Rolling toward a better MARTA

Let’s face it, MARTA gets no respect.

There’s this, for instance, from the Huffington Post on the world’s most traffic-choked cities:

“… it doesn’t get much worse than Atlanta (which is) hamstrung by the woefully inadequate MARTA system: a plus-shaped subway line whose much-needed expansion is perennially blocked by special interests.”

Of course, those of us who use the system tell a different story.

As someone who uses the train several times a week, I know the system will get me from Point A to Point B on time – most of the time.

I sense the “Ride With Respect” campaign is working. After all, I encounter fewer panhandlers and fewer shenanigans.

More people are using the system. Through March, total ridership is up about 5 percent compared to the same time last year.

Beyond the numbers, there are those unique moments that you only experience when you leave the car in the driveway and take the train or bus.

The night one man stood up and announced he’d been sober for one year.

We all clapped.

The night one young lady embarrassed her friend by singing “Happy Birthday.”

We all joined in.

The morning an unfamiliar rider burst into tears at the Medical Center station because she was on the wrong train.

We comforted her and directed her to Lindbergh so she could catch the Gold Line to Lenox.

There was the day my niece accidentally left her purse on the train.

The MARTA officer at the Five Points station couldn’t have been nicer. Despite the chaos at the station, he radioed ahead to see if the purse, along with a cellphone and some cash, could be retrieved once the train arrived at the airport. (Sadly, it hasn’t turned up.)

But here’s the problem:

When things go wrong, they really go wrong.

These are the memories, unfortunately, that leave a lasting impression on riders.

Take a sweltering night last month, for instance.

I left the office at 6:39 p.m., expecting to catch a southbound train for East Point. On most nights, it’s a relatively short – and relaxing – 40-minute ride.

But when I got to the platform, I knew we were in trouble.

A larger-than-normal crowd milled about, looking hot, tired and frustrated.

My MARTA app showed the next train would arrive in six minutes. But because of trouble down the line, the next train never arrived.

So we waited. And waited. Then waited some more.

A pilot standing on the platform nervously checked his watch.

A barely audible announcement over the aging PA system simply told us the system was “experiencing delays.”

Another 40 minutes passed. By the time the train arrived, the pilot was long gone. The rest of us piled into the train, which finally inched its way to the Buckhead station before stopping again – this time, for another 20 minutes.

“Is it always like this?” one rider asked me.

That would be Taha Bahadori. He just moved here from Los Angeles to take a job as a researcher at Georgia Tech. After battling L.A. traffic for seven years, he decided to forgo a car when he arrived in Atlanta.

This was his sixth time on the train, and I could tell he was already having doubts about relying on MARTA.

“I’ve been on a New York City subway, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” he told us that night. “If we were just going to get on the train to sit and wait, then it should have never departed.”

All the while, the conductor told us the train would likely stop at Lindbergh so buses could take us to the Midtown station.

Fortunately, that never happened. By 9 p.m., I was finally home. While frustrated, those of us who regularly ride the train recognized it was an anomaly.

But the incident raises serious questions:

Why wasn’t the MARTA app updating the train arrival in real time? (Lyle Harris, MARTA’s spokesman, tells me the IT department is looking into it. It’s wise, he says, to sign up for service alerts on Twitter via @MARTAService.)

Why couldn’t those announcements have been more precise – or, at least, a little more audible? (Harris acknowledges that MARTA is an aging system in need of improvement, but it is looking at ways to better share information with those of us who use the system.)

And why couldn’t MARTA employees on the platform tell riders what was going on that night? (MARTA, Harris says, needs to do a better job of getting information to people on the ground, in this case, its 74 station agents.)

Yet, these are the very issues that drive some riders away – and lead to the impression the system doesn’t work.

Over at MARTA headquarters – and even among those of us who use the trains and buses – there’s a sense the system is making improvements. But, as Harris puts it, “we’ve got a long way to go … we want to make the system better.”

And that’s where those of us who use the system can help.

Take the MARTA Army, for instance.

It’s made up of folks who want to improve the ridership experience by shining a spotlight on all the system has to offer – and by exploring what’s working in other cities. If you haven’t been inspired to use MARTA, this army might just convince you. THE NEXT TIME YOU LAMENT THAT YOU ARE STUCK IN TRAFFIC, CONSIDER THAT, IN FACT, YOU ARE TRAFFIC, one tweet reads.

There’s MARTA’s “see and say” app, which allows users to report a problem. It also provides a direct link to call MARTA police. Of course, without cellular service on the 9 miles of underground tunnels, none of that might help during particular stretches of the ride.

But MARTA is working on that, too.

By September 2016, MARTA plans to have Wi-Fi on all of its buses. About a year later, by December 2017, it expects to have cellular service available in all of its parking decks, its stations and in the underground tunnels.

Since the “Ride With Respect” program went into effect in late 2013, 5,727 riders have been suspended from using the system – making the ride a little nicer for the rest of us.

Of course, that’s the real goal of the campaign.

“We want to change the way people feel about the experience,” Harris tells me.

As for the chaos that’s bound to pop up, Harris admits MARTA needs to do a better job when things go wrong.

That would certainly go a long way to making folks feel more comfortable on the trains – despite what you might have heard or read.

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