Over Time, Will More Streetcars Get Their Own Lanes?

Atlanta's 2.7-mile streetcar system is expected to start doing test runs in November. Image: Atlanta Streetcar
Atlanta’s 2.7-mile streetcar system is expected to start doing test runs in November. Image: Atlanta Streetcar

CityLab ran an article yesterday describing how Seattle’s new streetcar addition breaks the mold of its peers in one key way: It runs on dedicated lanes, rather than in mixed traffic.

The new wave of streetcars are often criticized for slow average speeds. If the political will doesn’t exist to provide the systems with dedicated right of way, streetcars can get bogged down in vehicle traffic and offer little time savings compared to walking.

Darin at ATLUrbanist writes that Atlanta’s under-construction streetcar won’t run on dedicated lanes, but he thinks it won’t stay that way forever:

The Atlanta Streetcar’s 2.7 mile downtown loop will travel in mixed-traffic lanes with a low operating speed. Because of that, it’s much more of a development tool at this point for places like the long-struggling Auburn Avenue corridor, as well as a means of transporting tourists to major sites. It is, to a lesser degree, a source of effective everyday transportation (though it can certainly serve that purpose for some workers, as well as GSU students, residents and visitors).

In a way, pitting these two streetcar functions — development vs. transportation — against each other is a false argument because nothing stays the same in cities. The development-tool streetcar line of today, if successful in building walkable density around it, could end up becoming an exclusive-lane route of tomorrow, with a focus on transportation.

The use of fixed mass transportation lines always changes along with development around those lines, as well as societal shifts. Just consider the park-and-ride MARTA stations. Once thought to be the most logical use of land around the stations, the surface parking lots for many are now slated for conversion to mixed-use, transit-oriented developments that will serve a population that is increasingly interested in living less car-centric lives.

With the Atlanta Streetcar, parts of the route, like the Peachtree Street segment, could obviously be converted to exclusive lanes at some point. I’d like to see that happen. But I say let it serve as a development tool first, building up a greater density on the route (a recent rezoning project for the Auburn Avenue corridor of the route will help facilitate that).

Elsewhere on the Network today: Transportation for America provides its take on the new Amtrak bill from the House. And The Architect’s Newspaper reports that, ironically, the Cadillac brand is moving its headquarters from Detroit to walkable Manhattan.