Bushra Alfaraj lives near the Brookhaven border and when the weather is not too hot, she likes to walk about 10 minutes from her apartment to the Briarwood Road bus stop to catch MARTA Bus 39 at 9 a.m.
It’s about a 30-minute ride on the bus to the McClave Drive stop in Doraville. From there, she walks another 15 minutes to her job as development designer at the Center for Pan Asian Community Services on North Shallowford Road.
She also regularly rides Buses 47 and 133, which have stops closer to her home and where she needs to go, but those buses are never as full as Bus 39, she said.
“It’s really fun for people-watching,” Alfaraj said of Bus 39. “I can definitely see why Buford Highway requires more stops … between it being a long highway and the diversity.”
Alfaraj said taking the bus to work gives her time to relax. She’s currently studying for the GRE and has digital flash cards she can flip through during the ride.
“It’s also a good time to catch up with my family and friends who live all over the place … Riding Bus 39 is a good time for me to connect with everyone, or I can spend it reading or listening to music,” she said.
With an average daily ridership of more than 5,400 on weekdays and more than 7,000 on weekends recorded between December and February, Bus 39 is the most used of MARTA’s 101 bus routes. Bus 110, which serves the Brookhaven and Chamblee area, has the next highest weekday rider average for the area at 3,482, according to MARTA records.
Bus 39 also serves one of metro Atlanta’s most diverse communities. Larry Keating, a retired Georgia Tech urban planning professor and author of the influential policy book “Atlanta: Race, Class and Urban Expansion,” has said that many Asian and Latino immigrants and others moved to Buford Highway rental housing in the 1980s through 2000s during metro Atlanta’s construction and immigration boom.
They did so because many apartments were large, some as big as 900 square feet for a two-bedroom apartment; rents were cheap and near the bottom of the metro rental price range; and the apartments were accessible to public and indigenous transportation, he said.
MARTA created the Route 39, offering continuous service along Buford Highway, in the mid-1980s, when it saw the need to serve the growing population. Although there is not a formal record of how Bus 39 came to be, MARTA spokesperson Stephany Fisher said the MARTA service likely began when the Lindbergh Center Station opened in 1984, and that the route took its current form in 1992 with the opening of the Doraville station.
There are now about 90 stops between the 8-mile stretch between Lindbergh and Doraville that include numerous sprawling shopping centers: Northeast Plaza, Asian Square, Plaza Fiesta and Pinetree Plaza, which are identified by signs in Korean, Spanish and other languages. Other major stops include DeKalb-Peachtree Airport, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Chamblee campus, an Internal Revenue Service building, the Latin American Association and the Buford Highway Farmers Market.
Fisher said Bus 39 has long been one of MARTA’s top-ridership routes, likely due to the high concentration of apartments and shopping centers on the route. There is also a high level of transit use in the international community along the route, she said.
Lavonda Jones has been driving a MARTA bus for 15 years, the past three years dedicated to route 39. Her shift begins at 4:50 a.m. at the Doraville MARTA Station and she said most of her riders boarding the bus that early are headed to the Lindbergh station to catch a train to get to their jobs. Without traffic or interruptions, she can make the trip in 45 minutes.
“The first three trips are people just trying to get to work, so those are very important times to me, making sure I’m keeping it moving,” Jones said.
“Even when people are getting out their fare, I’m looking at traffic trying to keep that bus moving so they will get to the train on time,” she said.
Jones’ other regular riders include CDC and IRS employees, women going to get their hair done at a salon in one of the shopping centers, DeKalb County crews working at a waste transfer station and people headed to the Goodwill Career Center in Northeast Plaza to gain training and find jobs.
On a recent Thursday morning, Pedro Marquez, 73, boarded Bus 39 at a stop in front of Plaza Fiesta. He said he was going to Grady Hospital to pick up medicine for his diabetes and heart problems. To get to Grady, Marquez had to take the Gold line from Lindbergh to Five Points, then transfer to the Green line to get to the Georgia State station. From there, he had about a five-minute walk to the hospital.
He said in limited English that he walks along Buford Highway every day. “I have no car, no nothing,” he said. Marquez said he has lived along Buford Highway for 17 years and goes to the hospital two or three times a week.
“This is my transportation. I live by myself,” he said.
On a separate trip, an older man in a white T-shirt pushing a cart covered by a blue tarp sat close to the front of the bus after boarding at the Doraville station. A woman with a black-and-white scarf wrapped around her head sat alone. A woman with two playful young boys boarded and she squeezed them all together into two seats next to each other.
In another seat, a young man wearing headphones stared out the window as the bus rode past a nondescript strip mall where “Fuerza Latina Insurance” could be purchased next door to a Cricket wireless store. The bus passed a drab, brown building with a “Cash America Pawn” sign emblazoned on its front appeared to be shuttered, and where many aging single-family houses are now homes to local businesses. A blue Statue of Liberty stood at the front door of one of those buildings where an attorney works.
At the Lindbergh station, Charissa Dubose-Jenkins got on Bus 39, but not to travel on Buford Highway. She was headed to the Michael’s store in the Buckhead Crossing Shopping Center, just a few minutes away from Lindbergh, to buy yarn for a blanket she is crocheting.
Dubose-Jenkins has worked for MARTA for 12 years, cleaning the Hamilton E. Holmes train station in West Atlanta. She said after buying her yarn, she was going to ride Bus 39 back to the Lindbergh station and then take Bus 30 to Executive Park to pay the mortgage on her home located in West Atlanta. Just another day on MARTA, she said.
Marie Barajas, 25, boarded Bus 39 on a recent morning at the Lindbergh station. She said she rides Bus 81 from a stop close to her home in East Point to the East Point MARTA Station. There, she takes a train to Lindbergh where she then catches Bus 39 that takes her nearly to the front door of the Sessoms Law Group office, where she works as a legal receptionist.
The hour commute each way and transfers are worth it to not have to drive in traffic, she said.
“It’s very convenient for me,” she said as she pulls the cord to signal the bus driver to stop.
Barajas moved to Atlanta from Los Angeles a year ago and knew she wanted to work helping Hispanic people. The Sessoms Law Groups includes immigration law as a practice area and Barajas said she does a lot of work translating legal documents from English to Spanish.
“People lie all the time to Hispanic people, they don’t always have the best intentions and sometimes are only trying to steal their money,” she said. “This is a way I can help.”
For Jones, the passengers and their stories are what make her job driving a MARTA bus enjoyable. Some buy her gifts, including the necklace and bracelet she wears. Others bring her a hot cup of coffee in the early morning hours. Some are teaching her Spanish and tease her when she asks them how to say certain words.
“I love them, they love me,” she said. “They thank me every day. That’s why I stay out here. I love it out here.”