Want Transit To Be “Cool?” Follow Atlanta’s Lead.

I, like thousands of other people in Atlanta, went to the Inman Park Festival this weekend to enjoy local art, good food, and great music in one of the City’s most beautiful historic neighborhoods. This was no surprise to me; what was a surprise was the number and diversity of people I saw riding MARTA to the Inman Park station. Nearly any other Sunday of the year, it’s a challenge to find a full MARTA car (or outside of normal commute hours for that matter). This Sunday however, there were hardly any seats available, and many were full of first time riders.

So, what exactly is MARTA doing right?

Looking down Edgewood Ave during the Inman Park Festival.
Looking down Edgewood Ave during the Inman Park Festival.

Atlanta is equal parts famous and infamous for the sheer number of festivals that begin in Spring and last all the way to Fall. I literally could not list them all for you. MARTA has reacted to the popularity of theses festivals and made it clear to people in Atlanta that the best, easiest way to get to them is on MARTA. By working with festival organizers to increase accessibility and ramping up marketing efforts ahead of events, MARTA has succeeded. The Inman Park Festival is just one example of that success among many others: the Sweetwater 420 Festival, Atlanta Streets Alive, the Beer Carnival at Atlantic Station, holiday-themed bar crawls on the Streetcar route, Music Midtown, The Atlanta Dogwood Festival… The list goes on.

Taking advantage of Atlanta’s festival fever to promote MARTA service is a great strategy for increasing transit ridership because it helps break some of the stigmas that linger from Atlanta’s collective conscience and illustrates just how convenient transit can be. I didn’t come to this conclusion just from seeing the influx of riders getting of at the Inman Park station over the weekend, I heard it while walking down the street. As I tweeted on Sunday:

These festivals don’t just showcase the City’s artistic talent, they illustrate how it’s infrastructure handles strains. And ladies and gentleman, MARTA withstood the strain.

The second thing that MARTA has done that is truly cool is to keep the Atlanta Streetcar free for the entire first year of operation. After a scathingly accurate analysis from Atlanta magazine’s Rebecca Burns, who first strongly suggested the notion, MARTA and the City replied within weeks. With delay after delay last year, it’s a way for the City and MARTA to apologize, as if to say “We know, we’re later than we said we would be, but we’re here now and we’re sorry.” And that’s exactly what Atlantans needed to hear.

The last thing that MARTA is getting right when it comes to being cool is being socially savvy. Coordinating with event organizers and everything is great, but having a slick social media presence is increasingly important for all brands in terms of advertising and marketing. You can find MARTA’s outreach across most social media platforms, from Twitter (where it provides service updates and more on various accounts), to pictures highlighting MARTA’s routes to great destinations on the @marta_explorer Instagram account, or just through the organization’s pages on Facebook.

All of these show the broader shift that MARTA has made in the past few years under Keith Parker’s leadership, a change in behavior that may seem obvious but cannot be overstated: it began actually communicating with people. Not just with its customers, but reaching out to people and organizations across Atlanta, and more importantly listening to what they have to say, to better demonstrate the benefits of a well-functioning transit system for this big, sprawling city.

MARTA made a change in behavior that may seem obvious but cannot be overstated: it began actually communicating with people.

If I had any advice as to what MARTA’s next steps to continue being cool should be, I only have one suggestion: implement special pricing for transit trips during events such as Atlanta’s festivals, road races, special sporting events, and concerts. Basically, put the product (transit) on fire sale for a limited time only, giving yet another incentive for those on the fence about MARTA to get onboard. By reducing fares fifty cents from $2.50 to $2.00, this twenty percent decrease could be a gamble for a MARTA.


On the other hand, it would benefit everyone. That’s not an understatement: of course, reducing the fare prices for a limited time would benefit event-goers, saving them money and time otherwise spent on parking, as well as MARTA because it would increase the likelihood of more people choosing transit over driving (or driving less and parking at a MARTA parking lot).This is also the next step MARTA can take without investing heavily into upgrading its technology and infrastructure (I’ll explore that more in a future post). Additionally, more people riding MARTA to events would lessen the load on Atlanta’s highways and byways, reducing traffic for Atlantans going about their everyday lives. It would allow event planners and organizers to plan less parking, freeing up land and human capital for other uses. And most importantly, it would reward the everyday riders who loyally ride and rely on MARTA all the other days of the year.

MARTA’s currently doing everything right to show how cool and convenient it is, and that’s reflected in ridership numbers that continue to climb. From here, MARTA, the sky’s the limit.