Madison Heights

Photos: A ride on the Madison Avenue trolley

High Ground's On the Ground team has been embedded in Madison Heights for three months, engaging with community members and reporting on its history, people and happenings. We invite you to take a ride with us on Madison Height's trolley buses in this visual essay by photographer Ziggy Mack.

A modified MATA bus, designed to look like MATA's 100-year-old vintage electric trolley fleet, heads towards a trolley stop on Madison Avenue near Claybrook in Madison Heights. (Ziggy Mack)
MATA employee John Hughes pilots the Madison trolley bus along its daily route. (Ziggy Mack)
Heading southbound on Front Street, the MATA Madison trolley bus offers a classic view of the Mississippi River and Hernando-Desoto bridge. (Ziggy Mack)
In the last three months, one of the things High Ground's Madison Heights team has heard most often and from the widest diversity of stakeholders — residents, community developers, small business owners, universities, churches and people just passing through — is that Madison Heights is a hub for transportation in Memphis.

The center of the neighborhood sits at the intersection of Cleveland Street and Madison Avenue, and it's bordered by Poplar and Union avenues and Interstate-240, all of which are major routes for bus and car traffic. It's compact and walkable, with frequent food traffic to and from buildings and bus stops.

Stakeholders say the abundance of bus lines and transfer points are a major asset for the neighborhood. Another is the Madison Avenue trolley bus, which ends its route in the heart of Madison Heights and adds a fun flair to bring tourists and local travelers alike to the area.

Memphis’ trolleys and Chattanooga’s Lookout Mountain Incline Railway are the only two fixed guideway transit systems — systems that move only on their own fixed track — in Tennessee.

The Madison trolley's route runs down Madison from Cleveland to Downtown where it loops north around Court Square, cuts south on Front Street then heads back up Madison to Cleveland. 

Self-identified street activist and Madison trolley bus passenger Larry White rides along the Madison trolley route in the Medical District. As he rides, he talks with passengers from all walks of life. (Ziggy Mack)
Passenger Alfred Wood rides the Madison trolley bus and other traditional MATA buses five times a week. (Ziggy Mack)
The trolley bus is operated by Memphis Area Transit Authority. MATA launched in 1975 and is governed by a policy board appointed by Memphis' mayor and approved by the city council. In 2018, MATA served 280 square-miles of Memphis and Shelby County and 6.6 million trips.

The Madison Avenue trolley rides along the same route as MATA's electric trolley system. That system debuted in 1993, but its trolleys cars are over 100 years old. 

In late 2013, the electric system was taken offline and replaced with buses designed to look like the historic electric cars after a fire claimed one of the vintage fleet. The ensuing investigation prompted an overhaul of the entire electric system. Main Street's electric trolley service has since been restored. 

Related: "Main Street trolley hits the tracks again"

A MATA spokesperson told High Ground they'll be adding one more restored car to the Main Street line before moving on to the Riverfront and Madison line restorations. They do not yet have a confirmed timeline for completing the system-wide renovation. 
The Madison trolley bus heads west past a mural at the Autozone Park. (Ziggy Mack)
Madison trolley passenger Archie Willis steps off the trolley at his destination. He rides the trolley twice a week. (Ziggy Mack)
Memphian Archie Willis rides the trolley twice a week.

"It's cooler in here," he said.

He feels public transportation is important because seniors, workers, people with mobility devices and others need a way to get around the city.

"I've met me some very good folks on public transportation," Willis added.

The MATA trolley bus rolls past the Southern College of Optometry in Madison Heights. (Ziggy Mack)
Heading west, the MATA Madison trolley bus passes the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center Hamilton Eye Institute in The Edge. (Ziggy Mack)

Alfred Wood rides with MATA five times a week on its trolleys and standard buses. When ask about his favorite things to look at while he rides the Madison line, he said it was hard to pick just one. 

"I like the Downtown area, all the historic buildings and stuff," said Wood.

"[Public transportation] allows you to go where you need to go without having to depend on anyone else. It's your own independence," he added. 

Dana (front left) and Chris (front right) Price and their family ride the MATA Madison trolley line on a recent vacation to Memphis. (Ziggy Mack)
The Price Family waits at a trolley stop in the Medical District along the Madison trolley bus line. (Ziggy Mack)
Dana Price, Chris Price and their children were first-time MATA riders visiting from Alabama.

"We wanted to go see Sun Studio," said Dana. "We've been on Riverfront, then we did the Madison [line] and we've been on the Main [Street line] too."

They said they enjoyed scoping out potential dinner spots along the way.

"We went down to Bass Pro Shop so it was easy to get on there," said Chris. "For us with being from out of town, we don't know where to park, we don't know any of the places we're going. This made sightseeing easy. We get on when we want to, get off when we want to."

The MATA Madison trolley line passes Sun Studios and Sam Phillips Recording Service. (Ziggy Heights)
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Read more articles by Cole Bradley and Ziggy Mack.