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Transit's getting necessary

11.28.2007 by AndrĂ© Natta · → 3 Comments

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Most people (including myself) are married to their automobiles here in Birmingham. We are a city that loves their cars, even though a major reason for the growth of the city during its boom period was the development of communities along our extensive streetcar system.

If our mayor gets his way (and based on yesterday’s public meetings he may) you’ll soon be wondering if your love of your car is as important as your love for balancing that checkbook.

There are many that believe that no one ever rides the bus. Well, if you get in your car at 7:30 a.m. and you drive 30-45 minutes to work in traffic to come into the city center then that would be the case, because by that time most of the folks that use what’s currently available to them have already passed through our downtown or they’re waiting at the station on Morris Avenue to continue their trip. For those that wonder how I know this to be true – the first place that I lived in Birmingham was at the corner of 1st Avenue & 22nd Street North, a location that sees many of the buses that constitute the current MAX fleet.

I never saw a crowd on them at 7 or 8, but if I was attempting to work out on an elliptical right next to the window at 6 a.m., there would be plenty of full buses and people from all over the county trying to get from point A to point B passing by my window.

Many who currently view the buses as a problem are generally “viewing” it as a spectator and not as a participant. I’ve only used our current bus system three times – including my visits to the city since 1998. It does make more sense to drive, though as a result, we’re all looking in at the problem without necessarily understanding all of the nuances. A change in perspective, as mentioned yesterday, would possibly give us a better understanding of what it could mean to overhaul how transit is done in the city of Birmingham.

Yours truly decided to crunch some numbers on the conservative side of things to look at just how much savings we’d see if we gave up our cars for a transit filled life:

We’ll assume that gas is at $3.50 for regular for demonstration purposes and that our tank can hold 15 gallons. We’re also assuming one stop at a gas station per week. For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll consider a car fully covered with monthly charges being about $85. We’ll also assume that we’re only taking the car in four times a year for an oil change (which is a lot, but we’re not considering unexpected costs which add up to be much more than what the totals will show. We’re also not considering car payments – a fact of life for many of us.

As far a transit goes, we’ll assume that the new authority created to run our transit system uses a daily rate of $1.25 for rides that include transfers. As a result, we’ll also run the numbers on the current MAX monthly pass rate of $44:

Method of transportation
Total cost for one year to driver/passenger
Personal auto   $3,810  
Mass transit (pay per trip – weekdays only)   $1,300  
Mass transit (monthly pass)   $528  

The cost benefit savings alone will not be enough to entice riders to trust in their bus system and few families can ever completely give up their cars here in Birmingham. Even now while I do not drive nearly as much as I did before, I am still dependent on my car for nights and weekends.

An overhaul of the way routes are run will also need to be considered. We currently operate most of our buses on what could be considered a spoke system. This means that every rider that needs to make a transfer in downtown and they need to be on a bus way earlier than is necessary for the amount of land covered by our current system.

Perhaps running a system that is based on what is found in an Atlanta, Georgia or an Ottawa, Ontario (and there’s is a mainly bus-built system) is more likely to see the results that most think of when they envision mass transit. Our current downtown bus (soon to be intermodal) station would still remain a hub, though it would now be based on actually being a crossing point for the system and not the center of its spoke-like system. It would allow for buses to service more of the community and allow those that do not necessarily need to come downtown from traveling out of the way of their final destination. Based on the mayor’s recent comments, it would also be a point where the existing system could connect with the city’s system.

There are many that would comment about on-time reliability, consistency and overall trust in the infrastructure of a system before they use it. They’d also want something flashier since they may not see bus rapid transit or other things like that as “sexy enough” for Birmingham. If it gets them to think about carpooling or something else, then we’re still accomplishing the goal. It may also get us to talk to each other more, and that could be the best thing to come out of it.

André Natta is the publisher and managing editor of The Terminal. To submit letters in response to this commentary or to contact for general information, use any of the methods listed on our contact page.

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Filed under: Alabama · Birmingham · Commentary · development · regional


I agree, not safe at all to cycle anywhere but on mtn bike trails these days. IMHO he should buy a diesel and convert to WVO and biodiesel. Use the extra time from his faster commute ( and increased life-span from avoiding 7th on a bike ) to pick up trash or teach kids. One man gathers what another man spills.


I think about transportation ALOT. My best and most beautiful friend and hubbie cycles from our house in the foothills of Ruffner Mountain to southside/downtown B'ham for his job at the Alabama Envn'mtl Council every day. The thought of him being hurt by distracted and/or hateful people in cars is ever present in my mind. He's been spit at, run off of the road, cursed at and most recently almost hit by a woman off of 7th Avenue who was incovenienced and even angered by his vulnerable body lying in the road in front of her car (which was a situation created by her speeding and not paying attention to her surroundings.) She didn't even take the time to roll down her window as he brushed himself off, assessed his injuries and picked up his bike. He assures me that he is as respectful and aware when he is on his bike as he is when he is rock climbing but it's not his lack of preparedness but others who make me worry for him so much. Bike lanes sure couldn't hurt either. I hope readers will take this to heart and share the road for my Dan's and for others' precious lives sake.


Andre, I think immediately of the movie "Singles" when thinking about mass transit . . . where the character played by Campbell Scott says they'll give people good music, coffee, value . . . I currently live in Jackson, but my job is in the 'burbs. This reverse-commute blocks me from our JATRAN here. But after seeing your cost-analysis, I wish it didn't. (p.s., I stumbled here by looking for neon signs in Birmingham--y'all should totally do an Alabama Theatre one!).