Still looking for our missing Peachtree Streetcar

By Maria Saporta

When my children were young, one of their favorite series of books were the “Where’s Spot?” books. Each page had flaps, and Spot would be hiding under one of the flaps.

I felt I was reading the “Where’s Spot” books as I was looking through pages and pages of different City of Atlanta lists for MARTA and the Transportation Special Purpose Local Sales Tax (T-SPLOST) projects.

Something was missing. The Peachtree Streetcar.

When we first started talking about reintroducing streetcars to our city more than a decade ago, the one signature route proposed was Peachtree.

Atlanta Streetcar

The Atlanta Streetcar now travels for two blocks on Peachtree Street – far less of the eight miles originally proposed (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Like most of the other U.S. cities that have reintroduced streetcars, Atlanta leaders saw the merit of the streetcar traveling along our main street.

The first public urging for the Peachtree Streetcar happened at the Midtown Alliance annual meeting on Nov. 15, 2002 when new urbanist Andres Duany spoke of the commercial corridor being a natural for a streetcar.

The idea took hold, and Atlanta had a plan to build a streetcar that would travel from Fort McPherson to Buckhead as well as a streetcar to go from Centennial Olympic Park to the King Center. The first proposal, which would have cost nearly $300 million, did not get the green light from the federal government.

So Atlanta reapplied asking to build only the East-West line. The reason that line came first was because the streetcars would need a maintenance facility, and that was going to be located on under the Downtown Connector along the East-West line.

The intention at the time was to build out the Peachtree Streetcar as part of the next  phase to help make it part of a connected system.

So why Peachtree?

A study done for Central Atlanta Progress, the Midtown Alliance and Buckhead Community Improvement District showed that nearly 60 percent of all the city’s jobs are based along the Peachtree corridor – from downtown to Buckhead.

Also, 7 percent of all the state’s tax revenues comes from that corridor. It is the spine – physically and economically – of Atlanta.

Some people will argue that a Peachtree Streetcar would parallel MARTA’s north-south line and that the Federal Transit Administration would not contribute to that effort. But in conversations with FTA, I was told the city would need to show that the two transit modes would serve different purposes.

A subway gives people an opportunity to go long stretches rather quickly. A streetcar gives riders the opportunity to jump on and off every few blocks, creating a mode that complements pedestrians and a street-level retail.

A Peachtree Streetcar also could do wonders in reknitting our city – connecting downtown with Midtown and connecting Midtown with Buckhead.

The stretch of Peachtree between the Arts Center Station and the Buckhead Station actually is significant underserved by transit. Imagine if one could ride a streetcar from SCAD to Piedmont Hospital or Peachtree Battle or West Paces Ferry Road.

Atlanta Streetcar

Atlanta Streetcar in 2015 when it was still free File/Credit: walkableapp.com

People also say there’s a matter of equity. All the more reason to have a streetcar. With all the hotels, buildings and stores along Peachtree, providing a new mode of transportation would give lower-income workers more access to those jobs.

Others will say we need to place streetcars where there is little economic activity so we can spur new development. But for our streetcar system to be successful, it will need to be part of an interwoven system that connects destinations and activity centers. To ignore Peachtree in that planning effort is irresponsible.

Lastly, another argument is that leaders in Buckhead and even Midtown don’t really want a Peachtree Streetcar. Remember, Buckhead also fought bicycle lanes on Peachtree Street.

Atlanta is changing. It is adding new residents and employees on a daily basis. If we want to be sure that not all of our new citizens are driving a car to their homes and their jobs, we need to make sure we offer transportation alternatives. They include transit, cycling and walking – creating a city that works without cars.

If we don’t plan for a well-designed multimodal system, we are destined to become a big parking lot.

When asked about the missing Peachtree Streetcar, I was told there would be enhanced bus service on Atlanta’s main corridor. One of the reasons why Peachtree bicycle lanes were not included in a transportation plan of the Midtown Alliance was that buses would have to stop to pick up and drop off passengers in the bike lanes.

But if we had streetcars riding in the middle of Peachtree, it would create a boulevard design for Peachtree offering an island for pedestrians without conflicting with bike lanes.

A Peachtree Streetcar would help give people yet another reason to not drive on  Atlanta’s best-known street.

Whether we like it or not, Atlanta is becoming more densely populated, and we will have to adjust our travel patterns to make room for our new neighbors.

We can prepare for what’s coming by investing in expanded light rail transit so we won’t have to keep asking: “Where’s the Peachtree Streetcar?”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

12 replies
  1. Burroughston Broch says:

    A bit of history before your time is in order. Atlanta began replacing streetcars with trolley buses (locally called trackless trolleys) in 1937 and completed the conversion in 1949; in 1952 Atlanta had the largest trolley bus system in the country with 453 trolley buses. They were electric buses powered off the overhead streetcar catenary wiring. Among their advantages over streetcars were (1) no tracks were needed and (2) they didn’t block traffic like streetcars since they could operate in the lane with the track and the lanes either side.
    A trolley bus is cheaper to build, cheaper to operate, and blocks other traffic less than a streetcar. Pray tell, why you do you want a streetcar instead of a trolleybus?Report

    Reply
  2. Simon Berrebi says:

    Only 13% of Atlanta residents have a rail station within walking distance (<0.5 miles). The MARTA referendum is an opportunity to provide more service to those who need it, not to duplicate infrastructure.Report

    Reply
  3. EveryLastWord says:

    Burroughston Broch The overhead wires were hideous and the trolley’s “antenna” frequently became disengaged from the wires.  It was a rare trip when the driver didn’t have to reposition the antenna (used a long pole), which wasn’t always a quick job.  Intersections were especially susceptible to this problem.Report

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  4. Burroughston Broch says:

    EveryLastWord Burroughston Broch  I often ride the trolley buses on Boston’s Silver Line and assure you they don’t have this problem. Technology has improved in the past 54 years.Report

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  5. Real World says:

    Burroughston Broch EveryLastWord
    I’m quite sure the technology has improved but it’s interesting to reminisce about these things. They also did not have air conditioning and rode with all windows open in summer. Occasionally had to remind passengers to keep themselves inside.  Cities all over the country have jumped on the streetcar bandwagon in recent years, not because it’s a universal solution to travel needs but probably more because Urban Planners think they are cool and the Feds will cough up the money. Urban Planners dream of a car-free world where everyone travels by streetcar, bike or foot.Report

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  6. EveryLastWord says:

    Real World Burroughston Broch EveryLastWord The troubles in building the loop that’s already in place makes me wonder if the Peachtree Corridor would really be well served by such extended disruption. My work takes me to the Hurt Bldg often, and that was a nightmare for a long period of time.  Compound that with the sketchy operations and management, and streetcars don’t look so charming.  But then, when it comes to getting people around in large numbers over distances, everything’s a problem.Report

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  7. junehodges says:

    I well remember riding the ‘trackless’ trolley (“Atlanta Transit System”) with my mother on trips we would take  downtown from our home in suburban East Point.  We would journey to visit my pediatrician, to shop at Richs or Davidsons, or perhaps to take in a ‘show’ at the Fox, Rialto, or Paramount theater. Yes, there were indeed overhead wires to supply current to the bus’s electric motor, but what I recall most was that the ride was extremely quiet, and was absent choking bus engine fumes.  The ‘wires’ did not affect our quality of life.  My father also frequently rode the ‘trolley’ to and from his office on Marietta St., 2 blocks west of Five Points.Report

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  8. mtanoct says:

    EveryLastWord Real World Burroughston Broch There are advantages to trolley buses and there are disadvantages as well. The technology has improved on trolley buses and streetcars since there glory days. While it would be nice to see one of both modes of transit expand within the city of Atlanta there is a level of cost and political commitment that must be made by the electorate to ensure that it is done with care to infrastructure, design/construction in step with the communities that will be impacted by its installation but hopefully benefit once its in operation. The challenge however is that the studies are done by the business community, not the transit agency. The city didn’t sign up for the transit business with the initial streetcar and were not prepared when the transit advisers informed them of the requirements. So will the transit agency the city entrusted over 40 years ago be allowed to do the real work? And does the residents want a mobility mover versus the business community wanting an economic generator? The next project that is implemented…you will be able to tell who is running the show.Report

    Reply

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