Atlanta Streetcar’s Early Ridership Numbers Disappoint

The first batch of numbers are in for ridership on Atlanta’s brand new $98 million, 2.7-mile downtown streetcar — and the project is off to a rocky start.

The Atlanta Streetcar is underperforming projections. Photo: City of Atlanta

So far, the Atlanta Streetcar is not meeting projections. Photo: City of Atlanta

The streetcar, which opened December 30, is carrying 18 percent fewer riders than anticipated, according to data released by the city this week. That’s actually worse than it sounds because the streetcar is still offering free fares. Passengers will start having to pay $1 per trip in the coming months.

In its first six weeks of operation, the streetcar carried 102,000 people. Project sponsors had predicted 124,000, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

The city, which is running the streetcar, also says operating costs are 50 percent higher than anticipated. Service was expected to cost about $3.2 million annually. Instead, it will cost $4.8 million.

The cost overruns aren’t as alarming upon closer examination. A big chunk of the additional expense comes from introductory fees the city is required to pay MARTA for its cooperation on the project. Those will wind down next year. The city also decided to spend $1 million to seek federal funding for additional transit projects, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports, and that expense has been budgeted to streetcar operations.

Critics of the project, including many national transit advocates, have pointed out that the route, which mainly connects the city’s tourist destinations, is of limited use. It also runs in mixed traffic, which makes it painfully slow at times.

One question moving forward is whether the city’s experience with the streetcar will affect Georgia transit policy more generally.

In the statehouse, legislators have been duking it out over whether to finally actually provide state funding for transit. Georgia is one of just a handful of states that contribute nothing to transit at all. AJC writer Kyle Wingfield worries that the streetcar may be a project that “transit critics will cite for years to come as evidence against expansions of any kind.”

Darin Givens at ATL Urbanist says the city could make the streetcar more useful by spurring walkable development on the many surface parking lots along the route. He criticized the city for failing to adjust land use policies during the two years leading up to the launch of service.