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What's the MATA?

Memphis Area Transit Authority plans route changes, new technology.

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Late buses, early buses, overcrowded buses, long wait times in dangerous locations, long travel times, and hard-to-understand routes.

Those were a few things riders said was the matter with Memphis Area Transit Authority's bus service at a public meeting on its Short Range Transportation Plan at the Whitehaven Public Library last week.

But a massive shake-up of the current route system plus added GPS technology on city buses promise to make the service more accessible to riders.

Beginning early next year, all city buses will be equipped with GPS, allowing riders to track buses on the MATA website. Although MATA doesn't have immediate plans to use the GPS information for a smart-phone app, riders can access the MATA website on their phones. Those without smart phones will be able to text a bus-stop number to MATA for information on the next three buses coming their way.

"The new technology will hold drivers accountable to time, and drivers will be alerted if they're too early or late," said Tom Fox, MATA's assistant general manager.

Additionally, buses will be outfitted with automatic passenger counters that record each person who gets on or off a bus. That data will help MATA determine which routes are most utilized for future rerouting projects.

Perhaps one of MATA's largest routing changes in recent years, the Short Range Transportation Plan calls for a major overhaul of MATA's current routing system.

Developed by Virginia-based consulting firm Nelson Nygaard, the plan considers three alternatives for changing bus routes: a grid system, a hub-centered system, and a slightly modified version of the existing system.

"MATA has been making a lot of small changes over the years, and they haven't been able to take the time to really look at how everything is working as an overall network," said Bethany Whitaker, principal with Nelson Nygaard. "Demographics change. Employment and travel patterns change. You want to make sure your services are aligned with demand."

So far, the hub-centered model is getting the most support from the public, and Whitaker said it's the most likely option. That model schedules more services around routes on main roads and dedicates some routes as feeders into existing hubs, such as the North End Terminal.

For example, a bus may run down Lamar from the American Way Terminal to the North End Terminal. But rather than veering down different streets to pick up or drop off passengers along the way, the bus would stay on Lamar for the entire trip.

"The way MATA services are currently organized is that they have one route that does a lot of different things," Whitaker said. "It might go down Third north on the first trip, then go south and into neighborhoods on the second trip, and then circle around."

Besides sticking to main routes rather than circling down different streets, the hub model also creates on-street transfer centers where heavily used routes converge, such as Frayser at Watkins and Hollywood at Jackson.

"If you can get to those locations, you'll have good service into downtown and probably in another direction as well," Whitaker said.

Whitaker said she's finding that riders don't like the modified network model, which sticks closest to the existing network but provides more frequent service on key routes and less in others.

The grid network isn't favored because, unlike in major cities where the grid system works, Memphis streets are spread out and not always connected in a grid pattern. Also, Whitaker said the grid system would be more expensive to operate because it requires upping the frequency of service for connections and transfers. MATA is working within its existing budget to make route changes.

"The other proposals target the routes more to the specific market, so when you have a commuter market, you can just run buses in the a.m. and p.m.," Whitaker said. "With the grid system, you have to maintain a high level of service across the whole city to make it work together."

Whitaker said her firm is using citizen feedback to make more changes with their plans, and they'll make a final recommendation to MATA's board in January. Route changes may be in place as early as June.

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