A MARTA Army volunteer affixes a bus route and schedule to a stop, part of the organization's Operation Timely Trip initiative.
BY ELLIE HENSLEY
MARTA currently has no shortage of challenges keeping it busy: its ridership - and therefore revenue - are still down due to COVID, and there are a number of new protocols in place it must meet to keep employees and riders safe. Fortunately for the transit agency, it has also had an enthusiastic local nonprofit partner in its corner throughout the past year to help support its mission.
MARTA Army is an independent grassroots action group that works to improve the transit ridership experience for metro Atlantans. Its small board of directors and hundreds of volunteers are passionate about creating a world class transit system in the Atlanta region, including Midtown. We spoke with MARTA Army Co-Founder Bakari Height about his organization’s initiatives and the future of public transit.
Demanding Accessible, Affordable Public Transit
MARTA Army debuted last year’s largest initiative, Operation Bus Stop Census, on Transit Equity Day. Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks’ birthday on February 4 has been established as a day for people across the United States to demand action to make public transit accessible and affordable.
Operation Bus Stop Census asked people to fill out a survey about the current state of each bus stop they encountered. Questions included whether there were any obstacles to boarding the bus and if the stop had adjacent sidewalks and crosswalks. Those who logged lots of stops were awarded prizes such as stickers, pins, umbrellas and water bottles.
“We wanted to know if there were adequate amenities, whether the crosswalks were painted, if it was ADA accessible, and if it was a safe environment,” Height said. “We wanted to know from the riders themselves what the situation is like.”
Although the pandemic forced MARTA Army to pivot the initiative to a mostly virtual format and rely on Google Maps for photos, it exceeded its goal to survey 2,500 bus stops by more than500 stops. It is currently analyzing the data and plans to take its results to MARTA over the next several months to help it inform its decisions about where services need to be improved.
“Good transit doesn’t just come in the form of a train, but also in the form of a bus that comes frequently with wonderful service around the clock,” Height said. “Good bus stops need seating, shelter and safety.”
Other MARTA Army efforts this year were directly related to COVID-19. Early in the pandemic, it partnered with Sweet Auburn Seafood Restaurant, which unfortunately has since closed, and World Central Kitchen to deliver meals to MARTA workers at bus and rail stations to show appreciation and keep the system running. It has also assisted MARTA in handing out face masks to riders at transit stations and bus depots.
An ongoing initiative for MARTA Army is Operation Timely Trip. Bus stops are often inadequately labeled, making it difficult for inexperienced riders to know when a bus is coming, or whether a bus is currently even running along that route. MARTA Army encourages volunteers to “adopt a stop” and post a weather-resistant sign with updated route and scheduling information for their particular stop.
“This is an example of people helping people,” Height said. “Anyone who hasn’t ridden a bus or doesn’t have a smartphone, now they have a way to know when the bus is coming.”
Looking Forward to Larger Projects
Height would like to find bigger projects for MARTA Army to work on in 2021.
Programs like the Bus Stop Census and Operation Timely Trip will likely exist as long as MARTA Army does, Height said. Of the more than 9,000 bus stops in metro Atlanta, MARTA Army hopes to survey more than 3,000 this year. The group is also looking for ways to get families and children involved, which includes forming partnerships with other organizations like the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition.
Ahead of this year’s Transit Equity Day, MARTA Army collaborated with the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition and Thread ATL to collect stories from MARTA riders who are experiencing suspended bus services due to COVID-19, increased services, or who used MARTA to vote. It is sharing these stories with the broader community to help others understand the challenges faced by transit riders, as well as with MARTA so the operator can better meet riders’ needs. Read the collection of stories here.
“MARTA is still very valuable to metro Atlanta, and I don’t think the state realizes that enough,” Height said. “We’re going to continue to collect data and tell stories of people riding it.”
Make a donation or volunteer to join the MARTA Army movement here.
This story is the first in a series Midtown Alliance is developing on “second responders,” organizations that are hard at work supporting Atlanta’s post-pandemic recovery and resiliency. We’re checking in to see how MARTA Army and others are adding to the big picture on urban issues like transit, greenspace, economic recovery and more. Subscribe to our newsletters to make sure you catch future installments in the series.