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5 easy things MARTA could do to be smarter

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For everyone who has kept up with all the politics and financial heartbreaks of Atlanta's rapid transit system, it doesn't need to be said that the system has tried to make the most of a limited budget.

During the economic crisis a few years ago, reduced budgets meant several years with a smaller MARTA workforce that didn't receive standard of living raises. Some restrooms were shut down and train frequency decreased to save additional money.

But recently under the leadership of new general manager and CEO Keith Parker, MARTA has made great strides forward, including increasing train frequencies, improving the agency's credit rating, releasing multiple apps and encouraging transit-oriented developments. Still, there are a few other simple things that could be done to make a large impact without spending too much time or resources.

1. Use Automated Train Announcements - All the Time
MARTA's automated train announcements were first implemented for the 1996 Summer Olympics. As a recommendation made by transit professionals from other cities, the thought was that the automation would provide consistency and make it easier for foreign travelers to navigate the system. Those announcements still function today. However, many of the train operators speak over them, often saying the same things, but with a foreign accent or heavy dialect that makes them hard to understand. For an easy fix in making MARTA seem more professional, keep the operators focused on operating vs. talking.

2. Modernize Customer Service Training
Rude and ill-informed staff members can be too common during non-routine situations when there is single tracking or an incident causing delays. Sometimes it seems to involve a communication breakdown internally, with the staff at stations not receiving timely information about service disruptions. As a result, riders get frustrated with the lack of information and get on their "MARTA sucks" tangents.

How about getting some better systems and technology in the hands of the staff? There's no reason why station attendants can't all use tech tools or apps, such as their own MARTA On the Go app, to always know the next arrival times of buses and trains or have quick access to alerts.

All public-facing staff should also have a refresher (or a first) course on customer service. That station attendant who is rude, even if he or she isn't taking customer service calls, is representing the system and riders will judge the whole transit agency based on who is in front of them.

3. Add WiFi
Internet will be coming to MARTA, according to a statement made at the 2014 Transportation Camp South held at Georgia Tech. That's good news. The ability to do work or go online while on the rail system would be an easy way to pacify passengers and provide a pleasant commute perk. Apparently the cost is high, but MARTA is spending $10,000 per elevator for urine detection systems according to the AJC. That adds up. And while smell removal is a bonus, many people might have voted in favor of Internet connectivity instead.

4. Use Community Resources
MARTA is slowly reaching out more to private businesses with opportunities that will benefit both MARTA and its riders. And while the transit agency does participate in hackathons, there seems to be a variety of people in the community who have been willing to donate time or ideas to help improve the system. Of course, not all ideas can be implemented, but a volunteer program or a greater use of social capital could provide needed updates and improvements that MARTA might not have the ability to accomplish on its own.

5. Change the Ride With Respect Campaign
The "Ride With Respect" campaign has good intentions. After complaints of nuisance behavior on the system, such as individuals playing loud music, smoking or soliciting, the campaign was launched along with the See and Say app (two thumbs up) to help make commutes a more enjoyable experience.

The issue is that the message is more or less negative. It almost makes it sound that riding MARTA is a total zoo, especially as the message seems to suggest that all riders need to improve behavior, when in reality it is only a handful of people who put a wrench in an otherwise decent ride. Focusing on the perks of a MARTA commute might be a little more effective. For a freebie, why not, "Make Your Commute a Breeze"?

Images and stories of commuters enjoying a book, having a conversation, catching up on email or enjoying not sitting in Atlanta traffic might actually get people to consider taking transit. Throw in the perk of saving on car expenses and getting a little extra exercise, and you just might make people want to ride with relief.

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