Moderated by Tom Sabulis
Panhandling? Loud cellphone conversations? Music bleeding through headphones? Most MARTA customers have pet peeves about riding trains and buses. Today, a MARTA executive writes about a new public-awareness campaign to tackle rude behavior by its riders. In our second column, a national transit veteran says that privatization of some functions can help MARTA, even while the agency remains a true public service.
Commenting is open below Tom Downs’ column.
By Ryland N. McClendon
It’s still true that one’s home is one’s castle. But the way we conduct ourselves in public places – such as MARTA trains, stations and buses – should be a totally different matter.
That’s the message MARTA got loud and clear recently after surveying 5,700 customers who shared their feelings about “nuisance behaviors” they experienced while riding the system.
Most of the offensive behaviors ranged from mildly annoying to downright rude — people talking loudly on cell phones; blaring music; blocking train doors, or refusing to surrender seats reserved for the elderly, expectant mothers or customers with disabilities.
Other activities, however, such as begging for money or harassing fellow customers, are criminal acts that can lead to expulsion from the system, or even arrest.
While the survey found that the percentage of passengers who encountered nuisance behavior was relatively small, MARTA and its customers will not allow the actions of a discourteous few make everyone else uncomfortable. Working together, we have launched an initiative to make the MARTA experience as pleasant and as civil as possible.
MARTA is reminding customers about the rules of riding transit with a series of eye-catching posters that are being displayed throughout the system. One example: “Talking Loudly? Not Cool. Please keep it down and use your ‘quiet voice.’”
Other posters offer subtle encouragement for passengers to be more compassionate and considerate. “Make Mom Proud,” another reads. “Train Crowded? Designated seats are for the elderly and disabled.”
To further reinforce those rules, MARTA commissioned videos that cleverly mock the selfish, “me-first” attitudes our real-life customers are most concerned about. These “What Bugs You?” videos are posted on MARTA’s official website and our Facebook page and are available on YouTube.
The MARTA Police Department is also making sure these messages stick by stepping up efforts to reduce nuisance behavior and through stricter enforcement of existing laws that prohibit panhandling and peddling items to passengers.
MARTA’s ongoing nuisance initiative is not trying to resurrect fussy rules of etiquette from a bygone era. We recognize that social habits have changed over time, in part because new technologies make it easier to disregard one another and seemingly isolate ourselves, even in crowded environments.
For MARTA, curbing nuisance behavior is part of our core mission. Our success depends on keeping our current customers satisfied while making the system more inviting to newcomers. While maintaining MARTA’s buses, trains and stations in good repair is paramount, enhancing our “social infrastructure” is, in many ways, just as important.
Of course, no one can legislate morality or kindness. But MARTA remains committed to providing a safe, cost-effective and efficient transit system that also fosters a sense of mutual respect and dignity for all who ride it.
Ryland N. McClendon is MARTA’s assistant general manager for communications and external affairs.
By Tom Downs
As the former head of New Jersey Transit, CEO of Amtrak and board chairman of the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority, I am acutely aware of the challenges facing public transportation systems. At MARTA, operational challenges are well-documented, and there’s a $33 million deficit projected for next year. Something must be done.
Some are calling for complete privatization of MARTA, because it would help reduce costs. Others have concerns about private sector involvement, because transit is a vital public service on which many riders depend for their livelihoods.
I’ve been an executive in both the private and public sectors, so I know there are proven solutions that deliver the best of both worlds.
Today, the private sector helps deliver excellent public transit in many cities. In fact, some 20 percent of transit systems today contract out all or portions of their operations to the private sector. That’s up from less than 10 percent in 1998. I am not referring to outsourcing payroll or other administrative services, which is a small step that won’t fix the broader problem. Professional transportation providers can deliver high-quality bus and rail service at lower cost, preserving and creating well-paying jobs with good benefits. Their size, years of experience, systems, technology and business processes enable them to create efficiencies that make their service more affordable. Denver contracts over half of its transit system and realizes savings of 26 percent.
Transit remains a true public service when the private sector gets involved. MARTA would continue to be subsidized by federal and local grants, like all transit agencies.
Further, MARTA or its board would retain control over all key policy decisions, including service levels, fares, annual operating plans and more. The city would retain ownership of all assets, vehicles and facilities. MARTA employees would remain members of the same unions. The private-sector company would operate under contracts with specific performance standards. That means that a key voice often lost in this debate – the taxpayers – would have a strong guarantee that they’re getting their money’s worth, through real competition.
It’s not just about costs. Quality is contractually enforced. Las Vegas utilizes private-sector contractors for all of its service, and the Brookings Institution called its transit system one of the country’s 10 best. San Diego contracts out half of its transit system and was recently voted the outstanding operator of public transportation in the U.S.
The results show that it works. Private-sector companies make productive union relationships a top priority.
MARTA today faces a crisis. The status quo is not sustainable. Any solution must be sophisticated, well crafted and customized for Atlanta’s unique circumstances. Examples from around the country show that a well-designed relationship with a private operator can deliver high-quality transit at a price Atlanta can afford.
Tom Downs is chairman of Veolia Transportation’s North American Advisory Board and board chairman of the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority.
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