Atlanta: Empowering users to better their own transit system

Meet Bakari Height of MARTA Army in Midtown: I believe that if one is given the power to voice what they wish to see on transit, and is given the opportunities and materials to do it, it can get done without having to wait on the transit agency.

Today we’d like to introduce you to Bakari Height.

Bakari, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today. I am originally from Jesup, Georgia, a small town between Savannah and Jacksonville. I came to Atlanta in 2009 to go to Georgia State and pursue a degree in Public Policy.

Living in Atlanta was my first exposure to a major metropolitan area, as well as a transit system. My studies in planning encouraged me to explore where MARTA came into the urban fabric of Metro Atlanta, and the deeper understanding of how it works when I went carless in 2011.

While meeting with Lyle Harris, the former Chief Spokesperson of MARTA, we brainstormed ideas on creating a group of commuters that cared about MARTA’s well-being and how to empower ourselves to change the face of it. At a conference at Georgia Tech on a Saturday, afternoon, the phrase, “MARTA Army NOW” was uttered, and 50+ people showed up to a meeting led by Lyle and myself to voice their complaints, wishes, and ideas about the system. We took a selfie, and the MARTA Army was created.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
We’ve had (and are having) a great ride, to a degree. While we are revered in the transit circles locally and nationally, it does come with challenges with raising money for projects, dealing with elected officials for projects, and even the growing pains thought of pondering, “What happens if we lose our grassroots spirit?”

Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about MARTA Army – what should we know?
The MARTA Army focuses on tactical urbanist projects around the MARTA transit system in Atlanta and the riders ta. We have dealt with a wide array of stakeholders including not only young people of all races but older Generation X and baby boomers, the Latino communities of Forest Park and Buford Highway, as well as the African-American communities around the region.

Every month, we pick a different location for our sign construction events where we print out real-time bus arrival information on laminated posters for commuters to “adopt” and post wherever they please. This project is called, “Operation Adopt-a-Stop, and we do this to expand our base for support for the MARTA system and diversify our membership to all communities. During the MARTA Army’s second project, we sought to create a project around beautification of bus stops throughout Metro Atlanta. We reached out to the city of East Point to pitch an idea about legacy benches for bus patrons to sit while waiting for the bus.

The East Point City Council made a suggestion based on their funds available for an anti-litter campaign. Instead of benches, we asked to replace them with trash cans. The council was overjoyed, and we proposed a crowdfunding program to help raise the money for the trash cans called “Operation Clean Stop”. We ended up raising over $16,000 in five months which funded over 80 bus stops throughout the city.

We differentiate ourselves from other groups as we do not advocate for transit, but empower users to better their own system. I believe that if one is given the power to voice what they wish to see on transit, and is given the opportunities and materials to do it, it can get done without having to wait on the transit agency.

I’m most proud of the grassroots spirit that we have maintained and the transparency that we have as a nonprofit. Most of our board meetings are held at my home, and we make signs at various bars, pizza places, and community centers. It’s like we can take our business on the road.

Any shoutouts? Who else deserves credit in this story – who has played a meaningful role?
-Lyle Harris, “the Godfather of the MARTA Army”
-Simon Berrebi, who led us in the beginning
-Dr. Kari Watkins for advising us at Georgia Tech
-Ben Limmer and John Bayalis for keeping us in the loop at MARTA
-Mark Brodbeck for helping groom us, as well as our various donors and loyal soldiers in the MARTA Army!!!

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