A 21st-century alternative to streetcars

Which of these vehicles would you rather be in? (AJC Photo / Hyosub Shin)

Which of these vehicles would you rather be in? (AJC Photo / Hyosub Shin)

A few weeks ago, my wife and I sent the kids to their grandparents’ house and spent a weekend treating Atlanta like tourists. The experience was made all the more authentic by our hotel’s $30-per-night parking fee: Rather than shell out $60, we left the car at home.

We walked some, and we also took MARTA. But on the second night, as we prepared to leave a restaurant at 14th and Peachtree for a show at the Fox, she asked, “Why don’t we just take Uber?”

We use the ride-sharing service often when we don’t want to drive ourselves, usually for trips that aren’t easily taken by MARTA; having lived overseas and depended on public transportation, we’re comfortable taking the train. But there we were, standing a couple of blocks from one MARTA station and going within a block of another, and yet taking the train made no sense.

Our MARTA fares would be $5; the expected charge for Uber-X was $6. We’d be picked up and dropped off where we stood, rather than walking a few blocks away and taking a couple of staircases. We’d get air-conditioning, not the still air of an underground station. It was a no-brainer.

As we rode, I wondered how MARTA could adjust its business model to keep choice riders like ourselves — maybe by charging less for such short trips. But I gradually recognized the real threat ride-sharing services pose to public transportation as a “last mile” option.

For a lone person, the difference between $6 (or more) and MARTA’s $2.50 fare might be too much. But with a second person, you’re close to breaking even. With a third, you probably save money.

For longer trips, MARTA is likely safe. The cost differential is too great — although, one can easily imagine a car-pooling service that allows people to chip in with others nearby to make a longer journey more economical. In any place with enough people to justify mass transit, there are probably enough people heading in a given direction that a ride-sharing app could pool together a few of them at a time for the trip in and different combinations for the ride home, without the same handful of people having to coordinate their schedules every day.

But I digress. This is really about short trips, and the ubiquity of Uber, Lyft and their rivals makes me wonder whether a network of streetcars, like the one Atlanta envisions for itself, could ever compete with them.

The Beltline, which connects places that aren’t already well-linked by roads, still makes sense. But should we really expect a streetcar running along Peachtree to be more attractive than a car you can summon for a personalized trip? Should we spend hundreds of millions of dollars — and take lanes away from automobiles — to find out?

The ride-sharing approach would offer broader coverage and more flexibility than we will ever build out with streetcars. It is even better for low-income riders: Imagine the number of ride-sharing trips that could be subsidized for the money it would take to build, operate and maintain a decent network of streetcars.

As metro Atlanta contemplates ways to improve mobility, let’s recognize the options appearing on their own, without a dime of public money being spent. There are enough needs, and resources are sufficiently limited, that we can’t afford to duplicate any efforts.

Reader Comments 0

55 comments
Banks Wise
Banks Wise

Stop stealing from tax payers and let the free market -- which is voluntary and doesn't infringe on individuals life, liberty & property -- work. It's the only solution that can correctly assess price signals and market shirts correctly without violating the NAP. Awesome article Kyle.

quickworkbreak
quickworkbreak

Agree with the premise that MARTA can't offer the most value for every trip. Competition and choice is good. As for pricing per distance, that adds a huge level of complexity for both MARTA to migrate to as well as the complexity of the passengers (often 1st timers) to figure out.  Look at the charts in DC's METRO machines--they can be a bit overwhelming, and I think the prices even differ based on rush hour times.  I say keep the fares simple, and keep other last-mile options available.

bu2
bu2

Cobb's analysis shows that traffic would be better if they did nothing instead of spending $500 million on a Bus Rapid Transit system.


I suspect the streetcar like light rail in the Clifton Corridor would make things worse as well, except that the cost is way more than $500 million and its climbing.

MHSmith
MHSmith

Once again we hear defeated socialists choking on their big government control is the better of all things, for all people, at all times argument that blows-up on them like exploding airbags.  

Services like Uber and Lyft fill a transportation need MARTA cannot service, which can compete with the taxi cab companies in the private sector market with no need to regulate them out of competing in the open market. 

Let us conservatives know when "mass transit" MARTA can deliver a "on-demand, just in time" service to individuals, on the  ridership bases of a 1 or 2 customers a trip and make a profit? LOL! 

quickworkbreak
quickworkbreak

@MHSmith  The only thing you did here was regurgitate what Kyle just wrote, but in a more callous way.

MarkVV
MarkVV

@MHSmith  To borrow a phrase from Kyle; "Not a word of this makes sense."

CuriousPrime
CuriousPrime

The bottom line is that spending billions for C.W. Matthews to build more roads, just means that Kyle would save 10-minutes just to spend $30 per day.  The good news is that it is $15 per night less that what he would spend on parking in New Orleans.

Jefferson1776
Jefferson1776

When the Uber driver is under insured and everyone ends up in the ER who's gonna pay all those lawyer bills ?

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@Jefferson1776 The Legislature passed a law this year establishing insurance standards. Find something else to demagogue.

straker
straker

Barry - "the sheep are falling in line"


You seem to think that all "leftists" march in lockstep to Hillary's drum.


Here's a tip.


Leftists, liberals and progressives do NOT march in lockstep to anyone, unlike you cons who do exactly what your political idols tell you to do.

LilBarryBailout
LilBarryBailout

@straker

Where do you and Hillary disagree?  Name one thing.  Do you agree with her Luddite belief that people shouldn't be able to use technology to engage in free market transactions such as Uber?

MarkVV
MarkVV

The faith in the efficiency of the private sector and incompetence of the government is touching. Nobody (on the conservative side) wants to recall the exploding car air bags, the millions of compromised personal records in stores and insurance companies (but everybody knows when the government had a failure there), the debacles of the private banking institutions, and so many others. With the subject of the day, they do not pay the slightest attention to the inefficiencies of something like Uber for short trips in downtown. What we hear is things like “Once again, the private free enterprise option is more efficient, better run, and outperforms and exceeds the collectivist government option” (RafeHollister), without bothering to provide any evidence or argument not only that it is the case, but also what would serve the public better.

LilBarryBailout
LilBarryBailout

@MarkVV @LilBarryBailout

So clear it up for us--how do two people sharing in the manner of Uber have any impact on you?  And why should their sharing be any of government's business?

LilBarryBailout
LilBarryBailout

@MarkVV

And there you have the leftist mindset that insists that government technocrats should be the ones to decide for everyone else which transportation options should be available, instead of free people.

The fact that free people decide on their own to drive for Uber, and that other free people decide on their own to use Uber has GOT to sting!

And without MARTA's subsidies, it would be even more so.

MarkVV
MarkVV

@LilBarryBailout @MarkVV  That is the mindset of the ignorant rightists, who believe the fantasy that government technocrats are deciding for everyone else which transportation options should be available. They have not learned yet even the principles of our government. No such decision is made by “government technocrats;” they are made by the representatives of the people, the source of power in our country.

CuriousPrime
CuriousPrime

@LilBarryBailout @MarkVV The Public Good is not profitable.  Just look at any airport or hospital in rural America.  You will not find a Uber is Jasper, GA.

LilBarryBailout
LilBarryBailout

It's hilarious how, mere months ago, leftists (including some here and over at Jay's) thought Lyft and Uber were just about the coolest things around, both from the perspective of the drivers and the riders.

Now their hero Hillary has identified the sharing economy as an enemy of the state, and the sheeple are falling in line!

LilBarryBailout
LilBarryBailout

Silly?

Hillary wants to regulate what free people can do in the sharing economy.

Do you agree?  I would hope not, but if you do, please explain why any of it is any of your business and explain how two people who want to share with each other has any impact on you.

lvg
lvg

If Kyle took MARTA he might have to rub elbows withe common working stiffs who cannot afford private transportation- Yech!

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@lvg From the post: "We walked some, and we also took MARTA."

MANGLER
MANGLER

Try to get an Uber to go into a low income part of town though. The drivers all volunteer where they will and won't go. It would be similar to a taxi cab choosing which fare standing on the road waving to stop for.  That could be a severe limitation to personal services like that.

DawgDadII
DawgDadII

My Grandfather was a streetcar conductor up north. He got out of the business when it started going down, back in the 1920's.

DawgDadII
DawgDadII

Expanding on my comments - If it made economic sense to run a trolley or bus route service through Metro Atlanta somebody would be doing it already (streetcar without rails, if you will). So, we can expect any government initiative to be an economic boondoggle. Not to say there isn't a place for a loss-leading government service, but we need to be careful about the scope and mind the controls and accountability.


Think about our bigger transportation problems for a moment, contemplating all the trucks clogging our Interstates. Why not put all the extra-urban cartage back on rails? AHA! because it doesn't make economic sense, especially given that the roads are subsidized by the taxpayers.

straker
straker

Kyle, as a corollary, I recently saw a story on TV about people who fly in private jets for about the same cost as a regular airliner.


Here's how it works. Some rich person wants a private jet ride from, say, Peachtree DeKalb Airport to LA. The jet has to fly from Chicago to PDK to pick him up. The private jet company advertises and maybe three or four people in Chicago see it, want to go to Atlanta, and, for around $500.00 dollars, get a private jet ride to Atlanta.


The idea is to recoup fuel costs on the deadhead trip to Atlanta.

LilBarryBailout
LilBarryBailout

The great thing about free markets is that if you prefer one mode of transportation over another, you get to choose.

And you also get to choose whether or not to be an Uber driver or not.

Those folks who want to deny choice in so many areas of our everyday lives--all leftists.

Mind your own business, Democrats.  Free people don't need you.

Aquagirl
Aquagirl

@LilBarryBailout Great, when do I get a choice on subsidizing roads? Get that free market innerprize into road building and Uber might not be such a bargain.

Aquagirl
Aquagirl

@LilBarryBailout I guess you could move to Somalia if you don't want to subsidize mass transit too. And are you saying government subsidies are okay? That seems quite a change from your original position that the free market should decide.

BTW, nice move, changing the subject entirely to cover your faceplant of thinking roads are user funded. Gotta give you credit for that one. 

LilBarryBailout
LilBarryBailout

@Aquagirl @LilBarryBailout

Go ahead and show us where I said I didn't want to subsidize mass transit.

Funny, isn't it, that MARTA is more heavily subsidized than Uber, and yet Uber is growing and MARTA is sucking wind.

MHSmith
MHSmith

Safety is the biggest drawback to Uber, otherwise it has a small niche' IMHO. The money spent on this street could have been better spent in maximizing transportation bang for the buck. However it might be worth a study for MARTA to look into or better a private sector venture to create into town shuttles to hot spots around town. 

Longer travel has a number of good options that sadly will never happen for all the wrong reasons Kyle.  

Dusty2
Dusty2

Kyle,


I am unfamiliar with services such as UberX.  Did not even know they existed. I have traveled the "underground" in London and it took us  just about everywhere we wanted to go.  But that system started a long time ago. We seem a bit late on the startups.  MARTA does not go enough places

I think streetcars are a laugh that Atlanta  misjudged.  If a street car looks like an attractive historical streetcar then it is a tourist attraction.   Riding in something that looks like a modern Greyhound bus on a limited tour is not.


Cost is prohibitive these days on everything.  That is not my field of study so I leave it up to you and others to consider when there is a wish to expand.  .  

LogicalDude
LogicalDude

Uber is competitive unless you hit those high-demand days (such as conventions), then (reportedly) you get hit with huge rates. 

Since I haven't used Uber, Lyft, or any service like that, I'm not sure how their rates fluctuate with demand. Taxi service is a standard, but high, fee.

I'd still trust MARTA more than an independent contractor who drives for Uber or Lyft, for now. If laws are enacted to certify those drivers, then I might trust them more. Or even be a part-time driver for a few extra bucks now and then. 


But these services as well as self-driving Google cars (and other cars from other automakers), mass transit may find itself behind the times.  

Good job, Kyle, leaving the car at home. 


Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@LogicalDude My wife and I used Uber to get home from a concert Saturday night. When we first walked out, there was surge pricing of 2.4 times the normal rate. We waited about 15 minutes and got a car at the normal rate. It was $13.50 for a 10-mile trip. To use MARTA, we would have needed to walk about 15 minutes, catch a blue/green train to Five Points, catch a red train to Lindbergh, then take a taxi home. (There is no bus from Lindbergh to anywhere close to our house, even though we live <1.5 miles away.) That's $5 in fares plus (probably) whatever the minimum taxi fare is, and there's no way that trip happens in the 22 minutes it took us. There simply isn't a debate between those options, and I suspect that will remain true in many instances no matter how many streetcar lines we build. Our money, time and focus is better directed toward improving longer-haul transit.

MarkVV
MarkVV

@LogicalDude 

The issue is not so much a competition between Marta and Uber (and like), which is a very complex question, because it depends on too many variable – length of the trip, number of passengers, frequency of the trip for an individual, etc. But the focus of Kyle’s article were short trips downtown, and I submit that Uber there is very inefficient compared with a good system of streetcars.

lawdawg10
lawdawg10

A monthly Marta pass is also an option, and is cheaper than paying for a daily commute.  With the monthly fare covered by savings from daily commute, any additional rides are free.  Can Uber beat that price?

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@lawdawg10 A monthly pass definitely changes things, and the answer to your question will depend on how Uber (and other services; I don't mean to make this all about one company) evolves. If, say, 10 years from now there's a ride-sharing service with a fleet of autonomous vehicles, the cost per ride could be much lower than what is charged now. Someone may come up with a subscription model. We might be able to subsidize such a subscription for less money than we can build out a streetcar network (I think the current plan is priced at $3.7B, with about half that going to the Beltline, so we're talking $1.5B-$2B for the rest - plus operating costs likely to be millions of dollars a year).

At this point, though, I'm more interested in raising the question than being able to offer a definitive answer.

RafeHollister
RafeHollister

Once again, the private free enterprise option is more efficient, better run, and outperforms and exceeds the collectivist government option.  Look for the progressive regulators to move heaven and earth in their attempt to stamp it out.

MHSmith
MHSmith

@RafeHollister @MarkVV 

Or the easy to find EVIDENCE of  laws passed and under the process of being passed to REGULATE Uber and other such services? 

Spot on Rafe 

RafeHollister
RafeHollister

@MarkVV @RafeHollister Evidence like Uber is self supporting and popular, whereas government systems have to be highly subsidized with tax payer dollars in order to survive, and are roundly panned for their poor service.  

MarkVV
MarkVV

@RafeHollister @MarkVV  The efficiency and popularity of streetcar system has been proven for many decades in the large cities of Europe. It is ridiculous to argue the “efficiency” of Uber in Atlanta when we have only a very recent, rudimentary streetcar as a competition. When people do not have an alternative and have to pay what Uber charges, they cannot compare it with anything.  An energy efficient streetcar carrying a larger number of passengers and providing a regular service is inherently more efficient than taxis or Uber. What are the Uber cars and drivers doing when they are waiting for callers? What about the pollution they create? How they clog already clogged streets? An anti-government blather does not answer any such questions. I suppose we should have waited for private companies before we built the interstate highway system, bridges, dams etc?

bu2
bu2

@MarkVV @RafeHollister 


Which large cities?  I can't think of any European cities I have been in with streetcars, certainly not significant lines.

bu2
bu2

@MarkVV @RafeHollister 


I don't know how spending $100 million for a streetcar + operating costs for a system that gets you there at walking speed is efficient.  Might as well put in moving sidewalks.

DonO56
DonO56

@bu2 @MarkVV @RafeHollister


You don't have to go to Europe.  Try Toronto for a city with significant streetcar lines.


In Europe.  Amsterdam is a good example.