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What does the Ponce City Market shuttle offer to riders, apart from exclusion?

A recent article in the Atlanta Business Chronicle caught our eyes. “New jobs and housing on Eastside Trail showing holes in city’s mobility fabric” is behind a paywall, but much of it is concerned with the shuttle service that takes residents and workers of Ponce City Market, to and from the North Avenue MARTA Station.

About 400 people make use of the shuttle daily. The article reports that PCM (owned by Jamestown) wants to “partner with MARTA. Doing so…could offer up to three times the current number of passengers using the shuttle — over 8,000 a week — a direct link to the North Avenue station. For now, both Jamestown and MARTA are talking.”

Here’s why this is problematic: this route is already covered by MARTA, with a high frequency. The existing 2 and 102 buses both travel from North Ave Station to PCM, just like the shuttle. You can catch one of those two buses every 10 minutes or so at peak time, and every 15 minutes the rest of the day. The dual routes are so convenient that they’ve inspired local artist Sarah Lawrence to create a colorful map touting their service.

All the private shuttle seems to be doing is offering PCM denizens a chance to separate themselves from the average bus rider. It’s an exclusion bus, being demanded by large office tenants as a condition for leases. Why? What does that say about our collective view of public buses?

MARTA bus 102
MARTA bus 102 on Ponce de Leon Avenue, with a Ponce City Market private shuttle right behind it. The 102 and the 2 bus, along with the private shuttle, all travel together from North Avenue MARTA Station to Ponce City Market.

You might be wondering: “Isn’t the shuttle free? That’s a big benefit for riders.” Kind of. Yes, it’s true that there isn’t fare to ride it, but shuttle riders aren’t saving money if they transfer to or from the train — they still pay the same MARTA fare they’d pay if they rode a bus with a transfer.

Also, no transportation resource is free. And just like anything else that PCM has to pay for, the costs of hiring the shuttle drivers, as well as buying and maintaining the vehicles, will work its way into rents (and if they end up being covered by retail rents, that cost is born to a degree by customers as well since it affects pricing of goods and services). The advantage isn’t a financial one for PCM, tenants, or even riders, considering that they’re buying a MARTA rail fare anyway and could get a transfer to the bus.

Here’s the response from PCM’s owner, Jamestown, when we asked about this concern with the shuttle:

“Ponce City Market is committed to supporting and incentivizing alternative transportation. With a growing need for greater connectivity in the neighborhood, we look forward to continuing conversations with MARTA and other stakeholders about collaborating to improve urban mobility.”

And kudos to PCM for their support of alternative transportation. But this begs the question — how ‘urban’ is your mobility device when it mainly serves to fill a request a tenant has made to separate riders from other urbanites?

Let’s focus on the transit connections that are already here

Heather Alhadeff, Assistant General Manager at MARTA, says: “Yes, MARTA has two bus lines that run directly between the North Avenue MARTA station and Ponce City Market. I’m eager for more options to PCM, but today’s bus service should not be invisible. We also need Atlantans to promote the connections that are here.”

To that point, it’s worth mentioning that PCM does offer real-time MARTA route information through TransitScreen by way of an app for office tenants. And they distribute a guide to retail and office tenants with maps and schedules for the #2 and #102 MARTA bus lines. They do good work with this.

So, why continue to run the shuttle if there’s awareness of the bus coverage of this route? An insider tells us that the shuttle was required by major PCM tenant Aetna, as part of their agreement to relocate intown. If that’s true, what’s behind this desire to offer staffers a means of avoiding buses?

Walter Brown, formerly with Jamestown and currently Urban Advisor at Bright Sun Community Solutions, thinks bias against buses is at play, and that it should be addressed head on. “I certainly applaud the private sector stepping up to the plate to provide Last Mile transit options for their employees,” says Brown. “But ultimately our public transit agencies will need to study these scenarios and become more nimble at offering these types of virtual TOD solutions for dense job centers outside the walk shed of our limited mainline rail network. At the same time, the public and MARTA need to work harder together to overcome negative perceptions around traditional bus transit especially in bus plentiful locations like PCM and the rapidly growing job and housing sector growing up around the Eastside Beltline. We should be building significantly less parking now where these rich transit options already exist, albeit not rail.”

We asked PCM to comment on this bias issue and the accusation that the shuttle is primarily a means of exclusion, keeping regular bus riders away from shuttle users. The question was essentially dodged, but hopefully a seed can be planted that prompts a serious discussion about how this bias can be broken down instead of accommodated.

The new 725 Ponce tower will likely have a private shuttle as well

It’s important to note that PCM isn’t alone in its use of private shuttles. The new 725 Ponce tower beside it is set to have one as well, exclusive for its own office workers (as mentioned in the AJC). ThreadATL has heard that this is also a case of a tenant in the building demanding the service as a benefit for staff.

If this trend continues in Atlanta, it’s possible we could repeat at some level of the conflict that led to the San Francisco Tech Bus Protests, where private shuttles for tech employees became a symbol of class warfare and gentrification while also hurting the public transit systems’ ability to make ridership gains. Unlike the situation in San Francisco where some tech shuttles are serving people who legitimately have no other transit options available, this route to the PCM area is purely a repeat of what MARTA offers.

No doubt, reducing commutes by personal cars is a good thing for the city and PCM’s interest in alternative transportation is laudable. Nonetheless, making use of existing MARTA buses and ending the shuttle is the next logical step for them, and we urge them to take it.

EDIT: The post has been lightly edited to clarify that what we’re criticizing is the demand for private shuttles by large office tenants as a condition of their leases, and what that says about our bias against buses.