The Atlanta Streetcar: Panned by The New York Times

April 29, 2016 by · Leave a Comment
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

L.A.: Rail Transit Works, Cars Don’t

February 19, 2016 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Car Stop 

I recently spent a week visiting friends in Los Angeles, and I quickly learned a basic fact about that city: rail transit works, cars don’t.
Every time we tried to go somewhere by car on L.A.’s famous freeways, we ended up taking forever because of stalled traffic. The time of day did not matter, although weekends offered an improvement. We were able to use the HOV-2 lanes, which also helped. But even with those lanes, going anywhere on a weekday was a nightmare. My friend’s marina is about 40 miles from his house. One weekday, using the HOV lanes, the trip took us 90 minutes inbound and two-and -a half hours home. The latter would have been longer but with the freeway going nowhere we got off onto arterials. Those were lightly trafficked. Unlike us easterners, when the freeways jam up, the locals just sit there. Using arterial streets and roads does not seem to occur to them.
In contrast, whenever we used rail transit, the journeys were speedy and relaxing. It was my first time on Metrolink, and I was impressed. The trains were on time and fast, the equipment was in good shape and off-peak the ridership was strong.
Metrolink does something other commuter rail authorities might want to emulate, to the benefit of their riders. Each Metrolink ticket contains a chip that gives a one-day, unlimited-ride TAP card, the card for L.A.’s subway and light rail lines. It made riding Metrolink a great deal. We saved more on light rail fares than the Metrolink ticket cost. I was greatly surprised that our combined ticket/TAP card was good the whole time we were in the city; I thought it might be valid for an hour or two, like a transfer. Score one for Metrolink for offering great value.
In the city we took advantage of the light rail lines. Again, then trains were in good shape and well-patronized outside the peak hours. My earlier experience of disorder on the Blue Line, a problem the system’s leadership acknowledged, do not recur, although we rode only in the immediate downtown area.
The transit critics did everything they could to block the creation of rail transit in L.A., swearing before the gods that people they would never give up their cars. Well, many of them have, because on the freeways the cars don’t move. L.A.’s rail transit does move, and people ride it in large numbers. Over and over, the critics’ predictions of failure prove wrong. Why does anyone take them seriously?

William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation based in Washington, DC

The “Sick Passenger” Problem

January 4, 2016 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Car Stop 

The November 24th New York Times carried a front-page story titled, “Hated Words Subway Riders Are Hearing More: ‘Sick Passenger.” It is not just in New York City that transit riders (mostly rail) are encountering this problem. It is everywhere, and it is growing. The Times reported that in New York,

Sick passengers have accounted or about 3,000 train delays each month this year . . . a figure that has grown drastically in recent years, from about 1,800 each month in 2012, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

I don’t have figures for other cities, but I suspect the trend is similar. The interesting fact is that say, 30 years ago, this problem was rare. I rode Washington’s Metro every day back then, and I rarely had a train delayed for this reason (or any other; Metro was reliable in those days). I suspect that if we went back to the 1930s or 1940s, we would find it never happened. Transit operators then had the common sense not to let one person delay thousands.

The delays can be substantial, over half an hour, and they affect not only the hundreds of riders on the train where a passenger has a problem, but many of the trains lined up behind that one. Absent a convenient crossover or third track, all those trains are also stopped. The delays can then ripple through the system for hours –  – all because of one person.

These delays are unacceptable, and also unnecessary. The problem is current procedure, which is to pull the train with the sick passenger into the next station and hold it there until medical personnel can arrive and attend to the individual. Just the arrival can take half an hour, and more time is usually lost before the EMTs can remove the person from the train.

There is a better way. Transit systems should adopt a policy whereby the trains continue on to the nearest stop where medical personnel can be waiting when it gets there. Time will still be lost as EMTs remove the individual from the train, but all the time spent waiting for them to arrive will be saved. More, because the train will continue on farther than at present, there will be more opportunities to put it in a pocket track. That would reduce the delays to follow-on trains, perhaps even eliminate them.

I can already hear the response of transit authorities. “Our lawyers won’t let us do that. It would increase the danger somebody could sue and collect, because some sleaze-bag lawyer will encourage them to charge that they suffered more than they would have if the train had stopped at the nearest station.” As is so often the case, we see here the desperate need for tort reform.

But again, I think there is an answer. If the city or cities the transit system serves were to pass this policy as legislation, the transit agency’s back would be covered. They could say, “We were just following the law.” Don’t like it. Get City Council to change the law.

I’m sure the mewling “advocates” for the bungled, the botched and the bewildered will howl if cities do their duty and pass legislation along the lines I’ve suggested. In their eyes, a “victim” has some right to whatever he wants; while the thousands of people trying to get to work or home from work have none (they’re not “disadvantaged”).

Tell ‘em to go to hell. Ever more frequently messing up transit systems’ operations, often during rush hours, for one “sick passenger” is absurd. There is a better way, one where the sick passenger gets professional assistance just as quickly as he does now. The only losers are the lawyers.

William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation

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