My morning commute, all nine minutes of it, takes me west on Peabody through Midtown, under high-arching trees and past the lovely homes of Central Gardens. After a few blocks, Peabody magically turns into Vance, where there are fewer trees and long stretches of dilapidated buildings interspersed with public housing.
On Mondays, Peabody is lined with recycling bins filled with neatly stacked cardboard, paper sacks stuffed with newspapers, and mounds of bottles and cans. Green trash bins have been rolled to the curb. Joggers, dog-walkers, and mothers with strollers negotiate their way around them. Shiny cars and SUVs emerge from driveways, most with a single human, the driver, inside. And so the day begins.
There are no recycling bins along Vance. The trash bins are often filled to overflowing. Scrap-seeking dogs wander across barren lots. The few cars that pull onto Vance are older, street-worn. Buses stop at every corner, picking up people headed to work, spewing smoke and fumes. And so the day begins.
It's the two cities of Memphis writ small. One is poor, desperate, struggling, hoping for a break, using public-funded transportation because that's the only way to get somewhere. The other is affluent, content, using public-funded recycling because it's the "right thing to do." Necessity versus choice.
And that, in a nutshell, is how Memphis divides itself on so many issues — whether it's public education or public transportation. Those who don't have to use those services mostly don't use them. Those who can't afford private school or private transportation have to use what is offered. Poor people have less power, so if public transportation or public schools are substandard, often little is done. Their complaints are not heard. Their concerns are not yours or mine.
"Mass transit" in Memphis means one thing: transportation for those who don't have a car. But now that gas prices have risen to $4 a gallon, the middle class is starting to wonder, "What if I choose to take a bus to work?" And once they start looking into mass transit in Memphis, they realize, "Hey, there's no way to get there from here. Public transit sucks!"
In this week's cover story, we take a look at MATA and ask where it's going — and if it can get there from here.