Since Gwinnett County Transit started up in 2002 as a county-funded transit option, its ridership has risen steeply, both on its regular service and its service for the elderly and disabled. Last year the service provided 1.4 million rides.
Jurline Crawford, 69, can't afford a reliable car. Her eyesight is bad, and at her age she's wary of traffic. On occasion she said she has canceled a doctor's appointment when she didn't have the $8 round trip fee for Cobb paratransit. "I can't afford a cab, " she said. "If I don't have no money I just don't go." Another senior, Obie Williams, 80, said she had lost much of her mobility when Cobb had to cut her regular bus route.
Transit views divided
Not everyone sees the need for mass transit.
"Atlanta is a car culture, " said Randy Darnell, 49, of Conyers. "It wasn't planned from the beginning to be something like a New York."
Rudy Bowen, a member of the DOT board who represents Gwinnett County, concedes that all forms of transportation will be important to the suburbs in the years to come. But he cautions not to overstate it. "As long as I can get a driver's license I'm going to be driving, " said Bowen, 73, who spent his career as a developer building single-family homes.
Chloe Kim, a Duluth resident and now a Korean-language journalist, agrees that after living here several years people get used to their cars and often prefer them.
Not her, not yet. After coming to Atlanta from transit-rich Seoul four years ago, Kim, 28 -- young, chic and university-educated -- was forced to buy a car for the first time in her life, with help from her parents.
"At first I felt there is no transportation. I couldn't see any bus or anything, " she said of her arrival in the Atlanta suburbs. "Maybe six months later I learned there is a subway here" -- or a couple pieces of one, anyway.
She still rides the MARTA train sometimes, pricked by nostalgia for home. But mostly she's in her car.
"It's comfortable, " she says. "But I feel it's not healthy."
Jorge Lopez hosts a Spanish-language radio show in Atlanta.
Do his listeners want more transportation? Yes -- but that doesn't primarily mean wider roads. "Not exactly, " he said. "We need more options of transportation. That's what we need."
The once-dominant visceral opposition to mass transit in Gwinnett, where minorities now outnumber whites, is a mystery to many immigrants, Lopez said, even after they acquire cars of their own.
But before they can afford to choose, Lopez said, they simply need to get around, to work and live. "The people that have driver's licenses, other people are paying them for rides."
The demand is so great that private bus operators along Buford Highway have arisen to fill it. But the service area that's profitable never covers all the demand.
Transit funds limited
The mass transit here is a patchwork with gaping holes.
One of Atlanta's five core counties, Clayton, canceled local mass transit service altogether in 2010. Cobb and Gwinnett have established local bus services, but with limited routes and hours. Where they do operate, routes run into a confusion of jurisdictional borders.
In spite of demand, Cobb, Gwinnett and MARTA have each faced cutbacks and fare increases in recent years.
The future doesn't bode much better.
The failure of this summer's T-SPLOST sales tax referendum for transportation, which proposed $3 billion in new trains and bus lines, was devastating for mass transit. Unlike roads, which are marked for gas tax money in the state Constitution, transit has no deep pocket here for expansion.
Metro Atlanta plans to spend $60.9 billion on transportation projects over the next 30 years. The majority is just upkeep for what's already here. Where there are expansion projects, overwhelmingly, they are roads, such as suburban toll lanes and interchanges, and not transit. The major transit expansion that is in the plan is based on funding that may have to be revisited, and in any case is mostly not suburban.
The Atlanta Regional Commission has been trying to plan for the aging population and is funding projects, thinking not just in terms of transit, or of sidewalks, or close-in communities, but of whole systems of those things planned together. Laura Keyes, who manages the senior program for the ARC, is reluctant to order her board what to budget. But if all that's built is big highway projects, "We will not solve this problem with that, " she said.