Will Atlanta Double Down on Its Streetcar Mistake?

A rendering of light rail in Atlanta. Image via Darin Givens
A rendering of light rail in Atlanta. Image via Darin Givens

The Atlanta streetcar is not the kind of transit cities should try to replicate.

The $98 million streetcar line operates in mixed traffic on a short 1.3-mile route in downtown Atlanta. It is slow, unreliable, and carries fewer than 1,000 trips per day.

The streetcar should at least serve as a cautionary tale as Atlanta looks to expand its rail network. But it looks like decision makers are in jeopardy of repeating the mistakes of the streetcar.

In 2016, Atlanta voters approved a $2.5 billion levy to fund transit expansion. In addition to bus upgrades, the project list includes 21 miles of light rail. About a third of that would run in dedicated rights of way along the city’s “BeltLine,” a ring encircling central neighborhoods.

But there’s a lot of uncertainty about the other 14 miles. The plan calls for an east-west light rail line that would run through downtown, including a section along the streetcar route, connecting to the BeltLine at each end.

That alignment sets off alarm bells for transit watchdogs who know that operating in mixed traffic is a recipe for failure. By using the streetcar route without getting cars out of the way, the new light rail network could be plagued by the same problems, writes Simon Berrebi at Atlanta Magazine:

To relegate expensive transit infrastructure in mixed traffic means that trains will only go as fast as the cars around them. It’s profoundly unfair that transit vehicles, which can carry a hundred times more people than private cars, can get stuck in the same congestion. And it doesn’t make economic sense. As Georgia Tech professor Kari Watkins says: “When buses and trains are mixed in with general traffic, there is no incentive for people to chose transit.” And if they instead opt to drive themselves, streets will get more congested, air more polluted, and intersections more deadly.

Nothing is final yet, and it’s not too late to design Atlanta’s new routes so light rail doesn’t get bogged down by motor vehicle traffic. This once-in-a-generation opportunity hinges on the city’s willingness to claim street space from cars and dedicate it to transit.

  • david vartanoff

    the mistake is allowing automobile interference–NOT building a zero carbon emission potential transit line.

  • Michael

    I’ll take streetcar projects. They are relatively cost effective and reasonable hedge against a 1970s-style (or worse) fuel crisis. If fuel goes to 8 bucks/gallon I don’t think we’re worrying about dedicated right of ways, rather we’re going to be wishing we had as much track as possible.

  • Mark

    Angie –

    Your article is not factual. 75% of the proposed light rail will be in dedicated ROW. The other 25% serves to make critical connections and the mixed-traffic setup is unavoidable. There’s a possibility that a lane could eventually be dedicated in the future, so all is not lost.

    The major East-West connection you are referring to is actually BRT, which happens to be a great solution for that corridor.

    Maybe check your facts before you defame an entire city transportation system.

    https://www.myajc.com/blog/commuting/marta-expansion-plans-for-atlanta-detailed-look/PyuO7EtPFU0N4TZEYqNP6H/

  • Drew Levitt

    “Relatively cost effective” – relative to what? To heavy rail, sure. Not to buses or BRT, though, which is the appropriate comparison here especially given the mixed-traffic alignment of portions of the routes.

    Isn’t a high-frequency bus transit network also a very reasonable hedge against a gas price spike? And doesn’t it provide more mobility per dollar, in fat times and lean, than a more geographically limited light rail network?

  • Michael

    The cost effectiveness of buses is a bit of mythology in the context of CBDs. Buses have always been more effective at reaching communities in the 6-12 miles out population band, but those areas – with limited exceptions – aren’t worth servicing with bus, BRT, or Streetcar. In the context of a stop & go CBD environment, streetcars are pretty efficient. In Milwaukee, 3/hour trunk bus service cost $5M per year while 6/hour streetcar service is budgeted for $3.5M. This is because the streetcar route is shorter & streetcars are lower maintenance (electric engines, no hydraulic kneeler system, not flat tires, lasts millions of miles). Streetcar has no localized pollution, it’s quieter, accelerates better, loads better. Contrary to AM talk radio fodder, it has a place in the transportation mix.

    Obviously, there are current valid concerns that our roads are flooded with automobile traffic. Agreed. But if that suddenly becomes not the case – oil embargo, peak oil, the growing millennial voting bloc turns their backs on the automobile complex and ratchets up fuel taxes, etc – we’d be in much better shape with a viable streetcar network than without. Namely, this because without tons of cars, there’s not an economic model to keep our roads going at a level that would be serviceable for buses to replace even a fraction of cars. Cars & roads are essentially package deal. So, since the cost of 10-20 miles of track to create NS-EW trunks is on the order of 100s of Millions (1/2 the price of a highway interchange project, or about the price of a new order of buses for a medium-sized transit agency which will wear out in only 10 years), I see it as a cheap insurance policy on our mobility future.

    Lastly, there’s this idea that should automobile era crash, we could just resurrect trains & buses. But I don’t have any reason to believe that folks living in the walksheds of downtown areas would allow this. Thus, in places that don’t have these types of investments, I can imagine circumstances where we’d see what’s left of the commuter class bicycling along the shoulder of decrepit highways to work. It’s like a rainy day fund.

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