It’s our prediction that Memphis Area Transit Authority can give away rides on excessive ozone pollution days – rather than the 25 cents special fares it’s proposing – and it’s still not going to lure anyone aboard our city buses.

MATA’s intentions are good – part of a broader attack to bring Memphis into compliance with federal air quality standards – but as long as MATA lacks even a hint of a customer service culture, it’s probably all just for show – and special funding.

While other cities are using public transportation as a hook to recruit young, college-educated workers and creative industries, MATA continues with a system built on the premise that all of its customers are people without choices.

So, why really go to any trouble to pursue a top-notch system?

Market Research

Sometimes, we wonder if MATA ever conducts focus groups with potential customers or polls residents to see what they want from their public transit company. As for us, we’d start with cleanliness, timeliness and convenience.

Each year, Leadership Memphis engages in an interesting experiment when it asks its executive class members to take public transit to and from one of its meeting days. It is the first time for many of them, and in a word, their general reaction is incredulous.

They talk about dirty buses, lengthy trips, impractical schedules and empty buses. They talk about the trip planner feature on the website as unreliable and on one occasion, laughable. That was the time when the suggested travel schedule called for a rider traveling from the medical center to Balmoral to wait for a bus at Lamar and Semmes overnight.

And keep in mind, this is the new, improved trip planner function.


It was only about a year ago that selecting trip planner on the MATA site meant sending an email with your personal information, your place and time of departure and place of arrival. Then, the website promised: “One of our customer service representatives will get back to you within 24 hours with a recommendation.”

MATA has improved the website, but nothing shows how far it has to go than the trip planner on Portland, Oregon’s TriMet system, where buses’ locations are given in real time and riders can see the exact time that it will arrive.

For example, Portland uses a GPS system to give riders detailed directions such as “walk 0.19 mile east from bike gallery,” and they are told what bus to board, how long the trip will take and what the fare will cost.

Riders can ask for real-time arrivals by clicking “transit tracker,” which gives reminders of how close the bus or light rail is.

Back To The Future

Every day, about 40,000 people here ride MATA, and we can’t help but wonder what the quality of the rides would be if the ridership wasn’t largely lower income Memphians. All in all, it’s a sad commentary on the importance that we place overall on services aimed largely at low-income Memphians.

While Memphis deals with service that’s considered basic on its best days, other cities are making impressive strides.

Like it did with the improvement to its trip planner function, MATA was equally modest when it bought enough hybrid buses that you can count them on one hand. Meanwhile, Seattle has about 300 hybrid buses and Minneapolis has started with 19 hybrids and expects to increase it tenfold in five years. Meanwhile, New York City opted for 325 hybrid-electric buses.

Back to the kinds of creature comforts that aim for a wider, more representative customer base, other cities have amped up the perks in their buses.


Atlanta, for example, upgraded the comfort of its seats and now loads news, sports scores and weather reports into televisions on its buses when they leave the bus barn. Utah and Colorado have added Wi-fi to longer commuter buses for $5,000 and report that it has resulted in added ridership. Meanwhile, the buses have reclining seats, cup holders and racks for briefcases and backpacks.

A number of cities like Portland, Oregon, now send alerts to passengers’ Blackberries, offering up-to-the-minute information about trouble spots and alternatives in the event of problems on the route.

It seems light years away for Memphis, but meanwhile, you can see the new breed of buses in cities where customer-focused service is now producing some remarkable transformations to public transit of the future.