequently that if you miss one, then what are you going to do?"
The service downsize included the 31 Crosstown Route. The route connected the North Memphis neighborhood of New Chicago to South Memphis. People living in North Memphis without other means of transportation had no way of getting to their jobs in South Memphis—or the other way around.
MATA this summer implemented the 31 Firestone route in the place of 31 Crosstown to solve the problem, but the new route failed to solve the issue completely because the route still does not connect North Memphis to South Memphis.
MATA shortened the 30 Brooks route as well.The buses used to run every 30 minutes on Sundays, but now it runs every hour and on Saturdays the route only operates between Brooks/Elvis Presley and Oak Court/Southern Avenue.
The 11 Raleigh / Frayser route was and still is a frequently traveled route, but it was limited because the route had to also service the 18 Hawkins Mill route after 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, Sunday and holidays.The additional routes led to the decrease in timeliness for the 11 lines.
Additionally, the routes closed after 7 p.m. on weekdays and Austin Peay service to the Frayser areas. Memphians who work and live on the East Memphis Frayser now have no clear-cut route back to their homes in West Memphis. Riders have to get on two different buses to arrive home after work.
Provisions have been made to supplement the route modifications and cancellations. MATA board members voted in 2017 to expand 24 bus routes.
The West Memphis express line expanded and merged with route 78 in August. Additionally, the 45 Appling Farms line began service in August and runs every 60 minutes, during service hours, Monday through Saturday.
Riders with disabilities also face difficulties with certain routes and buses. In Memphis, a little over 10 percent of residents under the age of 65 are living with a disability, according to census data.
MATA began MATA-plus to aid riders with disabilities. Mata-plus is a paratransit service consisting of a small fleet of vans that are wheelchair accessible.The complaints against Mata-plus have risen in the past year.
"We have had trouble with the overall effectiveness of Mata-plus," said Lagracia Hardin, Mata-plus union representative. "The service helps many of the disabled but some of our larger vehicles do not accommodate wheelchairs."
This means only a few MATA-plus vehicles can provide services for MATA’s disabled customers, which means more vehicles with universal wheelchair access are needed.
"We need more buses to help us solve this problem because disabled Memphian that use public transit deserve accommodation," Hardin said. "We have a large number of Mata-plus riders that need dialysis treatment and are not able to get to the treatment centers. The solution to this is more federal funding."
Funding is one of the main obstacles public transportation in Memphis faces.
"We operate as though public transit is a right," Davis said. "MATA has a lot of issues in different areas, but ultimately, we have systemic problem with how public transit is being approached in this city. We have had a long history of having these conversations, but then we do not talk about the political or racial implications."
Jobs in Memphis, Davis said, have been "steadily moving east," and the people living in certain areas of North Memphis, who do not have a car, have no sure way of traveling to or from a job outside of their own neighborhood.
"If you can get to your job, the question is how will you get back home?" Davis said. "A lot of the time it perpetuates this cycle of poverty that a lot of neighborhoods are going through."
The weather is warm and dreary. The sky is gray, and the air, with a certain thickness to it, gives off the impression it could soon rain.
Sammie Hunter now done with work, exits the sliding doors of Methodist South and heads to the nearest bus stop. Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) has not provided any bus shelter or bench here, as it's not on a main route, so Hunter sits on stone. Another older woman who tremble as she walks does the same.
Hunter pulls out a newspaper from his bag and begin to read. The Grizzlies are playing well, it says, as are the Tigers. He waits. After some time, the bus arrives. It's almost 3 am on a Wednesday afternoon.
Hunter is the co-chair of the Memphis Bus Riders Union and a sanitation employee at Methodist South. With the exception of his bike, which he sometimes rides to the bus stop, and Hunter relies solely on MATA for transportation.
The company has revenue around 200 vehicles and 43 support vehicles in its arsenal, which seems like a lot until you see the 338 square miles it has to cover each year.
The buses' arrival times suffer because of this shortage, and in turn the people who ride them suffer as well. Hunter, whose ride home would be around 10 minutes by car, has to ride the bus for hours before reaching his final destination. Adrian Nicholas, who can not currently drive, often has to wait an hour.
It is true centralized buses on the routes run more frequently, and during the day, buses on the poplar route are scheduled at intervals every 21 minutes.
But for those like Hunter and Nichols, who live in areas farther out, the wait time can be long. Nichols, with an "it is what it is" attitude, has accepted this. Hunter has not.
Sitting on the bus, and Hunter lean back and look out the window. The bus shakes slightly as it passes the new Elvis Presley and Graceland resort, where hotel prices cost $ 300 dollars a night. After a drive and Hunter gets off the bus pull over, heading to the next stop.
This time there is a bus shelter. Hunter sits down on the bench and pull out the paper again, killing time before the next bus arrives.
He reads and waits.
... and waits. ... and waits.
... .And wait ....
Finally the bus arrives. Hunter folds up the paper and gets on, one ride closer to home. It's 3:55 pm
Hunter and others are plagued by the bus severely limited time, which, in a sense, take away their freedom. More than 200 bus stops around the city finish for the night by 6:30 pm, leaving many with what is essentially a curfew.
"You're like a child or something," said Hunter. "You have to be at the house at a certain time. It's like being in prison. You might want to go to a game or something, but you do not have a bus that run to your floor."
These issues are only amplified by the scheduling of the buses not running at all in some areas on Monday, Hunter has heard about an issue frequently in his position as co-chair of the Memphis Bus Riders Union. Women sometimes call him to tell him they can not make it to church because the much needed Saturday the bus is not working.
"It's sad," he said.
The hunt is on the bus makes its usual pit stop at Airways transit center to pick up more passengers. The driver gets off, and Hunter waits. This time, though, the newspaper stays folded. There is not much left to read.
The bus driver returns, look around, and returns to the wheel. The bus pulls out. It is 4:15 pm
MATA not all passengers are displeased with the transit company. Jonathan Drake, who rides the bus two to three times a week, said "they do pretty good," and he has no problems with the Memphis bus system.
MIA Keller, a currently disabled woman without a car, is also content with Mata's state.
"1'm happy with it," she said. "1 think it's a good idea for people who do not have cars."
But for Hunter, Nicholas and so many others, the system has failed them. So many Memphian being trapped in their own homes with a curfew is both abhorrent and dehumanizing.
The bus pull over, and Hunter gets off for the final time. He's now just a fifteen minute walk from his house, and no Memphis, the bus will get him closer than that. With his paper in his bag, he trudges on by foot, almost home.
The time is 4:40 PM, and the weather is warm and dreary.
It has started to rain.
Lois Charm board the bus at the University of Memphis on a quiet, windy day. She takes a seat near the back as the bus lurches forward.
Charm rides the bus five times a week, mostly on the 50 Poplar bus route. She rides from the University to her apartment and to St. St. St. Jude's Children Research Hospital where she interns. In her time of using the Memphis Area Transit Authority's bus system, she has encountered problems, specifically with the buses that are not on time.
"They need to be better with their schedule," Grace said. "1 was late for class once because the bus was late."
Many, like Charm, have experienced issues while using Mata's bus system over the years. MATA has served the greater part of Memphis for more than four decades. With rider complaints of late buses, handicap discrimination, injury of its riders and issues with the overall transit system, steps can be taken to avoid conflicts and improve ridership better experience.
At a monthly meeting on Sept. MATA 25, those in attendance learned of the steps being taken to revamp the transit system in Memphis.
Scudder, Wagg, a senior associate at Jarrett Walker and Associates, told the board and those in attendance many Memphian play a waiting game with MATA buses.
"It [the bus] is not running very often, and it's not running all day in a lot of places, which means it's not always that useful to a lot of people," Wagg said.
This presentation showed the first part in a process to transform transportation in Memphis.
Jarrett Walker and Associates was hired to study Memphis' public transportation for Memphis 3.0, a two-year process that will collect data, feedback and goals from Memphian to help transform the city. The process is headed by a renewal for Memphis' Transport and Mobility project.
Suzanne Carlson is the transportation and Mobility project manager for a renewal of Memphis, an organization that delivers ideas that the city can implement to address some of Memphis' most pressing challenges.
"I think there is a bigger decision by the City and the residents to see what the passes will look like, so that's why we're running it with the Memphis 3.0 process," Carlson said. "We're trying to think what passes for an optimal system could look like."
The presentation at the meeting showcased the Memphis 3.0 Transit Vision Choices Report compiled by Jarrett Walker and Associates.
The plan for a comprehensive planning process will, according to the report, "assess the existing transit network and the geometry of today's city, engage the public, stakeholders and elected officials in a conversation about the goals of passes in Memphis, develop recommendations for changing the transit network and consider the cost and financing options for improving transit in Memphis. "
One of the biggest takeaways from the presentation was the idea of the coverage towards ridership. A transit system that focused on ridership "would focus service on the streets where there are large numbers of people, where walking is easy to transit stops and where the straight routes feel direct and fast to customers," according to the report choices. At a coverage system, "the transit agency would spread out services so that every street had a bus route."
Wagg said MATA has to decide if they want more coverage or more frequency and ridership. While looking at density maps, Wagg said more ridership of buses would have focused on the busiest areas with frequent stops, but less coverage to other less populated stops. Jarrett Walker and Associates specialize in breaking down the big question of how to improve transit into more simple questions, according to John Zeanah, Deputy Director of the Memphis and Shelby County Division of Planning and Development.
"It's all about what we as a community value in how we deploy pass within our community," Zeanah said. "With the low population density that we have, that creates a disadvantage for the transit network to be able to run frequent service throughout the city."
Zeanah said the transit of Memphis design is based more on coverage with transit routes close to the most amount of people in the city.
"But what results from that when you have low population density with low funding, relatively speaking, for the transit system is that while we have coverage to a large part of the city," Zeanah said, "the frequency of that service is so infrequent that is does not do much to the equation ridership. "
Zeanah said Memphian will look at alternatives for the transit system, including the decision of ridership and coverage both with and without new funding.
One possible issue for the new alternative is funding. On Sept. 25, the board members passed the operating and capital budget for fiscal year 2018. Mata's revenue is $ 57,541,685, but the operating budget for things like maintenance and operations is $ 63,890,865, according to the budget. MATA has been operating in a fail since 2008.
Zeanah said although the question of where the funding is coming from has not been answered, there are options for funding. One option mirrors the course that Nashville is taking for their transit system.
"The most commonly discussed option is through a referendum under the new state IMPROVE Act that looks at funding opportunities for transportation," Zeanah said. "What they (Nashville) are asking their voters to look at is essentially increasing taxes and fees from a number of different sources to fund an overall transit improvement program."
Zeanah said improvements are timed to be completed by 2020 for the current MATA system.
"Once we have that recommended short term scenario, that helps us be able to think about funding opportunities and that approach," Zeanah said. "That also helps us look at how we go into the design process for a long-term approach, and then finally how all that ties in with the larger picture of Memphis 3.0."