Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Grassroots MARTA boosters are shining appreciation on the folks who keep the system running.
Maintainers—folks who clean streets, care for children, repair infrastructure—don’t usually draw much praise. Society tends to value “innovators” and “disrupters” more than the legions of workaday toilers who keep cities running.
MARTA Army, a grassroots citizens group that supports Atlanta’s beleaguered transit system, hopes to change that, at least for the unsung heroes moving buses and trains in its hometown. Nominations are open for the second annual MARTA Kudos awards, which honors exceptional workers who operate, maintain, and patrol the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority. Riders can submit bids for standout workers they’ve encountered in the system—bus drivers, train operators, janitors, station agents, transit police officers, or others—who’ve “demonstrated great valor in the line of duty,” according to the nomination page.
Locals can also call or write MARTA itself with employee compliments. But Simon Berrebi, the co-founder of MARTA Army, says folks don’t usually think to send praise through official channels—more often, those are used for complaints. “That’s really unfortunate, since the workers are the original transit nerds,” he says. “They’re the last ones to go home every night under really tough conditions.”
Honored last year for brightening commuter experiences on his midtown route, the bus operator Carlos Smith would agree. “We’re on the front lines every day, and we try to do the best we can,” he said at last year’s dressed-up awards ceremony, held at a local restaurant. “It’s really good to know when somebody acknowledges it.”
Every nominee (there were 22 in 2016) is recognized with an achievement award and an extremely cool patch; one outstanding individual—as judged by a customer service official at MARTA, a local union leader, and a Georgia Tech transportation scholar—takes home a gift certificate and a special medal of honor.
No doubt, the bar is high. Last year’s top honoree, the bus operator Nathaniel Smith (who happens to be Carlos’s dad; Berrebi swears they were nominated by separate individuals), was described by a rider as “the friendliest and most outgoing bus driver I have EVER encountered.” MARTA Army arranges for recognized employees to have their pay comped during the festivities, and last year, they worked with MARTA’s customer service team to get nominations included in the official employee record system.
“When you’re nominated, it's not just that you get this reception and a gift card,” says Berrebi. “It also has an impact on your career.”
Plenty of transit agencies host internal fêtes for the best and brightest of their operators. The difference in Atlanta is that the recognition comes from outside official avenues: riders themselves submit the praise, and MARTA Army works largely independent of the agency. The DIY transit-boosters are also helping to keep schedules and bus stops around Atlanta updated and clean, which I wrote about in 2016.
Even with new public tax dollars to expand Atlanta’s transportation systems, MARTA officials told me last year that they lack the resources and staff to do much more than they already do; MARTA Army’s work to shine appreciation on the system is a welcome supplement. Most agencies would likely feel the same way.
But until every city has its own transit-boosting brigade, locals can pay gratitude to great operators through more established means. Submit an official commendation through customer service departments. Give a shout-out to agencies on social media (contrary to popular belief, Twitter can be used to call out good service, too). Or print out an adorable bus-themed “thank you card” to hand out in person. It’s a good time for commuters to dream up their thanks, anyways: Transit Driver Appreciation Day is March 18. Early celebration is allowed.