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Guest Column

With several tweaks, Atlanta streetcar can lead region to new transit era

By Guest Columnist DAVID EMORY, a transportation planner who is president of Citizens for Progressive Transit

Citizens for Progressive Transit has been a supporter of the Atlanta Streetcar project since it was just a line on a map, and we are thrilled to see the return of rail transit construction to the city after more than a decade of inactivity.

As construction continues on the Streetcar’s initial segment Downtown, we turn our attention toward key operational and policy decisions that must be made to support the project and maximize its success.

To this end, we offer the following suggestions to enhance the Streetcar’s ridership, further its appeal to those new to public transportation, and realize its transformative potential.

David Emory

David Emory

Increase the Frequency of Service. The frequency of service is a key factor in any transit line’s appeal, particularly when riders could drive, walk, or bicycle instead. Current plans call for two streetcar vehicles to be operated simultaneously, arriving roughly every 15 minutes.  This relatively infrequent service will undermine the Streetcar’s performance and its public perception, and it will likely result in the loss of potential riders unwilling to wait up to a quarter of an hour for the Streetcar to arrive.

The project has purchased a total of four vehicles, however, so increasing service would give taxpayers a greater return on their investment. Adding a third vehicle could cut the maximum wait time to roughly 10 minutes, which is more in line with comparable modern streetcar projects elsewhere in the country.

Service could also be ramped up during major downtown events such as the Final Four weekend this past March.  Increased service will not only produce higher ridership but will strengthen the public’s perception of the streetcar as an appealing transportation option.

Real-Time Arrival Information. Another tried and true strategy for increasing transit ridership is to clearly communicate vehicle location and arrival times.

Research has found that real-time arrival information helps a transit service maintain existing riders and attract new ones.  In the age of low-cost GPS, smartphones, and an app for everything, communicating this information can be as easy as tracking the vehicles and making the real-time data available to software developers. Real-time arrival screens at the stops can also provide this important information to riders as they wait.

Continue improving Walkability and Bikability.  Another key to the Streetcar’s success is ensuring that riders can comfortably and safely continue their trip from their Streetcar stop to their ultimate destination.

Every Streetcar trip will begin and end on foot or bike, so we must ensure that areas along the route offer a pleasant environment for pedestrians and cyclists.

The Atlanta Regional Commission has made two Livable Centers Initiative grants for the Streetcar project to improve sidewalks and streetscapes in these areas, but there is more work to be done.

Property owners, business owners, residents, and other private stakeholders should also be engaged to improve the pedestrian- and bike-friendliness of the Streetcar route.

Adopt Transit-Supportive Zoning and Planning.  Land use and zoning changes should be implemented to ensure that growth and development along this corridor is transit-supportive and pedestrian-friendly.

Even since the project was announced, we have seen new development that is inconsistent with the transit-oriented vision for the route, such as a suburban-style gas station at Edgewood Avenue and Jackson Street adjacent to the key M.L. King Center stop.

Adopting zoning policies for the Streetcar route that require transit-supportive development will help ensure that the Streetcar becomes the transformative investment it is envisioned as.

Communicate a Clear, Logical Plan for Expansion.  Finally, a clear vision must be articulated for how, when, and where the Streetcar will be expanded.  The segment currently under construction is not intended as an isolated project, but rather as the first step toward a larger network of streetcars in the city.

Whether the next steps are to the east on the BeltLine, to the north along the Peachtree corridor, or to the west toward the Westside, the public must understand future plans to expand the system.  Clear progress toward a more comprehensive system will help the public appreciate the merits of this first project and capitalize on the excitement around its opening.

The urban core of Atlanta was built around streetcars, and it is exciting to see this timeless mode of transportation returning to the streets of the city.

We hope that by taking steps to ensure that the initial segment is an unmitigated success, the project will help usher in a vibrant new era of streetcar transportation in Atlanta.


  1. Tom November 4, 2013 9:16 am

    I would also add that we need the streetcar to run till hours that are business friendly.  I read originally that the streetcar was only going to run till 8 o’clock.  For those of us who live, work or stay on the line, it would be nice if they ran till after the dinner hour.  I am not saying that they have to run till 2am, but it would get me to visit more of the new west side of Centennial Park establishments for dinner if I know I had the streetcar their to get home.Report

  2. Tom November 4, 2013 9:17 am

    I would also add that we need the streetcar to run till hours that are business friendly.  I read originally that the streetcar was only going to run till 8 o’clock.  For those of us who live, work or stay on the line, it would be nice if they ran till after the dinner hour.  I am not saying that they have to run till 2am, but it would get me to visit more of the new west side of Centennial Park establishments for dinner if I know I had the streetcar there to get home.Report

  3. Matt Garbett November 4, 2013 2:52 pm

    Great piece, David. And good suggestions. It’s sad when you read an article about how Kansas City’s streetcar corridor is booming, with development http://www.planetizen.com/node/65515?utm_source=Planetizen+Email+Newswire&utm_campaign=912189d35d-Planetizen_Newswire_October_10_2013&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_f1bd61c87f-912189d35d-86740517 in time for the streetcar’s opening  and our streetcar is slated to open in 6 months from now and Auburn Avenue is still a dead zone. For all the new bars on Edgewood, that street is still very empty as well.
    Sad but not surprising. I was an early conceptual rendering of what the Sweet Auburn portion of the corridor would would look like, and I was shocked to see the number of private parking lots envisioned next to the new businesses. I asked a certain chief of staff why that was, and he responded, “It’s the sun belt. People love their cars.”
    I hope that we can find the funds to operate the streetcar in a way that makes the experience more convenient and user friendly (increased frequency and real time information).
    And I really hope that our council will realize the value of maintaining appropriate zoning and enforcing it. We’ve already got one illegal parking lot on the route and another (legal) parking lot proposed one block from the route.
    As you say, the streetcar can be a transformative project for the community along the route and hopefully lead the way to even more streetcar routes, but only if we tweak what we need to tweak and enforce what we need to enforce.
    “Rail miles, lines and stations are important, but equally if not more so is the fabric of the city once people step off the platform. That is where we must set ourselves apart, and that requires something much more robust than station area planning. All hands must be on deck to create a competitive transit system with excellent urbanism around it.”
    “Without appropriate zoning, however, the value of a streetcar project declines tremendously.”


  4. DerekEdwards November 5, 2013 9:11 am

    I pulled the following from http://streetcar.atlantaga.gov/about/faqs/ 
    The proposed schedule is from 5:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. weekdays; 8:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturdays; and 9:00 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Sundays.
    I wish that the hours went even beyond 11PM.  With all the night life along that corridor, 2AM would be nice on Fri and Sat.  But how often do people take the train to the the club?  Is that something people (besides me) do?  
    Also, to the Powers That Be, please increase the frequency.  15 minute headways are too long for a streetcar.  Even 10 minutes is on the high end.  If you want people to use it, then it must be practical for them to use.
    I am very excited about this project, and really hope that some of the ‘Tweaks’ get ironed out.Report

  5. Ted Bradford November 5, 2013 9:49 am

    Matt Garbett  
    Councilmember Kwanza Hall and Central Atlanta Progress are currently working with the community to update the zoning for the King Landmark District.
    One of the stated goals is to: “Foster an urban, walkable mixed-use district that supports streetcar transit”
    For anyone who is interested in getting involved, the next meeting is November 18th at 6:30. 
    The new zoning rules are scheduled to be adopted within the next few months. Act now!Report

  6. Guest012 November 5, 2013 1:09 pm

    One more suggestion – GSU is right there. They are going to have buses running almost the same routes as the streetcar. They have a $46 per student per semester transportation fee. With 33,000 students that generates roughly $3 million in money per year for transportation. Create a partnership where GSU students can ride for free and GSU pays the Atlanta Streetcar $1 million a year. GSU would just be outsourcing their transportation to the city of Atlanta. I think this would benefit both parties. The streetcar would get a steady stream of income and attractive ridership and GSU would still provide transportation to their students while they could also now offer a new benefit to going to a downtown school.Report

  7. Tom November 6, 2013 10:26 am

    DerekEdwards Thanks Derek!  Good to see 11PM.  I am with you about wanting a little later on the weekend.  I am just happy that it is coming!  I thought I was the only one in Atlanta that is excited about this!Report

  8. CherryGhost November 17, 2013 11:09 am

    It’s too bad that the first line of the Steetcar was not coordinated with the existing Beltline, which is just two blocks east of the MLK center. These lapses is logistical foresight will result in failure of the program.
    Why did the rail line not continue two blocks east on Edgewood where it would have intersected directly with the belt line?Report


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