MARTA’s mystery rider program, up for renewal, grew from federal ADA lawsuit filed by disabled riders

By David Pendered

When MARTA on Wednesday begins its latest effort to improve customer service, it will be renewing a program that grew out of a federal court order issued in 2002 to protect disabled riders.

MARTA runs a "mystery rider" program to check on customer service. File/Credit:

MARTA runs a “mystery rider” program to check on customer service. File/Credit:

MARTA is soliciting proposals for a mystery rider program. A central issue is MARTA’s compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

The program goes by the sort of fun-sounding name of, “MARTA’s Mystery Customer Program.” The name harkens to the mystery customers who check on retail clerks to advise management on how well the clerks treat customers.

MARTA’s current request for proposals contains a little bit of that retail element – but in the context of a transit bureaucracy. According to the RFP:

  • “The program will assist management in pinpointing problems, opportunities, employee coaching, and training and provide information for streamlining and improving front-line services.”

This is quite an evolution from the initial court order in the disability lawsuit. The order set clear requirements of the customer care MARTA was to provide disabled riders.

Even today, the experience of riding MARTA still bears the imprint of the ruling in the case by U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Thrash. Among the items contained in a ruling:

  • Mystery riders can submit their reports on a website that indicates when MARTA reviews the reports. Click on the image for larger view. Credit:

    Mystery riders can submit their reports on a website that indicates if MARTA has read the reports. Click on the image for larger view. Credit:

    When a train departs a station, the operator must announce the upcoming station, transfer point, destination point, and major points of interest at the next station.

  • Rail operators “shall be required” to make these station announcement regardless of whether they also are made by an automated train announcement system.
  • The order provided a “three strikes and you’re out” discipline system for scofflaw operators: They could be discharged at the third offense.

The legal aspect of MARTA’s mystery rider program began Nov. 28, 2001. Six disabled MARTA riders filed a lawsuit against MARTA in U.S. District Court in Atlanta. The lawsuit contended these riders, and others similarly situated, did not have due access to the publicly funded transit system.

The meat of the matter was resolved in October 2002. But the case actually lingered on until March 4, 2011, according to federal court records.

On Wednesday, MARTA has called a pre-proposal conference with potential bidders on the current RFP. Responses are due April 17. The MARTA board approved the RFP at its Feb. 6 meeting and the staff issued the RFP on March 17.

Terms in the RFP call for the contract to last one year, with two one-year options for renewal.

A company from McDonough named A Customer’s Point of View (ACPVIEW) now is conducting mystery rider inspections of MARTA and the results indicate the value of monitoring.

On an Oct. 30 bus trip from the West End Station to the West Lake Station, the mystery rider reported:

  • The bus arrived on time at 5:30 p.m. arrival;
  • The rider exited on time at 5:57 p.m.
  • The driver was courteous and didn’t talk or display a cell phone.
  • The six required announcements were made by the automated system.
  • Two of the six announcement were made by the driver. The driver failed to make the following announcements: Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard; Ralph D. Abernathy – 71; Westlake Station; and Tiger Flowers Drive.


David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

1 reply
  1. Guest says:

    It’s strange how the driver and the automated system (mainly the latter) are polluting the ride with constant talking.  And that according to this court ruling they are required to do so. Then it is in Spanish.  No disrespect to the folks who are in charge of “cultural awareness” at Marta but I think we assume too little of our fellow Spanish speaking Atlantans by thinking the automated system has to repeat everything in Spanish. There are so many proper nouns in the spanish version that it is mostly English anyway!  Do we really have to say “El proximo estacion es ‘Five Points, etc'” I think all of our Spanish-speaking colleagues could pick up ‘Five Points’ in the english description.  There is a lot of noise on my Marta rides…Report


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