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VOL. 128 | NO. 209 | Friday, October 25, 2013

Rapid Return

MATA again tries express route with Whitehaven Flyer

By Bill Dries

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Downtown to Whitehaven on a city bus in a half hour is quite an achievement in a city with limited experience with modern bus express service.

The Memphis Area Transit Authority’s 46 Whitehaven Flyer made its debut a month ago. The express bus takes riders from Whitehaven to Downtown.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

The concept is called “bus rapid transit” and the Memphis Area Transit Authority’s first try at the concept with a Poplar Express lasted less than a year before MATA’s board pulled the plug for lack of ridership.

Some board members said the Poplar express route was not very well promoted during its brief time.

A month ago, the 46 Whitehaven Flyer made its debut, and at the one-month mark there were less than a dozen riders during a Tuesday morning service test run.

The digital display on the front of the bus wasn’t working, so the driver had a large placard in his front window marking the bus as the Whitehaven Flyer departed Front Street at Jefferson Avenue, just a block from several hotels in the Court Square area.

A month into the service, there is a learning curve with regular riders that reach transfer points and have other bus routes that travel parts of the Flyer’s straight shot into and out of Whitehaven.

The driver dutifully told those looking to get farther north or south on Elvis Presley Boulevard that Flyer only stops at signs with the red markers. But he did make other stops to pick up and drop off riders that weren’t marked in red. The Whitehaven Flyer was on time for its scheduled stops even with the unofficial extra stops.

“That could increase the riders if they know that it takes 30 minutes or 45 minutes or less to get to their destinations when it used to take them an hour and a half or an hour and 45 minutes,” said Memphis City Council member Harold Collins, who led the drive to round up the funding for streetscape improvements along Elvis Presley Boulevard between Brooks Road and Shelby Drive. “People will utilize that an awful lot.”

From the stop at Front and Jefferson, the Flyer took 33 minutes to get to bus stop 5139 directly across Elvis Presley Boulevard from Graceland just as the first group of 20 or so tourists was waiting in the plaza to take the first shuttle bus of the day up the hill to tour the mansion.

The Graceland bus stop is not one of those that has the red marker, indicating it is a Flyer stop. The driver indicated this but still stopped there anyway to let two passengers off. The official Flyer stop is several blocks away at Elvis Presley and Laudeen Street by Whitehaven Plaza.

Memphis Area Transit Authority’s Whitehaven Flyer express bus takes passengers from Whitehaven to Downtown.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

The plaza marks the northern end of the retail corridor that is the real target of the Flyer in terms of the Memphians who work there, shop there and live in the residential areas behind the retail strips that are thick along both sides of the boulevard.

Memphis Hop, a Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., private shuttle bus system that makes hourly stops at Graceland and nine other popular tourist stops, began in May with $20 one-day tickets for adults.

Some of the employees who work in the mansion walked from a parking lot across the street that soon would be busy with tourists snapping photos of everything from the brick wall and house to the painted Elvis image in the crosswalk, the first of several streetscape flourishes to come in the upgrade of Elvis Presley Boulevard.

Those improvements will include coordinated traffic signals specifically for the buses, which should improve the Flyer’s time.

“What I would like to see happen is more riders taking advantage of the opportunity, but with that comes, in my opinion, more marketing to get riders to utilize it,” Collins said. “Once that happens, then you can hopefully engage and encourage riders to participate more on the system. MATA, I think, has to do a better job of communicating that they have that particular drive ready to be utilized by the riders.”

Not many people took the Downtown-Whitehaven route, but on the trip back Downtown, nine passengers made the inbound trip once the bus turned around at Holmes Road.

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