Does Atlanta Really Need 68 Miles of Streetcars?

Atlanta BeltLine, Inc., along with The City of Atlanta, Invest Atlanta, and The Atlanta Streetcar, announced a clearer plan for the BeltLine’s transit plan back in June, an ambitious initiative to provide a new network of transit access a’la more streetcars along the wildly successful and acclaimed Atlanta BeltLine. Currently, the cost for this plan stands at a cool $3.65 billion and will add a level of connectivity the City hasn’t seen since the last streetcars stopped running in the late 1940’s. Needless to say, the plan is pretty popular among Atlanta’s in-town residents and transit enthusiasts, including yours truly.

However, there are some issues with the finer points of the plans and I have to be forthright: Atlanta should not invest in 68 miles of streetcars. At least not all of them.

Here’s why.

1. Sadly, streetcars are somewhat ineffective, as its critics have been more than diligent in pointing out.

Atlanta, like most other American cities, had a competitive streetcar market over a hundred years ago.
Atlanta, like most other American cities, had a large streetcar network over a hundred years ago.

Well, not entirely; over a century ago, streetcars were wildly popular across the U.S. and responsible for carrying the vast majority of the commuting population. With the advent of the automobile, however, streetcars actually had to compete not just culturally with cars but also for space on the road, eventually leading to their obsolescence in the 1940’s and ’50’s. (Sorry, GM Streetcar Scandal conspiracy theorists.)

Atlanta's streetcars at their height, only a few years before their ultimate demise.
Atlanta’s streetcars at their height in 1947, only a few years before their ultimate demise.

The efficacy of streetcars compared to other forms of rail transit is encumbered by having to share streets with cars, buses, and bikes, resulting in increased interaction with human error. The Atlanta Streetcar has already had several cases of collisions with cars, problems with poorly parked cars and trucks, and, most importantly, been stuck in traffic.

While the accidents have been mostly to blame on drivers not taking the Streetcar into account while parking and driving downtown, being stuck in traffic is a fundamental flaw of streetcars everywhere. By inherently being a part of street traffic, they get tangled in traffic and become basically high capacity rail-bound buses, as Rebecca Burns reported for the Atlanta Magazine when the Atlanta Streetcar first opened at the end of 2014.

2. The system map shows many service redundancies.

The proposed transit plan has an overabundance of redundancies in terms of serviced routes, especially the Crosstown Peachtree Line, which runs almost on top of the existing MARTA red and gold lines. This stretch would also be one of the most difficult parts of the plan to build due to its central location on Peachtree Road. Why would we try to build a streetcar on one of the most congested surface streets in Atlanta, especially when we already have heavy rail and bus service there?

Wait... Why?
Wait… Why?

3. Streetcars are pretty darn expensive.

Any new transit system is, but looking just at the Atlanta Streetcar’s own delays and budget increases, ballooning to over $98 million as construction crawled on, it’s important to remember just how unexpected costs can add up.

Ain’t she a beaut though?

Despite this, The Atlanta Streetcar is a good example of streetcar investment and implementation because it links the city’s major tourist locations and downtown job centers, is located near heavy rail access, and runs through the Old Fourth Ward, which is simultaneously experiencing its own renaissance. The Atlanta Streetcar currently has a capacity to carry 14,000 passengers per day, but is actually carrying only around 3,000. Also, it’s free until the end of 2015, which is great for publicity (and gives the Streetcar team a little more time to figure out exactly how the fares will work). So it kind of works.

The BeltLine on the other hand aims to serve as a functional transit service, not just a connecting line between tourist attractions.

Source: Atlanta BeltLine.
Source: Atlanta BeltLine.

According to The Saporta Report, “The revision does not provide cost estimates for the proposed transit line.” However, The Atlanta Streetcar is less expensive per mile than The BeltLine transit system is, from the numbers I’ve been able to glean from past Atlanta BeltLine announcements and plans.

At just 2.7 miles long, The Atlanta Streetcar comes in at around $36.3 million per mile, after delays caused the project costs to increase. In the 63-mile 2014 Atlanta BeltLine mockup with the budget for the project set at $3.65 billion, the average cost per mile is a whopping $61.1 million per mile. With the five extra miles added this year, that number tops out at $4.16 billion, or approximately $208 million every year for the 20 year funding period.

Of course, the City of Atlanta, The Atlanta Streetcar, and Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. will compete for state and federal funding opportunities every chance they get, but looking at Georgia’s transit funding (near non-existent) and the battle currently raging in Congress over transportation funding, those avenues will most likely not cover the bill. That means that the remainder of funding for these projects will come from public-private partnerships arranged by Invest Atlanta and probable tax increases.

To succeed, the BeltLine is going to have to financially support itself beyond its construction. Even if Atlanta residents and businesses want to pony up the pennies for this plan, will the BeltLine be able to sustain itself if it is this big?

beltline transit 2015 slide1.2

What should be changed?

First of all, can we figure out why exactly it is so expensive?

You would think that the BeltLine would be less expensive per mile, considering it’s planned around the 22-mile loop of abandoned rail lines around Atlanta; however, like The Atlanta Streetcar much of the BeltLine plan is being built in-road to cross the city. And those segments will be along much longer stretches than the original Streetcar line. Makes the price point for the project a lot more reasonable when you take all of that roadwork and utility realignment into play, doesn’t it? There are still a couple of crucial unknown elements of the plan however, like what type of trains will traverse these paths and what infrastructure they will require.

A rendering of the Westside BeltLine corridor, with a vehicle very similar to The Atlanta Streetcar running the rails.

But the cost of the project is also surprising because of a simple economic principle called “asymmetric information;” basically, the price seems so high because the customer (in this case, Atlantans) don’t have a relative price point to compare a transit project of this scope to. It’s sort of like planning a wedding: Because most couples don’t have prior experience planning weddings, almost one third of couples generally increase their budgets during the planning process as they learn the true costs of the services and products to make that special day so special. So too with cities. Without a financial frame of reference for this plan, that $3.65 billion price tag is pretty shocking.

But I still have two suggestions to cut costs and generally improve the plan for The BeltLine system that are not dependent on the details of those unknowns.

1. Eliminate those redundancies.

There are a few stretches of the streetcar plan that unnecessarily overlap with MARTA’s routes, most notably the Crosstown Peachtree Line pictured above. There’s a difference between connecting services and stacking them on top of each other.

The other redundancy in routes appears in the Crosstown Inner Loop, in which the route passes directly past Ashby, Vine City, and the Dome-Georgia World Congress Center stations before connecting to the Streetcar’s current path in Downtown.

beltline transit 2015 slide6

These redundancies are some of the most expensive pieces of the planned system; by eliminating them, that money can be redirected to operations, maintenance, another line entirely, or just stay in taxpayers’ pockets.

But it would be better to modify these lines than eliminate them outright. For example, the Crosstown Inner Loop could (in my opinion should) be redirected to the South, through the center of the Atlanta University district along Fair Street and towards Castleberry Hill, then North on Walker Street to connect with the Streetcar. In conjunction with the Crosstown Crescent Line, that more central location would maintain, if not improve transit accessibility in the Southwest segment of the BeltLine plan.

beltline transit 2015 slide6.3
A more southern route through the Atlanta University Center (marked in orange) would be a better alternative.

As for the Crosstown Peachtree line, it could be cut down to 1/3 of its length, connecting Arts Center MARTA Station to the Buckhead Triangle with a three mile route on the Northside, and a one and a half mile line from Fort McPherson to the Outer Loop on the Southside.

beltline transit 2015 slide2.5

Instead of the approximately 12.5 mile loop between Fort McPherson and Buckhead currently outlined in the conceptual plan, there would be about five and a half miles of lines that could be better served with fewer vehicles and connect to the rest of the BeltLine system and MARTA.

Eliminating the segment that runs above MARTA North-South through the city center, about 8 miles long including the segment that runs down Peachtree Street, would free up over $449 million or about 11.75% of the total project price. That might sound like chump change compared to the total $4.16 billion budget (as I’ve calculated it), but to put it in perspective, Avalon in Alpharetta cost about $600 million to construct.

2. Instead of streetcars everywhere, The BeltLine should invest in light rail.

This is a minor but essential distinction, and one that is not clarified in the revised plan. Light rail transit (LRT) is very similar to streetcars in appearance, capacity, and costs, only differing significantly in performance since light rail runs on its own rails off of roadways.

One of Sound Transit’s Link Light Rail vehicles, somewhere in the Seattle Area. Via The Northwest Urbanist.

As a result, light rail travels faster and more efficiently than streetcars and buses simply because it doesn’t have to stop deal with traffic, and when light rail does come to a road crossing, it has the right of way at intersections.

The “Rail For The Valley” blog explains it pretty well:

The difference between LRT and a streetcar is the quality of rights-of-way, where a streetcar operates on-street in mixed traffic, with little or no signal priority at intersections, while LRT is a streetcar that operates on a ‘reserved rights-of-way’ (RRoW), which is a a route reserved exclusively for a streetcar or tram and with signal priority at intersections. A RRoW can be as simple as a HOV lane with rails or as complex as a lawned boulevard RoW such as the Arbutus corridor. When a streetcar/tram operates on a grade separated RoW such as elevated on a viaduct or in a subway, in fact becomes a metro!

Granted the research I looked at is from a 2008 study conducted in Vancouver, but considering a group of Atlanta officials and planners traveled to Toronto back in May to observe that city’s planning successes, I think it is still pretty pertinent. Apparently there’s still much we can learn from our neighbors to the North.

Additionally, separating trams from road traffic benefits bikers, too. Since the streetcar tracks were installed Downtown, many bikers have been injured by trying to cross the car’s tracks. I can only imagine what would happen if transit on the BeltLine were in-line with the pre-existing bicycle and foot traffic. (Most official renders show transit on the BeltLine already separated from the pedestrian part of the path in some areas, but if it’s upgraded to light rail speeds, some barriers would be better than none, no?)

The barriers in most of the renders seem to be vegetation.
The barriers in most of the renders seem to be vegetation.

I imagine that the final system will be a mixture of traditional light rail and streetcar designs, similar to how Portland has MAX light rail and streetcar lines, or Utah Transit Authority’s TRAX and conjoining streetcars, but under the same branding.

What’s to like about this plan?

So much, to be perfectly blunt.

While it is a complete transit system in and of itself, something the BeltLine was always intended to become, it is a complement to Atlanta’s other transit services, supplementing the shortcomings of MARTA and the Atlanta Streetcar. Unlike the recent talk around MARTA moving out to Alpharetta and possibly Gwinnett in 2016, the Atlanta BeltLine plan would bring transit in Atlanta beyond just commuter rail, as MARTA is looking to become, but truly alternative transportation to driving everywhere. It will connect popular but otherwise difficult areas to get to without a car, like Ponce City Market and Atlanta’s flourishing West Side.

Additionally, the BeltLine plan will be branded as part of the Atlanta Streetcar. The 2015 revised plan, aside from having the Atlanta Streetcar as a partner in the plan, shows many renderings of light rail vehicles that look almost identical to The Atlanta Streetcar’s, down to the model design and “Atlanta Streetcar” decals.

beltline transit 2015 slide5
Look at all that Streetcar swag.

Branding can make or break a service, so it is of vital importance to maintain branding, image, continuity in experience and design so as to not overwhelm and confuse customers and would-riders. The purpose of a well-functioning transit system is to move people as efficiently as possible, not to leave people gawking at how to use the damn thing. Keep it simple, for customers’ sakes.

Additionally, if these new BeltLine-lines work well, the performance of this system could improve the current streetcar’s reputation by sticking with the same name. Conversely, using a different name would only alienate the Streetcar.

So not “streetcars,” but Streetcars.

This plan is also not yet set in stone, using only approximate routes that are open to change. It’s still early enough in the planning process where some of the more complicated decisions of where the streetcars will run can be open to discussion and input from the many stakeholders across the City.

So… Does Atlanta really need those 68 miles of streetcars?

Public transit is generally a loss-leader, a social service not meant to generate profits but provide a vital resource and enhance quality of living for any vibrant city. That said, this is an ambitious transit plan for an ambitious city, not just by providing a service but by altering the landscape of the entire city.


Fundamentally, this is a good idea. A transit system along the BeltLine could fundamentally change the very foundation of the city, not just its infrastructure, but its culture, too. If it is done in a way that is pragmatic and practical, and builds on the strengths of this city, the full potential of this project could be harnessed. By not building redundant, overlapping rail lines, capital could be spent to improve or expand another aspect of the system. By using different methods of transit for different areas of the plan, the connectivity of the various corridors of the BeltLine plan can be optimized. Yes, build it and they (read: snake peopl–I mean Millennials–& businesses) will come, but let’s not get carried away.

Take MARTA for example; Keith Parker has lead the transit system into the 21st Century (and into the black) by being pragmatic and practical about the possible improvements for MARTA’s existing services, slowly but surely improving services and customer experience, and all the while making MARTA cool in the process. He also understands the shortcomings of the system and works around them. This is plain to see in his recent comments about MARTA’s collaboration with Uber to connect more people to Atlanta’s trains: “We don’t go everywhere,” he told the AJC. “There are places that don’t make sense for us to add new bus or train service.”

“Trim the fat”

The Atlanta BeltLine and Atlanta Streetcar have the potential not just to fix MARTA’s connectivity shortcomings within intown Atlanta, but also to make Atlanta the world-class city that its leaders and businesses have always wanted it to be, and that its denizens deserve. To do that though, we will need to honest about what is necessary and what is not. Right now this plan is a little flabby; I say we trim the fat. Let’s not just build a transit system on the BeltLine, let’s build an efficient and highly effective one that will be a model for cities across the world.

This is The Atlanta BeltLine, after all. We have a reputation to uphold.

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