By: Dave Emanuel | Columnist | Gwinnett Citizen
By: Dave Emanuel | Columnist | Gwinnett Citizen
Dave Emanuel, Cut to the Chase

On October 27, 1904, public transportation achieved a trend-setting milestone when New York City opened its subway system. For a 5-cent fare, a subway rider could quickly and easily travel to areas that were formerly difficult or extremely expensive to reach.

New York City’s high population density and, concentrated residential and commercial districts made a subway system was the best option, given the technology of the day.

The system, which operates 24 hours per day, seven days a week, dramatically transformed the city’s landscape; it provided the only form of affordable transportation. Automobiles were “new-fangled” apparatuses, well beyond the budget of all but the most wealthy and horse-based transportation was expensive and impractical to house in a city environment. Consequently, for the majority of the city’s population, walking was the only option for getting from one place to another. For a century, New York’s subway system served as the prototype for the urban heavy rail systems that developed in cities across the country, including Atlanta. (Heavy rail is defined as a system that is underground, elevated or otherwise separated from street traffic.)

After automobiles became a major form of transportation, heavy rail systems remained viable in many cities as streets became clogged with traffic and parking spaces became as rare as a street without potholes. Yet heavy rail, like all forms of fixed-route transit, has seen a significant drop in ridership as other, more convenient forms of transportation have developed.

In metropolitan Atlanta, rail just doesn’t make sense. The area’s relatively low population density and far-flung residential and commercial centers create economic and logistical challenges that cannot be met by any form of fixed-route transportation. That’s especially true of heavy rail and light rail, given their respective construction costs of $250 and $125 million per mile.

For metro Atlanta in general and Gwinnett County in particular, micro-transit, which utilizes van-sized buses, is a much more practical and cost-effective option. That point is currently being demonstrated by a pilot program launched in September by the Gwinnett County Department of Transportation. The 6-month program, which is based in Snellville, offers on-demand, door-to-door rides at no charge, and operates Monday through Friday from 6:00 am until 8:30 pm and 7:00 am until 7:00 pm on Saturdays. To arrange for transportation, you can call or use the micro-transit smartphone app. At the program’s conclusion, county officials will evaluate ridership, costs and public response and use the data collected to shape future transit plans.

Requiring no construction costs, micro-transit can be put in place anywhere served by existing roadways. For home-to-work commutes, micro-transit buses can use limited access Interstate lanes and then transition to city streets to bring riders to their destination.

Autonomous vehicles are coming online faster than most projections, and that technology will undoubtedly be applied to all forms of transportation. Self-driving vehicles make micro-transit even more compelling. Clearly, the future of public transit will drive itself, and riders will enjoy a level of convenience that rail and every other form of fixed-route transportation cannot provide.