Smarta way to live

Tuesday, June 15th, 1999

Sometimes, things can turn on a paradigm.
I was thinking about this on my way down to the airport this morning on MARTA-the train cars had celebratory logos saying "20 years of bus and train service in Atlanta." And the scary thing is: I measure my tenure here by the arrival of those trains-we both hit town about the same time. When MARTA’s train stations opened, my friends and I rode the shiny new cars to the opposite ends of the East Line just because we could, and we bought in to the optimistic PR statements that said that rapid rail would revolutionize the city, would provide for a downtown that is living and vital, would clean up tartar between gums and teeth.
Well, downtown’s tartar is still there, and although it’s a fine way of getting to the airport, the number of places I can travel to reasonably on the s’MARTA is fewer than the places I can’t. Atlanta remains a place where people travel one-per-car along clogged freewaysand there are plenty of folks outside 285 that look at their car (or SUV) as urban protection-a shield against interaction with outsiders.
So I’m on the train, quite enjoyably passing south along old rail lines, and I’m thinking: how have other cities been able to bring mass transit to the fore? Is it simply a challenge for public relations and advertising (and if so, I can tell you right now that ‘It’s Smarta’ ain’t going to get people to park Jeep Cherokees.)
No, in towns like Portland, Oregon the very idea of mass transit has been made as fashionable as the $2.49 corn and cilantro fritter at the Whole Foods Market. It’s fashionable there, and not only because the local mass transit authority does a good job. It’s fasionable because news anchors and people who write for weekly newspapers and other "media voices" talk about it in a positive, uplifting context-and as far as I can tell, they mean it. It fits their lives like a well-worn backpack. The words feel good tumbling out of their mouths. And this may well include way-overpaid TV folk who still climb into their Yuppie Scummobiles after the newscast is over-but their talk perpetuates the germ of an not-so-abstract idea. You can ride free downtown. People take the rail or buses to events because it’s part of the group experience (same thing in London, Paris, hell, even Boston.) It’s a great place to read and watch some of the world go by.
Why can’t we say that here?
Well, to some extent the fault lies, sure, with the MARTA authorities, for their general marketing cluelessness and their unwillingness to try programs like the free-ride-in-center-city thing.
But they could have the best programs and a decent advertising campaign and the problem still would remain. So how do we turn this perception around? No, I’m not proposing mass hypnosis or mass hypocrisy, just something closer to visualizing whirled peas. Picture yourself enjoing a ride on MARTA, on the bus or on the train. Then do it. Then talk about it. Then enjoy the feeling of being a bit more connected to the city and its people.
As I did this morning.