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.