Taxis and transit: Competitive or complementary?

15 Jun

Diving headlong into an unfamiliar transit system in a new city is some people’s idea of a good time. Boarding the wrong bus or getting off at the wrong station, perhaps ending up miles from the intended destination, are part of the fun of exploration for them.

But most people in the U.S. aren’t regular transit users and probably don’t share that particular sense of adventure. They prefer to get where they’re going with as little deviation and distress as possible.

Most of us have seen cars tentatively scooting down one of the city’s major arteries, hesitating at every intersection, turn signal going on, then off, back on, then off again, the occupants peering at street signs, trying to figure out whether this is the way back to the hotel and why there are no turning lanes.

Somewhere between braving strange streets in a rental car, and deciphering a bus schedule when you’ve never used one before, is the taxi. But are taxis part of public transit or part of car culture? Or both? Or neither?

Line of taxis on Baker street, downtown Atlanta

Taxis line up along Baker street in the early evening, waiting for customers from downtown hotels.

Drew Austin of Where, writing at The Urbanophile, says that taxis are not only part of public transit, they’re the only transit in places where other modes don’t reach. Their flexibility, Austin says, makes them a vital part of the transportation machine:

“It’s easy to forget, but the taxi has always been a critical form of public transportation. In cities without good transit, the taxi is often the only public transportation available. More importantly, mass transit cannot efficiently serve every type of travel that passengers demand, and the taxi is better suited to do so in many cases (think of the bus that never has more than a handful of passengers on board). Low-income city dwellers as well as the affluent rely on taxis where buses and trains don’t suffice. In the United States, where everything is seemingly built for the private car, modes of transportation that improve mobility for the carless are allies, not competitors.”

This topic came to mind yesterday when I had to use a taxi as a bridge between Five Points and Inman Park station after missing a Green Line train to Indian Creek. The next train would only go as far as King Memorial and it would be 15 minutes before service past there. The long headway plus the time to travel to Inman Park would have meant missing the route 6 bus at 12:40 that I needed to get to Emory.

Getting a cab was easy enough. But what it trip it was.

The driver first insisted that Decatur Street ends just past Grady hospital, then didn’t understand that I couldn’t go to just any MARTA station, so I couldn’t get out at King Memorial, which was the first one we passed.

He also gave the impression of not quite believing that there’s any such place as Inman Park Station. Even though I said that Inman Park is at least a mile past King Memorial, he slowed down every block, asking “Is it here?” or “Where is it?” Only after the GPS confirmed that such a place indeed exists was I able to go a full minute without saying “Please just keep going. It’s on this street, on the left. I’ve been there dozens of times.”

Although we did manage to make it to the station just before the 12:40 bus pulled into the bay, that’s one bridge I’m not looking to cross again any time soon.

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