Atlanta’s streetcar plan will put some people in the slow lane

The Atlanta Streetcar: Mass transit without the masses. (AJC Photo / Hyosub Shin)

The Atlanta Streetcar: Mass transit without the masses. (AJC Photo / Hyosub Shin)

The news that Atlanta approved a multibillion-dollar streetcar network wasn’t surprising. But one seemingly small detail stands out as an example of so much that’s wrong in the transit debate — and why transit often falls short of its lofty expectations.

You see, this summer I got a wild hair to go see my Atlanta City Council in action. The subject was the proposed expansion of the Atlanta Streetcar from a 2.7-mile loop no one wants to ride to a 50-mile network of criss-crossing lines that somewhat more people might want to ride, if they were too tired to walk and couldn’t find an Uber.

As someone who has written several times that there’s nothing wrong per se with transit, just with the ways transit advocates seem determined to do it, what caught my attention was a complaint by Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms. She was not pleased the Beltline did not touch her district, a fact of geography to which she seemed to have reluctantly reconciled herself. But she was particularly steamed the 11th District would also be unserved by the other 28 miles of streetcar routes.

“I’m just completely perplexed that we are still being left out,” Bottoms said. “Where’s the consideration for the Cascade area, for the Campbellton Road area, for the Greenbriar (Mall) area?”

As I listened, I wondered if someone would tell her the truth: that a streetcar isn’t what people in those areas want.

Oh, they might think they want it, if they’ve never spent much time on one. But I have.

For four and a half years, when I lived in Brussels, I took a streetcar to and from work every day. My 3-mile commute each way took about 25 minutes, what with the frequent stops, traffic lights, stalled cars and congestion in a shared lane — all problems Atlanta’s streetcars will face, except on the Beltline. The trip often took longer; had it done so consistently, I’d have stopped riding.

For good measure, earlier this year I rode the entire Atlanta Streetcar loop. It took about 40 minutes.

So there are few commuting options I can imagine disliking more than moving at streetcar speed along the 5 miles of Campbellton Road between Greenbriar Mall and the Beltline. That could take a full hour, and for most riders it’d be only the first segment.

At that June meeting, Paul Morris, CEO of Atlanta Beltline Inc., told Bottoms much the same thing: “The modeling and the analysis showed the utility of (a Campbellton Road) line was difficult to, from an operations and ridership standpoint, make work. So that (line) was converted from a streetcar line to a higher-capacity bus route.”

But “bus” is a dirty word among transit fans, as Bottoms’ reaction reflected. It’s not a trendy, shiny object like a streetcar. It’s just often the most economical, flexible mode to employ, and the one that riders would actually appreciate the most if it were done right.

Now, back to the plan approved this month. No prizes if you guessed it includes a line running down Campbellton Road to Greenbriar Mall.

I suppose that line’s inclusion would fit nicely in the kind of glossy magazine an ambitious politician might send outside her district in the name of attracting votes — I mean, investments. But the people of southwest Atlanta who think they’re getting a good, modern connection to the rest of the city will probably be disappointed.

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8 comments
crwatl
crwatl

Nice piece @kylewingfield.    I completely agree that portions of the plan are political and not necessary.  In particular, I am not a fan of what I see (regarding connectivity to MARTA rail) around the West End and Oakland City stations.


Thanks!


skruorangeclown
skruorangeclown

Someone explain to me the difference in time of taking a car or streetcar considering the lights and all. Street cars hold more people than the average bus and every city I have been in with them, they are packed particularly if certain streets are made transit only. 

But then you have to ride with all those smelly common folks and rub elbows with them.I bet Cobb County would love to have street cars going to their shiny new stadium instead of MARTA buses running down the emergency lane on 285 (Yeah that's the plan)

JohnnyReb
JohnnyReb

Too much common sense and logic, Kyle, for Liberals to understand.

The Left, like Bookman, have it in their head that all it takes is a few millions spent (of other people's money) and the traffic problems go away.

Never mind that it won't work and comes with a street car full of collateral damage that can last a lifetime. 

Hedley_Lammar
Hedley_Lammar

@JohnnyReb  The Left, like Bookman, have it in their head that all it takes is a few millions spent (of other people's money) and the traffic problems go away.


Nothing could be further from the truth. The other sides solution to traffic seems to be add more lanes and roads. Which of course leads to more cars and more congestion. Rinse and repeat


Mass transit CAN work if done correctly. New York, London, Paris, Tokyo, just to name a few,  all first class systems that work incredibly well.



JohnnyReb
JohnnyReb

@Hedley_Lammar @JohnnyReb OK, change my post from a few million to a few Billion spent (of people's money who will never use it), numerous cases of eminent domain and a decade or more of construction, cost overruns, and corruption.

Keep the part about collateral damage.

And, that won't fix the problem of I-75 and I-85 merging together through town, which if not already needs to be in the engineering screw-up hall of fame.

Lil_Barry_Bailout
Lil_Barry_Bailout

@Hedley_Lammar @JohnnyReb

You may not have noticed this, but Atlanta's population density is nothing like that of the cities you name.

Transit will "work" here in the same way Obamacare "works"--by creating a hugely expensive system with costs far surpassing benefits, paid for by almost exclusively by those who don't benefit.

Shorter:  Just another leftist handout program to buy votes of their loser base.

Silver8
Silver8

I agree. I go to Seattle frequently and I can walk the 1.5 miles to Lake Union faster than the streetcar. I took the streetcar twice and it was pointless to spend money to go that slow.

Also, Seattle's streetcar is almost always essentially empty of passengers.