Simon Berrebi grew up in Paris and moved to Atlanta in 2011 sight unseen, attracted both by Georgia Tech’s PhD program and the city’s legacy as the place that produced Outkast. He didn’t have a car and found it difficult to get to campus from anywhere else in Atlanta. Berrebi, who calls himself a “transportation nerd” and whose PhD studies focus on algorithms that optimize transit service, longed to find a way to fix the shortfalls.
In 2014 he attended a transit conference at Tech, where then-MARTA spokesman Lyle Harris asked the crowd what the agency could be doing better. Berrebi says some attendees responded that MARTA could benefit from young transit enthusiasts’ fresh ideas. “We’re young and creative, and we can influence the most important component of the transit experience—the local component—much more quickly than a big organization,” says Berrebi, recalling the group’s feedback. “We can help you innovate.”
A few months later, Berrebi and some other bus and rail fans were invited to a MARTA board meeting to suggest crowd-sourced transit improvements and plans for engaging more Atlantans. Board members liked what they heard, and in September 2015 the MARTA Army was born with Berrebi at the helm.
Like Paris and New York, Atlanta boasts high-capacity heavy rail infrastructure with the capability to move tens of thousands of people per hour. The primary difference, as Berrebi saw it, was that Atlanta lacked policies enabling and encouraging people to use mass transit. Another hindrance? Lack of funding. MARTA is among the country’s largest systems to receive no significant, dedicated cash from the state. Years of mismanagement didn’t help. A turning point came in 2012 with the hiring of CEO Keith Parker, who has helped balance the system’s budget—without fare increases—while cutting back on wait times. Meanwhile, major corporations such as Mercedes-Benz and NCR are relocating to be near MARTA lines, and more Georgia lawmakers (traditionally transit naysayers) are stressing MARTA’s importance to the region. In November nearly 72 percent of Atlanta voters chose to pay an additional 0.5 percent sales tax for the next 40 years, infusing the system with up to $2.5 billion for expansion.
MARTA Army’s goal is to help push this momentum forward at the most grassroots level and to develop tactics that can be applied across the region. Its ranks of so-called “soldiers” have grown to 350, spanning from Roswell to Forest Park and from Bankhead to Stone Mountain. The army’s core team and millennial-heavy board are comprised mostly of Georgia Tech students and alumni, but the diverse roster also includes lawyers, accountants, designers, developers, and even teenagers who lend their skills to serve the overall objective: making MARTA a more efficient and appealing option in a city angling to become a pro-transit powerhouse.
Such an organized, extensive network of transit volunteers—the group recently attained 501(c)(3) status, making all donations tax-exempt—is unprecedented in Atlanta, and the army’s spirit of cooperating with MARTA separates it from other such groups nationally. In exchange for so much free labor from sharp, innovative people (nobody, including army leaders, gets paid), MARTA allows use of their logo and access to data to fuel big ideas.
So far, successful projects have been neither splashy nor sexy. But they have been impactful by helping to make MARTA trips easier and more pleasant. For Operation TimelyTrip, the army created laminated signs with accurate bus schedules. The signs also contain QR codes, which riders can scan with their smartphones to get real-time arrival info. Volunteers have hung signs at hundreds of stops where no schedules existed before.
In March last year, during National Transit Worker Appreciation Day, the army hosted its first black-tie “MARTA Kudos” gala to recognize the system’s most nominated employees—drivers, janitors, police officers—at an Edgewood Avenue bar. Another event is scheduled for April 20.
Last year the army claimed one of its most substantial victories in East Point, where only 15 of the city’s 320 bus stops had trash cans, triggering a shameful litter problem. (“We were having to go out and pick up litter constantly,” said councilmember Thomas Calloway.) Volunteers built a website, inspected bus stops, compiled ridership data, and launched a crowd-funding campaign. Berrebi says the group raised a total of $16,000 to fund 80 trash cans, which East Point will empty and maintain. As of late last year, Calloway expected up to 100 trash cans to be funded or partially funded by the effort.
“It’s been really inspiring to get out in the community and see how much people want this,” says Anna Nord, a Tech graduate student and recent Denver transplant who’s worked closely with Operation CleanStop. “They want to take control of it, to be the people cleaning up their neighborhoods, and they’re excited there’s a platform in which they can do that.”
The East Point progress is an example of what Berrebi calls “scalable, tactical urbanism” that he thinks can strengthen the MARTA network. “What’s interesting about MARTA Army is not that we’re young yuppies spending our time trying to improve transportation because we’re not the only ones doing that,” he says. “It’s that we’ve created a model . . . where we can harness all this grassroots neighborhood engagement and channel it into something that can have a real, regional impact on infrastructure.”
Next up? Replicate Operation CleanStop elsewhere in metro Atlanta. The state recently awarded a $75 million grant to transit agencies across the state. MARTA plans to use its more than $30 million share to improve signage and shelters at bus stops and enhance audio and video displays at the agency’s rail stations. Berrebi says the award shows that when “residents send a resounding message of desire for better transit infrastructure and make the first step, local and state government is ready to step it up.”
The army’s chief adviser—Georgia Tech assistant professor Dr. Kari Watkins, who teaches courses in transit planning and operations—says the MARTA Army has helped people understand “that it’s your MARTA. The agency can only do so much, and you have to jump in and help make the system what you want it to be.”
By the numbers
Cost per laminated sign showing accurate bus schedules
Cost for a single bus stop trash can
Number of trash cans that will be added to bus stops in East Point after The Army’s Adopt-a-stop program
This article originally appeared in our April 2017 issue.