Path to Reopening: MARTA Doubles Down on Strategies to Bring Riders Back When Pandemic Subsides
Despite low ridership due to COVID-19, CEO Jeffrey Parker sees agency playing vital role in city’s future
Photo credit: MARTA
BY ELLIE HENSLEY
With four rail stations that knit Midtown Atlanta together and bus service on major corridors, MARTA has been key to keeping the district accessible for all Atlantans.
But due to the ongoing pandemic, Atlanta’s streets and MARTA stations are emptier than usual. Many of Midtown’s 82K daytime workers are working from home, limiting their trips outside and social distancing when they leave the house, which has resulted in a steep decrease in ridership system-wide. As of August 5, rail ridership across the city was down 72 percent compared to the average (pre-pandemic) weekday, and bus ridership was down 38 percent. At the same time, MARTA has intensified its efforts to deliver clean, safe and reliable transit service.
We spoke with MARTA CEO and GM Jeffrey A. Parker to learn how the agency is navigating the challenge of COVID-19, its latest safety measures, and his thoughts on the future of the public transit industry. Read more below.
Dynamic Decision Making
Back in March, MARTA was deemed an essential service provider by the City of Atlanta from the earliest guidance issued by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.
MARTA adapted to the pandemic by making operational adjustments to address ridership and revenue decline and protect the health of its employees and riders. These included operating rail service on a weekend schedule, with emphasis on coordinating trip times that complemented regular bus service; reducing bus service by approximately 30 percent, and asking riders to board buses from the rear entrance in order to maintain distance from drivers. Because Breeze fare collection boxes are in the front of buses, MARTA suspended fare collection. It also asked that only riders taking essential trips use its bus and rail systems at the time.
“We’ve had to be very dynamic in our decision making about the right things to do, based on the circumstances that related to how the virus is spreading in the region and how people are riding our system, as well as realities around funding,” said Parker.
Parker said MARTA was fortunate to enter the pandemic “in decent financial shape,” compared to some other transit agencies around the country.
“While we’ve got a lot of challenges in front of us, we went into this difficult time with pretty strong financial figures in front of us,” he said. “We’ve got peers in pretty dire straits, particularly transit agencies in New York City. We’ve been relying heavily on our dedicated leadership team, down to police officers, bus and rail operators and attendants to work through this in a way that supports our customers.”
To see MARTA’s current bus routes and a service reduction map, click here.
Strategies and Safety Measures
Since the beginning of the pandemic, MARTA has followed recommendations by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for how to clean and sanitize surfaces in rail stations and bus depots including gates, Breeze machines and seating inside the rail cars and buses.
Photo credit: MARTA
This Clean Start program, launched by MARTA in July includes spraying down high touch areas of vehicles with electrostatic backpack sprayers that are also used by Delta Air Lines to clean aircraft cabins. Delta helped MARTA acquire the sprayers for the program.
Midtown MARTA Station after a deep cleaning. Photo credit: MARTA
Over the summer, MARTA stations across the city are undergoing deep cleanings, with overnight crews pressure washing floors, ventilation shafts, elevators, escalators and overhangs. Check out this video about James, a Rail Line Supervisor whose team s working to deep clean the Midtown MARTA Station this month:
Some of the spaces getting touch-ups are adjacent to public art installations Midtown Alliance and MARTA have collaborated on as part of the MARTA Artbound program, including the waffle overhang that surrounds the new Arts Center Station mural by Stacie U. Rose.
A recently completed seating platform and mural by Stacie U. Rose at Arts Center MARTA Station.
Many of these areas haven’t been cleaned in years, but cleaning them is important because their appearance affects customers’ perception of the station as a whole.
“This is an enormous task, but we’ve got a good plan between our internal and external staff,” Parker said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, and then we’ve got to get into maintenance mode.”
Face masks are also now required while riding MARTA, as well as for MARTA employees. For riders who don’t have their own masks, MARTA provides free disposable masks at stations and depots. Parker takes a box of masks with him and gives them out any time he takes MARTA, which is every time he goes into the office.
“If I see someone without a mask, I’ll offer one, and the vast majority of people are appreciative and will take it and put it on,” he said.
Parker said MARTA has seen a “complete turnaround” in the percentage of riders wearing masks since it started recording data. At the beginning of the pandemic, only about 35 percent of riders were wearing masks, and now more than 90 percent do.
MARTA is also purposefully blocking off some seats on train cars and buses in order for riders to maintain social distancing. Buses that used to carry about 45 people now have a capacity of about 20.
“Now, the only way to add capacity is to add more buses,” he said. “We recognize that our capacity has outstripped our ability to encourage social distancing, so we’re not there yet, but we will be. We have similar plans on the rail side.”
Operations at MARTA, like at every large employer, have not been without some challenges that have impacted workers and hit close to home in terms of illness and even death. It keeps an an anonymous list of impacted personnel on its website here.
An Important Role in Atlanta’s Future
This year has taken a toll on every part of the city, and MARTA is no exception. With monthly ridership bottoming out at 6 million trips from a peak of 10.6 million trips last year, the entire MARTA system has a long way to go before getting back to normal. But Parker’s team is dedicated to getting the system – and its riders – back on track.
The recovery process will include helping customers feel comfortable riding MARTA again if they’ve started driving into work since their workplaces have reopened. It’s also an opportunity for MARTA to rethink how it provides if it is effectively serving all of its customers. For example, it is currently working with a consultant on possible changes to its bus network.
“We’ve made a huge investment over decades and we need to continue to provide service and make customers comfortable as they come back to offices and to schools,” he said. “Those are some of the challenges we face as an industry, and we’re really looking at this holistically to deal with tactical things and provide a safe, reliable, sustainable service.”
Despite the challenges, Parker is confident that MARTA has an important role to play in Atlanta’s future.
“I don’t want to at all suggest that our future is completely unknown,” Parker said. “Our region is still projected to grow incredibly fast over a relatively short span of time, and transportation will be key to that growth.”