WASHINGTON - Last Monday, commuters in the nation's capital were smarting over yet another Metro rush-hour meltdown. Stray current had caused a rail component to overheat, pouring smoke into a tunnel outside a busy transit hub. A critical stretch of the Red Line was shut down for more than two hours. Thousands of riders were delayed in their travels.
Roughly 640 road miles to the south, a massive effort was underway in Atlanta to navigate that city through a commuting crisis. The partial collapse of Interstate 85 north of downtown on March 30 meant thousands of commuters were instead relying on MARTA, the city's Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, to start their workweek. Transit officials, staff and volunteers were scrambling to ensure a hitch-free morning.
About 50 members of a grass-roots group called the MARTA Army were dispatched to stations to help new and otherwise reluctant riders buy fare cards and get to their stops. Train frequency was increased to every six to eight minutes systemwide from the usual 10.
Even though the system was serving thousands more riders than normal, on-time performance was an unheard-of 99.5 percent, according to agency spokesman Erik Burton. That's 99 - with two nines - for you Metro riders who might be in jaw-to-floor disbelief.
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MARTA, sometimes referred to as Metro's sister system, owing to their inauguration in the same decade and their hybrid nature encompassing urban subway and commuter-like rail, was dealt an unprecedented opportunity in the eyes of transit experts.
To be sure, no one wishes for a tragedy such as the I-85 collapse.
"We don't celebrate by any means when one part of the network gets knocked down," said MARTA General Manager Keith Parker. "But what we do is increase our level of responsibility when that happens. A piece has taken a hit, so we need to step up."
In the wake of the collapse, MARTA ridership spiked 50 percent or more on the northern ends of the city's transit lines, the agency said. Overall ridership jumped about 20 percent, and the uptick in riders is expected to last at least through early June, when I-85 is expected to reopen. (Officials noted that it was a spring break week in Atlanta last week; this Monday, when thousands return to the region, is the real test.)
And while MARTA is not as large as Metro, serving about 230,000 weekday rail trips in a similarly sized metropolitan region, the situation does offer a glimpse at the efforts transit agencies can make to win over riders as increased competition, unreliability and other factors drive them away.
"They have got a tremendous opportunity to showcase a well-functioning transit system - with excellent leadership at the agency itself - in a region that is trying to think about what they look like in their middle age," said Robert Puentes, president of the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonprofit think tank. "Certainly they'll win over some riders who were reluctant, who don't take MARTA to begin with."
In Atlanta, that's a sizable slice of the market. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in 2015 that solo drivers make up 70 to 80 percent of commuters in the region.
Still, as the effort to win riders unfolds, Metro, the nation's second-busiest subway, may want to look to its peer to see whether and how new or previously reluctant passengers can be drawn to public transit. The Washington region's subway is suffering from massive ridership and revenue losses caused in part by chronic safety and reliability challenges, as well as efforts such as the SafeTrack year-long maintenance program to bring the system to a state of good repair. Metro ridership is down about 100,000 daily trips from peaks of 750,000 in 2009.
"It's almost the opposite of what's going on here with SafeTrack," said Brookings Institution policy fellow Adie Tomer of the Atlanta collapse. "What you're seeing MARTA acting like is what Uber, Lyft and the other [ride-hailing companies] did when SafeTrack hit here. 'Hey, we can help you.' "
MARTA chief Parker said he aims to show newcomers and existing customers what a smooth, problem-free ride can look like so they will consider MARTA when the highway reopens. Moreover, he said, they might be more mindful of the system's longer-term needs if they experience its value.
"We want to give people a safe ride - that's most important - secondly, we want to give these newcomers and our existing customers a really dignified and reliable trip and then, thirdly, maybe we start people thinking about [the long term]," Parker said.
But there are downsides to boosting service.
"That puts more stress on the system late at night," Parker said. "Any time you defer maintenance, that means you've got to do twice as much later. That's the type of system we're finding ourselves in."
It's also unclear how long MARTA can sustain the current level of enhanced service without straining equipment and staff. Last week was not entirely problem-free.
Early Friday morning, riders saw widespread delays after a collector shoe assembly - the paddles that draw power from the electrified third rail - caught fire, knocking down the proportion of on-time trips to 90.5 percent.
For comparison purposes, Metro's on-time performance for the problem-filled Monday morning commute was 89 percent, and after another midday disruption on the Red Line, the agency rounded out the day at 86.3 percent. Their methodologies vary, but both consider an "on-time" trip to mean delays lasted no longer than five minutes.
With 38 stations and about 340 rail cars, MARTA is considerably smaller than Metro, which has 91 stations and about 1,200 cars. The Atlanta system is 48 miles in length, compared with Metro's 117. Overall, Washington represents a much more successful portrait of transit adoption than Atlanta, policy experts said. The Atlanta system is also much easier to manage and maintain.
MARTA's situation offers an interesting case study, however, because the system is trying to attract riders to underused infrastructure, said Jon Orcutt, spokesman for TransitCenter, a public-transportation advocacy group.
"You know, I think the lesson is that MARTA actually could work for a lot more people than are using it," he said. "The lesson for Atlanta is, 'Maybe you don't need as much road space, and maybe not as much cheap or free parking.' "
For transit systems in general, the lesson is simply: Rider satisfaction hinges foremost on the ability to deliver reliable service.
"Walk-up-and-go service is what makes people willing to use transit," he said. "[It's] the fact that you don't have to understand a weird timetable or look at your phone to figure out how to do it."
So what's the lesson for Metro?
Tomer says winning back riders will require a steady stream of small-scale efforts aimed at improving the traveling experience. Amenities such as new way-finding compasses outside some stations and stickers denoting where six-car trains stop - both of which Metro is doing - are a start. But riders want more.
"People want to talk to a human when they're commuting. They want someone standing there who's going to be helpful," Tomer said. "Those kind of elements - really clear messaging when there are delays and not being scared to say what's happening. Building up that trust with their ridership community, that's really the key component."
Parker recalled riding the train on a recent night and meeting a man who was on his way from the airport to a hotel. The man said he normally would have taken a cab, but when he called his hotel, a staffer recommended he take MARTA. The man detailed to Parker how it had been a day filled with travel-related anguish, including six hours of plane delays, and how he was ready to get to the hotel.
"He's the type of person who's now a permanent customer. He's going to tell colleagues, he's going to be riding himself," Parker said. "And so we're hearing lots of stories like that."
Simon Berrebi, executive director of MARTA Army, said that in the days after the I-85 collapse, the agency contacted his group to ask for support during the weekday commute.
"MARTA reached out to us saying that they needed some help for first-time . . . users to navigate the system and especially purchase [fare cards]," he said. "The fare payment was definitely the greatest source of confusion."
Metro has a team of about 20 volunteer "ambassadors" who assist tourists and customers at five stations, a spokesman said, answering questions, helping them buy SmarTrip cards and giving directions. They work three-hour shifts two days per month, and Metro will evaluate whether to expand or modify the pilot later this year.
Still, Puentes said the lack of an organized, independent rider advocacy group, akin to those in other major cities, is a distinct hole in this region's transit community.
Berrebi said the Atlanta system has been willing to work with its transit community in ways other systems have been reluctant to do.
"MARTA's willingness to crowdsource innovation is very unique," Berrebi said. "The transit agency itself has been open to letting it happen. I think that that's very important. The fact that MARTA is taking the risk of trying something new, that's exceptional and that's something most transit agencies would not be comfortable with."
The failed WMATA Riders' Union, which fizzled over concerns about its handling of its funds, left activists without a unified voice to push for Metro riders' interests.
"It's a strange thing in this region that we don't have the same kind of grass-roots, bottoms-up support for the transit system like other regions do," Puentes said. "Clearly a lot of people care about it; there's a lot of different advocates in the region. But it's not the same as the Straphangers in New York, and this group in Atlanta, and other groups in Seattle and Chicago."
Whatever lessons might be drawn from Atlanta, Tomer said, Metro has examples of success it can tout. He pointed to the relatively problem-free weekend of the inauguration and the Women's March on Washington in January, Metro's second-busiest day ever and a recent example of how the system is capable of delivering quality service. The question is how Metro can apply that quality of service every day, he said.
"MARTA right now has the momentum in its favor so it can sustain that [ridership]," Tomer said. "Those same lessons can also be used in D.C. to try to create momentum for itself."