Making MARTA smarter

With the Atlanta Streetcar off to a decent start, hopeful city planners are thinking Atlanta residents are finally starting to ‘get’ the whole alternative city transportation thing. Getting people to understand the benefits of public transit is the crux of any effective transit concept. Right now the  idea behind the Streetcar is to incentivize riders by not charging a fare for the first three months. This is intended to get motorists and locals to try out the Streetcar. In turn, they might realize it helps them get around town easier and ideally the Streetcar will gain a loyal customer who will pay to ride once the grace period is over.

In reality, however, this ideal outcome does not go according to plan at all. Typically, the cost to a motorist is rationalized to not be worth it after a certain price or for any number of external reasons. These factors are something city planners obsess over. For example, if the price is too high, people will just keep driving or take a taxi (both options bad for the environment, obviously). Too low and motorists will assume everyone else (except them) will use it, making it an overcrowded and uncomfortable experience. Make it free and all hell breaks loose.

Enter MARTA. The public transit OG we all know and … love? Or love to hate. Or have a weird love/hate relationship with. What do you think would happen if Kasim Reed said tomorrow that MARTA will now and forever be free to everyone?

Would there be celebrations in the streets? Empty roads and no more traffic? Of course not. If anything, there might be a faint “meh” echoed throughout the city. The “Next Guy” paradox of public transit would arise — every motorist would assume the next guy would start taking MARTA to and from work now that it’s free.

This is great in theory, because that would get the next guy off the road, leading to less traffic. Problem is, if everyone thinks like this, no one will actually start taking MARTA! Yet, oddly enough, they will still support public transit. We see this in statistics reported by The American Public Transportation Association. They reported that 74 percent of people support more mass transit spending. But only 5 percent of commuters travel by mass transit.

So how do we get motorists to start drinking the public transit Kool-Aid? How do we convert motorists to Marta-ists? Simple — we just have to change the way people think about public transit. Easier said than done, sure, but nothing’s going to change if we don’t at least start thinking about the issue and how we can tackle it.

So here’s my proposition — a simple two step program: Make it personal and make driving a car in Atlanta really annoying.

So let’s make it personal. To do this, there’s got to be a high quality incentive that people will respond to on different levels. I can’t think of a better incentive than subsidized or free MARTA passes via schools and Atlanta business.

The idea would be to get Atlanta business leaders on board with a program that not only offered free monthly Marta Breeze Cards to their employees but further reward those employees who took Marta more than, say, twenty times per month. An easy idea would be free tickets to a Hawks or Braves game. For the truly hardcore, offer a prize for the employee who uses public transit the most each month.

Think how small this cost would be to companies like Coke or Georgia Pacific. A 30-day unlimited MARTA pass is $95. For less than $1,200 per year per employee, businesses can not only help support public transit but also contribute on a ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ level, bolstering their corporate image. Win-win.

For an intensified effect, we’ve got to make driving as inconvenient as possible. I know this sounds strange, but sometimes you have to think negative to achieve a positive. So let’s look at the parking in Atlanta. More specifically, parking decks on campus.

There’s too many of them and the more they build, the more likely people are to drive and park on campus. So what if we closed two of them down? And then raised the price of the rest by $5? It’s extreme, but I guarantee it would convert some people into MARTA riders! Through this negative incentive, we can get some people to stop parking on campus and make them find an alternative.

And how convenient — I’ve got a great alternative — public transit!

Before you send in angry letters telling me I’m an idiot, there’s a method to this madness. When our sole purpose is to increase public transit usage, we have to think of ways to make driving as inefficient and cumbersome as possible, even if on a person-by-person basis it isn’t.

So that’s just one plan and put in motion, it might create enough inertia to get some real change rolling. But here’s the great thing: there’s endless combinations of programs that might work. The perfect one might not have been thought of yet, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t out there!

So I urge you to give the idea some thought next time you’re sitting in traffic downtown. What’s keeping you from using public transit? What sort of incentive/disincentive program would convert you, if any at all?

Until then, we’ll all keep sitting in gridlock I-85 traffic, mumbling to ourselves how much traffic sucks and wondering why everyone else isn’t riding MARTA.


  1. A valiant effort for sure, but this proposal just shoves a giant middle finger in the face of people who can’t take MARTA from where they live, which is a lot of students and faculty (ANYONE commuting from Fayette, Coweta, Douglas, or other outlying metro and further counties would have to drive all the way to an existing MARTA station and then pay parking and fare and wait for the bus/train in addition to their travel to the station in the first place). Any long term benefits from this (MARTA expansion, increased access to public transit, etc) wouldn’t happen for several years (or in the case of light rail expansion, a decade or more). In the mean time, you just piss everyone else off. Increased access to public transit it good and it’s a goal we all need to work toward, but you can’t expect to give everyone the shaft and have them be okay with it. Even for the greater good. It’s robbing Peter to pay Paul.

  2. The poor quality of the trains is also an issue that detracts people from using public transit. Also, nothing is “free”. Someone has to pay for those proposed breeze cards. MARTA is also often late and wholly inefficient. I think the fact that people would rather cope with the horrid metro Atlanta traffic is testament to the poor quality of MARTA and also that the streetcar was a complete waste of money and resources. Good job trying to sell a bad product. By the way, I love public transit; but, this is not the best method to encourage people to use it. Also, have your editor double check your sentences for fragments. This was almost an unprofessional level of colloquial writing.

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