Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
“People are realizing that great transit will not come from the sky,” says the co-founder of the MARTA Army.
On November 8, voters in Atlanta overwhelmingly approved the most dramatic transportation expansion the Georgia capital has seen in decades. Over the next 40 years, extra sales tax revenue will fund $2.5 billion for a major rail and bus expansion by the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, plus $300 million for improved regional pedestrian and cycling infrastructure. This big infusion stands to be transformative.
It also represents a somewhat improbable comeback for a transit-challenged region. Fast-growing Atlanta loves its cars, with some 80 percent of commuters driving solo. Voters soundly rejected a $8.5 billion sales tax proposal for regional transportation improvements back in 2012. With zero state subsidies for MARTA’s operations, and suburban residents historically unwilling to pitch in, Atlanta has long ranked at the bottom of per-capita transit spending among U.S. cities—and it shows, in years of MARTA service cuts, long wait times, and fraying infrastructure.
But Atlanta’s about-face on transit didn’t surprise Simon Berrebi. He’s a lead organizer of the MARTA Army, a grassroots organization aimed at galvanizing local support for transit. “At a certain point, people are realizing that great transit will not come from the sky,” Berrebi says. “We need to start owning this system.”
Which is what the MARTA Army is all about. Unlike your standard riders’ union or transit advocacy group, where folks vocalize and letter-write, the Army stirs up enthusiasm for Atlanta’s trains and buses by helping citizens directly improve them. Its first campaign, “Operation TimelyTrip,” encouraged citizens to “adopt” the responsibility of keeping bus stop information up-to-date; as MARTA changes its seasonal routes, the Army provides special laminated schedules for specific stops to individuals who request them, so they can help fellow riders easily navigate the system (the posters gamely advertise the names of stop-adopters). The second campaign, launched October 19, is raising funds to buy garbage bins for bus stops in East Point, a high-poverty suburb southwest of Atlanta. (The city of East Point has agreed to install and service the cans.) So far, 312 bus stops have been adopted through TimelyTrip—in neighborhoods across the income spectrum—and $5,000 in donations have been collected among community members for “Operation CleanStop,” mostly in $5 and $25 increments.
By reaching out to existing nonprofits and neighborhood groups, “we’ve made a deliberate effort to engage a diverse group of stakeholders,” says Berrebi. “It turns out there are transit nerds everywhere.”
East Point resident Dahab Hagos might be one of them. She followed her husband to Atlanta from Toronto a few years ago, and had been looking ways to improve her new city’s somewhat less connected transit system. Hagos was thrilled to donate to Operation CleanStop, and has been actively spreading the word about the campaign to family and friends. Talking about the campaign has become a way to connect with neighbors she might not otherwise, she says. “Just looking at the number of donations, I think this is mostly people who wouldn’t otherwise be coming to community events or volunteering,” she says. “People just want to help address the city’s issues in a tangible way.”
The Army pursues its operations largely independent of MARTA, but the agency gives the group its enthusiastic blessing. They’d love to be able to connect with citizens the way MARTA Army has, says Ben Limmer, MARTA’s assistant general manager, but lack the resources and staff to do it. “Not to oversimplify, but we’re very busy with our day jobs, serving hundreds of thousands of people per day,” he says. “So we saw right away that a partnership like this would be an extremely impactful way to improve and enhance the customer experience.”
Limmer draws a parallel between this relationship and other agencies joining up with Uber and Lyft to improve services. Transit providers are increasingly relying on “partners” to better serve their customers, he says.
Of course, that hits on the broader forces driving the need for a MARTA Army at all. Atlanta’s historic transit funding woes are not unique: Most transit agencies in the U.S. are operating with tighter and tighter belts, and in many cases are now forced to rely on third-party providers to fill gaps in service and amenities. Once upon a time, the job of the MARTA Army should have been the job of MARTA—and maybe it still should be. Should citizens get in the habit of assuming responsibilities typically handled by public agencies?
Berrebi says the Army’s work is really about firing up an active, committed pro-transit contingent—and about showing MARTA how to engage with them. Securing long-term transit funding was a major step for the agency, but it was only the first one, he says. To shift Atlanta towards high-capacity transit, MARTA will still need local public support—and lots of it, especially with a Congress controlled by a GOP with an anti-transit stance.
“At this point, centralized planning will need all the help it can get,” Berrebi says. “We’re here to provide that.”