Streetcars create cities of the future: focusing on congestion wrong way to go

It boggles my mind.

Why would folks in this state complain about the City of Atlanta receiving a $47.6 million grant from the federal government for a $72 million streetcar that will connect Centennial Olympic Park with the historic King District?

This is the best transit news that metro Atlanta has received in years, if not decades. Earlier this year, we were bemoaning the fact that Georgia had been totally bypassed by the first round of federal transportation grants.

But last month, thanks to a thoughtful application, at long last, we will be re-investing in rail — a mode of transportation that holds the key to transforming our communities into thriving places to live, work and play.

The Atlanta Streetcar is just the beginning. Once the line begins operating in a couple of years, the region will be smitten with streetcar envy. It happens in every city that has invested in street cars and light rail.

Why? Because streetcars change the equation. They reduce a city’s reliance on cars by contributing to alternate ways to get around. They also spark new development along the streetcar corridor. In short, streetcars help create a more urban environment that relies less on cars and more on people who walk or bike or ride.

The whole notion of congestion mitigation should not be the measuring stick for urban transportation decisions.

Congestion mitigation is more of a suburban phenomenon, and traffic engineers often think that the best way to reduce traffic is to add more highway lanes or roadways.

That premise is faulty. New road capacity might make a commute easier in the short run, but those lanes quickly become clogged (think about the first six months of Georgia 400 and that state road today).

Congestion is created when too many cars compete for the same space, and the only long-term, lasting solution to reducing traffic is to encourage people to quit driving solo and to start riding transit (be it bus or rail) or to start carpooling or vanpooling.

Unfortunately, much of the current mindset among Georgia’s transportation planners is still stuck in the old, flawed ways of addressing traffic issues. For the record, there are bottlenecks that can and should be improved to help with the flow of traffic.

But focusing just on congestion mitigation and the movement of as many cars as fast and as far as possible should no longer be the litmus test in our regional areas.

Metro Atlanta today is a victim of decades of underinvestment in transit and rail, and that’s why we are one of the most congested regions in the nation.

We are in catch-up mode. We need to be building and offering all kinds of transit all over the region to give people viable options in how they get around and how they want to live.

So that brings us back to the streetcar. That is just one piece in what should become a comprehensive, regional transit network that can lead us to a 21st century transportation system.

The streetcar renaissance is real. Cities after cities have embraced streetcars because they humanize and revitalize cities. Once the first streetcar line is built, there is great demand for more.

Atlanta will be no exception. Already, there’s jockeying over where the next streetcar line should go. Should the Peachtree Streetcar be next, connecting downtown with Midtown and eventually Buckhead and Fort McPherson?

Should the next link connect to the Beltline and begin building a transit line along the 22-mile circular corridor? Or should we be building streetcar lines along Ponce de Leon or North avenues, or along 10th Street, or extending the east-west line to serve the Atlanta University Center with its member institutions?

The possibilities are endless. Deciding which one should take priority will be the challenge. But in my mind, the more transit we can build, the better.

And streetcars are only one part of our region’s transit solution. We need high speed rail connecting Atlanta with the other major cities in the Southeast. We need commuter rail connecting the major city centers in our region.

We need to reinvest in our MARTA system by increasing its frequency and reach. We need light rail along certain corridors. We need more express buses on our highways. And we need more buses serving our less dense communities.

In short, despite what the naysayers say, we need it all.

So receiving the $47.6 million federal grant for our inaugural streetcar line is just the beginning, albeit significant first step.

And that’s reason for celebration.

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:

    We’ve discussed the streetcar on this blog and nothing has changed except the City has received a grant. Please celebrate with those who are enamored of the idea while you can. Then, let’s get together in 10 years to review it. My guess is then it will be shut down, just like the Fanplex amusement park near Turner Field, the tourist bus route that virtually duplicated the streetcar route, and so many other misguided City projects.

    If this project were really so valuable, we would have paid for it ourselves rather than waiting years for a federal grant.Report

    Reply
  2. James R. Oxendine says:

    The project represents tangible progress not only in terms of economic development via support for the critical hospitality and convention trade but it creates the framework for future public/private/ community partnerships organized around transit oriented development.Report

    Reply
  3. a transit fan says:

    This piece is so problematic that it’s hard to know how to respond without a red pen. Most irksome is the any-and-all transit cheerleading.

    I happen to agree that mitigating street-level congestion is the wrong determinant for transit investment dollars, but there are other reasons to criticize this project.Report

    Reply
  4. shirley says:

    The first phase of the Atlanta Streetcar alone will not solve the problems of underinvestment in the downtown business but it does give hope for a interconnected transportation system that includes the revitalization of MARTA, build out of the Beltline and development of the long overdue downtown multimodal center. The Atlanta Streetcar improves the transportation options for millions of downtwon visitors. Atlanta’s second industry was hospitality and this project improves the experience for our vistors and offers residents and workers a transportation alternative to driving their cars a few blocks. Cheers to the Atlanta Streetcar team!Report

    Reply
  5. BPJ says:

    I agree with Maria. The key is to understand that the initial route is just the beginning. The east-west line should (and I predict, will) continue west up Marietta Street, through Atlanta’s developing design and gallery district, along the west side of Ga. Tech, and on up to Atlantic Station. The east line should be extended either toward Little 5 Points, or down to Grant Park (plenty of good stops along both routes).

    Having ridden the Portland streetcars, I understand the potential. Have any of the opponents tried the Portland streetcars?Report

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  6. HistoryJoe says:

    I think this route is a terrific idea. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to explain to people on the King Memorial MARTA platform how to get to the actual King Memorial (and what a dismal little stroll it is). This is much better and just imagine how many thousands of streetcar trips GSU students will take getting from the dorms on Piedmont over to classes in Fairlie-Poplar. It’s a real winner as far as I’m concerned.Report

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  7. Bruce Emory says:

    In my opinion this is a questionable project. I think the line is too short to attract enough ridership to justify a good level of service. I also think that this is the wrong time to start a new rail line, when MARTA cannot afford to maintain decent service on the existing system. I remember when the MARTA line opened to Lenox I could catch a train every six minutes during peak periods; now it is every 15 minutes. Evening service on the North-South trunk line now runs only every 20 minutes. I doubt if there is any other heavy rail system with such poor service. And bus service has also been cut drastically. MARTA is also going further into debt to maintain the system, selling new bonds almost every year, not for new construction but for routine system upkeep. It doesn’t make sense to build new rail lines and spread inadequate resources even more thinly. The business community and elected officials should focus on restoring good bus and rail service on MARTA before starting new lines.Report

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  8. jeremy garlington says:

    Why can’t people just walk the line between Centennial Park and Sweet Auburn? To borrow an old line from a president out with a memoir this week, is that too “common sensical?” Or is the street car project more about real estate development, a fave ATL past-time, vs. serious traffic management? Someone needs to decide and let the rest of us know. Mixed messages so far to say the least. Best,

    JGReport

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  9. Darin says:

    Jeremy, where are you finding a mixed message? Read the proposal for the streetcar and you can see a concise, well-defined project. Here’s a quote from it:

    “Located within an economically distressed
    area, the project will help spur new pedestrian-oriented development, support mixed-use projects, and reinforce
    existing land use and zoning plans. It will also reconnect the eastern and western sections of downtown, which
    have been separated since Interstate 75/85 was built in the 1950s.”

    Sounds like a great plan with a clear message to me.

    Have you walked from the park to Sweet Auburn? Have you smelled the human excrement in the air as you walk under the 75/85 overpass on Auburn Ave, nearing the King Center, where homeless people camp? Have you walked down the crumbling sidewalks in front of sadly neglected, run-down buildings that sit alongside the resting place of one of Atlanta’s (and the country’s) most significant citizens?

    Try it out some time. Let me know how you enjoy that walk.Report

    Reply
  10. Bring back "Babe Alley" to the Georgia Capitol! says:

    “Or is the street car project more about real estate development, a fave ATL past-time, vs. serious traffic management?”
    Comment by jeremy garlington — November 9, 2010 @ 5:52 pm

    OF COURSE the street car project is about REAL ESTATE DEVELOPMENT! HELLOOOO!!!!!! Everything in Atlanta is about REAL ESTATE DEVELOPMENT and making tons of money off of it, which invariably becomes real estate OVERdevelopment. The Peachtree Street streetcar route was the preferred choice of local developers because P’tree Street through the upper part of Downtown, Midtown and Buckhead is where the most expensive real estate in the city is located and the addition of a streetcar along and thru Atlanta’s most visible and important single street could serve to make that very valuable real estate even more exponentially expensive (think New York’s Broadway or Chicago’s Michigan Avenue and you see what local overdevelopers are aiming for). It’s just that fair overdevelopment-minded city leaders couldn’t get any federal money for the P’tree route.

    “Have you walked from the park to Sweet Auburn? Have you smelled the human excrement in the air as you walk under the 75/85 overpass on Auburn Ave, nearing the King Center, where homeless people camp? Have you walked down the crumbling sidewalks in front of sadly neglected, run-down buildings that sit alongside the resting place of one of Atlanta’s (and the country’s) most significant citizens?”
    Comment by Darin — November 10, 2010 @ 12:29 am

    Sorry, but I keep my windows up and try not to ever get out of my vehicle when in that area, so walking in that area is completely out of the question. That doesn’t mean that it’s a dangerous area, just that it’s not necessarily a very desirable place to take a leisurely stroll.Report

    Reply
  11. Bring back "Babe Alley" to the Georgia Capitol! says:

    I’m very happy to see that Atlanta real-estate developers have switched from strictly car-oriented overdevelopment to using streetcars and transit to foster much denser overdevelopment. I’m so proud. Keep up the good work, real-estate overdevelopers! Has SERIOUS congestion mitigation and traffic management ever been a real priority in this town?Report

    Reply

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