17 September 2009

Sydney Confounds!

I would implore our readership from Atlanta to have a look at this ad, which I noticed in print form this morning while riding the bus and reading Central Magazine. It's publicising the new Sydney Metro project, which will be an urban metro line running from central Sydney to some of the inner western suburbs.

Is it just me, or did some graphic design intern REALLY not do her research? If the state government knew anything about the particular metro system shown in those photos, they would've screeched away from the MARTA website quick-smart and never looked back, lest they be smoten and transfigured into pillars of Vegemite!

Let's just hope that this isn't an omen of doom for the Sydney Metro, because we could really use a proper metro system in this town, not some rinky-dink operation that makes people want to get out the rocket launcher.

For those who aren't familiar with the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), it's one of the most maligned public transit systems in the US. MARTA runs buses and trains throughout DeKalb and Fulton, two of Atlanta's core counties, and also operates the bus systems of some of the adjoining counties. MARTA's train system consists of two lines: a north-south and an east-west line. As the country's largest public transit system that receives no state-level funding, MARTA suffers constant funding shortfalls that hamstring any proposals to expand the service, especially the rail service, beyond its current limited scope. MARTA's history is a troubled one coloured by racism and an anti-working-class attitude toward cities and public transit. The MARTA project was initiated in the late 70s and was forseen as a system that would link transit throughout the multiple counties that comprise Atlanta, but coming as it did at the height of the white exodus from the cities into outlying suburbs, the eventual system only served the two "inner city" counties. The others flatly refused to have train lines extended to their enclaves, depicting such a system as a convenient method for inner-city thieves and rapists to find their way out to the white suburbs to loot and pillage, as though loading up a bunch of stolen TVs onto a metro train is easy and discreet.

The state, for its part, has historically preferred to spend its transport funds on highway systems, and the non-funding of MARTA goes in hand with a rejection of Atlanta in general from the state level, a theme after the 1960s and something familiar if you live in NSW. As the state sees it, MARTA is a two-bit system that only serves the poor and will never recoup its outlay. Indeed 78% of MARTA's ridership is black and on the low end of the socioeconomic scale, but Atlanta is a majority black and poor city, so any public transit system in Atlanta will have this demographic. For some, this is enough to put on the blinders.

Ignoring MARTA has made for a difficult and often unreliable system with no flexibility. Train stations are placed in non-intuitive and inaccessible locations. Buses run infrequently, if at all. New stations in the city are not forthcoming, and station upgrades are slow. Much of the system's rail stock is obsolete stock from the 70s; new parts can't be ordered and instead must be fashioned by the toolmakers at the MARTA workshops. Stations are understaffed and fares are easily cheated when the one station agent is looking the other way. Not once, not twice, but three times I was on the east line during a downpour which shut down train travel entirely when the driver realised the brakes had stopped working. Every MARTA rider is also familiar with the open door of death: your train arrives at a station and opens its doors to let in new passengers, and when the doors go to close, one door refuses to do so. The driver opens and closes the doors about seven times to realise that this one door simply won't comply. The train can't move with an open door. Everybody off.

It's not that riding MARTA is always unpleasant; sometimes it's a wonderful feeling to be riding high above the traffic, overhearing the conversations of the other riders. And you can still bring bikes on the trains for free, something a more popular system wouldn't allow. But there's always a twinge of peril in a MARTA trip: you know that this could be the last one, that the perpetual financial crisis could eventually just shut the thing down entirely, that the tracks might crumble, that the bus route might get cancelled. You know that a better, more extensive system would change the face of the city entirely, make it a greener, more pleasant place to live, easier to get around, more welcoming to the immigrant communities strewn far and wide in this rapidly-growing place. You know that a modern city deserves a respectable transit system, but this just falls too short. It's like the entirety of Atlanta--the racism, the poverty, the facade of success, the dangerous hubris--is wrapped up in the story of this pathetic little rump of a system.

Sydney also deserves better than this. Sydney's transit is already better than Atlanta's by far, but it doesn't serve people in the city like it should. The lines of the huge Sydney tram system were ripped up, tarred over, and the tramcars burned in an act of terrorism in 1961 when the NSW government was pushed by the auto industry to help it sell buses and cars, and ever since it seems Sydneysiders have been poorly-served by their transit system. The new Metro project has already faltered horribly--attempting to tear down heritage sites in Pyrmont against the wishes of local residents and thus attracting a CFMEU Green Ban. I know it's only symbolic--and only to a select few--that this Sydney Metro ad would use an image of MARTA, but it just stirs up in my mind the complexities that factor into the construction of a transit system. I certainly hope that conditions are more favorable here to the building of something useful and integrated into city life than they were back home 35 years ago.