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5 lessons learned: How to use Atlanta's transit in future winter storms

Most of Atlanta is still recovering from a long three days of snow, ice and traffic. As people got stuck and continued to be stuck on roads after snow fell on Jan. 28, 2014, MARTA, the regional transit agency, was increasingly considered as an option to get home and make progress on a cross-town commute.

Traffic on the downtown Atlanta interstate connector at approximately 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 28, 2014.
Traffic on the downtown Atlanta interstate connector at approximately 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 28, 2014.
Sara Cheshire
A MARTA train pulls into the Lindbergh Center station during the January 2014 snow storm.
Sara Cheshire

Based on data from social media and web traffic to and, what stood out after the storm ended was how MARTA could best be used during inclement weather in the future.

1. Use Nearby Stations for Parking and Riding
As traffic gridlocked, more and more commuters started looking for nearby MARTA rail stations to get off the road. Many stations can be reached just off the downtown connector, Ga. 400, I-85, I-20 and I-285 (see the interstate exit numbers here). Being familiar with the station locations, and knowing which stations offer parking, can make a transit back-up plan easier to implement -- whether its during a storm or as a morning commute the day winter weather is expected. Note that the ramp to the North Springs MARTA station via Ga. 400 usually closes due to ice and should be avoided in bad weather.

2. Rely on Social Media and Mobile
The recently updated MARTA On The Go app shows the nearest bus stops and rail stations based on the user's GPS location -- helpful if you're stuck in traffic. Plus, it features real-time bus tracking, which may have been useful to people trying to locate friends and family who hadn't returned home from a bus commute as streets became slick. All alerts and service updates also feed into the free app, available to Android and iPhone users.

Two other online resources were also key in providing real-time updates on service: The MARTA Facebook page and @MARTAService on Twitter. The MARTA website is not set up as well to provide alert information quickly, not to mention it nearly crashed. On the day the winter weather hit, traffic to the site almost doubled as compared to the previous day as first-time visitors searched for information.

3. Travel to a Hotel Near Rail
As it became apparent that traffic wasn't going anywhere as night fell, there was a surge of people looking for hotels, including hotels near MARTA. With flights also canceled at the Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, it wasn't just motorists looking for a place to stay, but also stranded air travelers. Fortunately, there are several stations that are in walking distance of hotels -- best bets are Dome/GWCC/Philips Arena/CNN, Peachtree Center, Civic Center, North Avenue, Midtown, Arts Center, Buckhead and Lenox. See the full list of hotels by station with transit and walking directions to view options.

4. Get to the Airport
Suddenly as roads became impassable, people looked to MARTA as a way to get to and from the airport. And taking MARTA to the airport is one of best ways to use the system, as the train arrives directly into the domestic terminal. But, as some people realized, the new international terminal is a shuttle bus ride away, so if roads are bad, it may be difficult to get to international flights. Visiting North Carolina basketball team in the January 2014 storm ended up relying on the trains to get to the airport, and posed for this photo.

5. Be Flexible With Schedules
The time of day a storm hits can determine how many MARTA staff members are available to operate trains and buses. If you're stuck in the ice and can't get to your job, same applies to train and bus operators. As a result, MARTA has to work with the resources they have available and all normal schedules typically go out the window. During this year's storm, the snow fell quickly and turned to ice during MARTA's "non-peak" time (between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.), which means operations were not at full force.

Still, many people scrambled to look up train schedules online as MARTA rail became one of the only options for travel. But that was ultimately a wasted effort. In any emergency situation that is atypical from day-to-day operations, the best procedure is just to show up to a station early and wait for the first train that arrives. MARTA trains almost always run in the snow, so when in doubt, dress warm and know you can in fact be on a midnight train in Georgia, even when no other traffic is moving on the road.

Even during the worst of the storm, MARTA maintained a rail frequency of about 20 minutes, which is the normal frequency on Sundays and holidays, as well as normal operating hours (approximately 5:30 a.m. to 1:30 a.m.). MARTA has never seen the frequency of the subways in New York or Boston -- so it is important to know that there is nothing wrong if it takes more than 10 minutes for a train to arrive.

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