ATLANTA (CBS46) — Cussed at, spit on, and attacked. Not situations you normally associate with public transportation, but all of which occurred on MARTA buses in 2021.
They are problems drivers say make their job, and your ride, dangerous. A CBS46 investigation revealed several transit troubles and possible solutions.
"We're taking you wherever you need to go and we're taking you in one piece, that's how everyone wants to get there." It's a two-way street said a MARTA Bus operator.
In fear of losing her job, she asked us not to reveal her identity—but that's the only thing she wanted hidden. She wanted to make sure everyone knows the extent of what bus drivers, and passengers, are dealing with all too often.
CBS46's Ciara Cummings looked through dozens of reports, finding 44 assault cases on MARTA buses within the last six months alone. In 29 of those, a bus operator was reported to be the victim.
"We need them to listen and really listen with their ears, hearts, and mind-- and imagine." she continued. "Put yourself in my shoes."
While carrying lives, and the load of a heavy bus, records show operators were verbally threatened, hit, punched, and even spit on this year.
"I'm going to knock your (expletive) out. I swear to God," one passenger on Bus Route 120 told the operator.
Surveillance video shows for no obvious reason, the passenger curses at the driver who remains quiet, calm, and focused on the road, which appears to upset the rider even more.
"I could hear nothing you were saying. I said 'what were you saying' because I couldn't hear you," the passenger yelled. "I'll knock your (expletive) out," he yelled as he punch the plexiglass protecting the driver.
MARTA installed the plexiglass during the pandemic to stop the spread of Covid. Now, as the pandemic appears to be slowing, drivers say they want to see the protective glass remain, potentially as a shield from the violence.
The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 732 says it's still not enough for drivers.
"Definitely detrimental to not take an active approach to protect them," union representative David Ward continued. "They're carrying precious cargo. Some of these operators carry individuals with disabilities, elderly patients. It could be your mother."
Ward says they're looking for continued de-escalation training and more undercover MARTA Police officers to ride the buses alongside drivers, to check for weapons and monitor unruly passengers. All to avoid cases like one CBS46 found happened this year at a central bus site.
Video shows while the bus was parked at the site, a seemingly impatient rider got up and walked to open the bus doors himself to find out why they were parked. It resulted in the driver telling him he had to get off the bus.
As seen in the footage, the rider grabs his bag, then as he walks off the bus, he swings it at the driver, hitting the driver in the head.
The driver pinned down and detained the rider himself until MARTA police arrived. A police officer ultimately took the man into custody.
MARTA's Chief of Bus Operations, Collie Greenwood, told CBS46 the agency has significant safety measures in place, including several cameras and hidden emergency buttons drivers can press when in danger.
"We pride ourselves in having immediate communication," Greenwood said. "We hired three new staff for our bus control center to ensure there's immediate response when an operator needs help."
Overall, CBS46 found the entire MARTA system had 135 assaults reported so far this year. In 2020, there were 106 assaults on MARTA buses. But MARTA police emphasized how the data indicates the assaults have not been confined to one area or route.
Additionally, Greenwood noted the thousands of positive, "uneventful" experiences on board.
In the most recent numbers made available to CBS46, MARTA averages more than 350,000 bus riders weekly. From June 20-27, the transit company saw 362,283 bus riders. Considering those totals, officials say the number of altercations are not considerably high.
"We are vastly safer than the environment around us and considerably safer than a lot of transit agencies in the same space," Greenwood said. "That said, we will continue to work until the very last assault has been resolved."
Still, drivers believe they're vulnerable on the job.
"I pray to him everyday for strength," the operator shared.
CBS46 learned even when the harm isn't necessarily extreme, the cost of bus fare often fuels frustrations.
"(Expletive) move, don't put your hands on me," a rider told another operator. The dispute came as the rider claimed on other buses drivers will give her change when she pays. Ultimately, the passenger paid but the driver did pull over to request help.
Records outline instances of mental health crisis too. Surveillance from route 4 shows a driver trying to maintain control of the bus when a paranoid passenger, with a hammer in hand, grabs her.
The operator frantically pulls overs and runs off the bus, so does the passenger.
"The vast majority of travel on our MARTA system is uneventful and safe and secure so for every complaint that we hear, there are dozens and dozens that go very well," Greenwood continued. "I will accept that incidents cause anxiety and MARTA is here to focus on them and improve upon."
MARTA PD told CBS46 they do more uncover operations and patrols as the data suggests there's an uptick in crime at locations or on buses. But for now, the agency says the camera and regular patrols are sufficient.
However, for those behind the wheel, they want new solutions for their transit troubles.
"Just put yourself in my shoes, put yourself in my shoes, could you really do this five and six days a week," the operator questioned. "They wouldn't dare try doing what we do."