The Atlanta Streetcar: Panned by The New York Times

April 29, 2016 by
Filed under: The Right Answer 

An article appeared in The New York Times on Saturday, January 2, 2016, entitled “In Atlanta, a Ride Many Scorn Is No Longer Free.” That title says it all and obviously requires no imagination to guess how the Times feels about Atlanta’s initial streetcar line. The sole motivation for the article appears to be the fact that people will now actually begin paying to ride the streetcar. While the streetcar just completed a year’s operation, the Times appears keenly disappointed with these first twelve months. The Times reaches the conclusion that the streetcar will have minimal impact in solving the traffic woes of the Atlanta metropolitan area. Really? The Atlanta Streetcar is a downtown circulator, that is, it is completely oriented to improving mobility and enhancing development prospects in the downtown area and, not incidentally, represents the first small segment of a much larger system that will tie together Atlanta’s central core.
Not mentioned in the article is a major catalyst for the streetcar system, the Belt project, a far-reaching initiative that will create a circular band of parks, trails, housing (affordable and otherwise) and, yes, a streetcar line circumnavigating a necklace of abandoned railroad rights of way around the city. The planned streetcar system will connect with this circular greenway at a number of locations. As with the streetcar, this has nothing to do with the commuters in the suburbs bound to their cars, trying to negotiate the Atlanta region’s epic traffic congestion created by maximum highway and minimal transit investment. This is about improving the quality of life in central Atlanta. Incidentally, the trail system buildout along the belt is already underway and the completed sections have become immensely popular.
The Times article slays the usual share of strawmen, quoting a spokesperson from a local libertarian think tank, who solemnly (and predictably) pronounces the project dead after the first year, saying

“They’re holding it [the streetcar] as the way of the future for the rest of Metro Atlanta, and heaven forbid we should follow the example of the City of Atlanta on the streetcar . . . We need to accept that this was a dismal failure . . .”

A libertarian think tank in Phoenix also made declarations of doom for that city’s light rail system before it opened. Not only is that system a roaring success, the city’s voters recently approved an increase in the sales tax to support a substantial expansion. That think tank has had little to say about the system since its initial predictions.
And how are other cities faring that have embraced the modern streetcar? Portland’s streetcar system, begun in 2001, is regarded as a success as is Seattle’s South Lake Union streetcar. Less known but equally successful is Tacoma, WA’s streetcar line. Tucson, AZ’s streetcar opened in July, 2014 and has quickly become an indispensable part of the city, spawning development and spurring a renaissance in transit riding. Dallas has opened an initial streetcar line connecting the downtown to nearby Oak Cliff. Washington, DC finally opened in February 2016 and service, like Atlanta, is initially free of charge. Cincinnati, Kansas City, and Detroit will open later in 2016. Oklahoma City, Milwaukee and Fort Lauderdale will soon break ground for their own downtown streetcar circulators. The point is that plenty of cities are opting to adopt the streetcar to enhance mobility in the urban core while spurring and channeling development in targeted corridors.
Certainly, the jury is out on the Atlanta Streetcar. It’s only been open for a year, and this is hardly the time to draw hasty conclusions. While the experience gained from this initial segment will be helpful, especially regarding development along the line, the overall utility of this segment can only be accurately assessed after it becomes part of a growing system, benefitting from the connectivity and resulting cohesion that many expect to help transform downtown Atlanta.
Articles such as this one make pursuing a long term project all the more difficult, as the naysayers will use their platforms to make simplistic criticisms and employ ridicule to intimidate and ultimately defeat less committed decision-makers. I always look for opponents to proffer alternatives, but if they don’t, I know they simply want to preserve the status quo, and that is a time-honored recipe for stagnation and ultimately rot. Yes, Atlanta’s initial streetcar segment may well be in for a bumpy ride but the promise that a comprehensive streetcar system brings to downtown Atlanta will be well worth the journey.

Glen D. Bottoms serves as Executive Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation

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