Streetcar Critics Can't See the Forest for the Trees

The AJC’s “Gridlock Guy” Mark Arum has weighed in on the streetcar situation again today. His story is more of what we’ve come to see from him: a scathing review showing transit to be a colossal waste of taxpayer money. Mr. Arum is right about the ridership numbers. He’s also right to point out that after the $1 boarding fee went into place, the 90,000 riders for the first three months of this year are far too low for the streetcar route to be considered successful. And finally, he’s right to show that the streetcar has been poorly managed and is rife with operational mistakes and failures.

But using only these points to prove that the entire concept is flawed is an irresponsible exercise in policy making. Let’s remember that the Atlanta streetcar is supposed to be a network of interconnected routes; the plan was never meant to end at building the one line running between downtown and the King Memorial. It’s fine to look at just this route and conclude that if the numbers are low, then this route was a bad idea. It’s completely different to look at it, ignore the fact that the route is just the beginning of a larger planned system, and then conclude that the entire concept is a failure because this particular route has low ridership numbers.

ATL Streetcar

The Atlanta Streetcar on Auburn Ave at Piedmont

Many streetcar and transit supporters, including this site, agreed that this particular line would have low ridership numbers and probably shouldn’t be the first line built to engender support for the project. The route runs through a downtown area with few residents and connects to a historic district that has little capacity to grow much taller or denser. But, again, this was just supposed to be an initial route. If you build part of a road and few people use  it, does that mean the entire planned system of roads is a failure?

The 90,000 riders mentioned by Arum may not even be a good representation of actual ridership numbers. Over the Fourth of July weekend last year the streetcar carried over 20,000 riders. That’s in one weekend. In July alone, the streetcar registered over 102,000 riders. Yes back then it was free, but we’re talking about a difference of $1. Perhaps those who were just testing it out last year because it was new may no longer choose the streetcar, but a $1 fee is still incredibly cheap for those who need or want the transportation.

There’s no question as to whether we’ve seen a decrease in the number of riders since the implementation of the fee this past January, but the decrease has at least been as predicted; not only is it to be expected that ridership would be higher for this tourism-driven line during the summer and lower in the winter, but we should expect some decrease in ridership once a fee goes into place. Still, the average daily ridership since January is half the number predicted, lending credence to the idea that this was a poor choice for a first route.

Now let’s look at economic development. It’s indisputable that the streetcar has directly resulted in some economic development in the immediate area. We’ve seen the same thing happen in cities across the country. Last year, the COO of the Atlanta Streetcar, Michael Geisler, wrote an op-ed defending the streetcar in which he cited 500 million dollars of investment that has already occurred and a planned $700 million more in the area. Now those numbers are certainly up for debate; we don’t know exactly what projects the streetcar directly spurred and, perhaps more importantly, the numbers are usually provided by the private developers so there isn’t much oversight over their accuracy.

Jackson St Property

Presumably the Southeast Capital Property at Jackson and Gartrell Streets

Even if some of the numbers are inflated, there’s still a substantial amount of economic investment that definitively can be tied to the streetcar. Kim Seak, the owner of the Atlantic Seafood Market in the Sweet Auburn Curb Market, told the AJC in an article last December that business had increased 10 percent since the streetcar opened. Jay Clark, CEO of Southeast Capital Companies, told the AJC that the streetcar drove his decision to build a proposed $50 million housing complex in the Edgewood Avenue area. Those are just two examples.

The resulting economic growth is something that must be discussed when analyzing and critiquing the streetcar system. If you spend $100 million on a transit project and it results in $500 million in economic investment then you are getting a pretty good return. The neighborhoods get upgrades in infrastructure and the city increases its tax base. Mr. Arum completely fails to take this into consideration. I’m not so sure fixing potholes and adding left turn lanes would result in the same return on investment.

One point that’s continually brought up by anti-transit proponents is the fact that transit doesn’t pay for itself. Based on the latest ridership numbers a $1 fare will not completely support the streetcar. For those proponents, this is a fatal flaw in transit. But isn’t this exactly how highways work? The closest things to user fees paid by drivers is the gas tax and tolls.


“Do not worry. You have always ridden before and you will ride now. All you have to do is ride one true streetcar. Ride the truest streetcar you know.” -Earnest Highway, on the Atlanta Streetcar


The revenue generated from those mechanisms doesn’t come anywhere close to completely funding the highway system. Additional tax revenue is needed to construct and maintain our roads. Many drivers are willing to tell transit users that they must fund transit themselves by the sole means of implementing user fees. The same drivers are unwilling to fund highways and roads this way.

The streetcar isn’t just about alleviating traffic in downtown Atlanta. It’s about building better communities that have multiple transportation options so as to allow more people to live and work in the area. Expanding MARTA rail or building billion-dollar highway projects isn’t going to magically ease traffic congestion. It is going to allow more people to live in the area and potentially grow the economy while attempting to mitigate any additional congestion, just like the streetcar. Solely using the ridership numbers for the initial route to come to a conclusion about the entire concept is completely missing the point of the streetcar project.

5 replies »

  1. Streetcars are struggling all over the US. They are expensive, slow, and when they break down (frequently) they shut down the entire line for hours and have to take people to their destinations on buses.

    Fixed rail transit is a 19th century concept. High speed, dedicated lane rail transit may provide a coat benefit and convenience that mixed traffic rail cannot, but it most cases, buses will forever be the backbone of public transit and city leaders should be more responsible with our money.

    • Thanks for the comment Bryan. Yes I agree that buses are the backbone, but all forms of transportation are needed and all forms of transportation break down. Highways get holes and deteriorate, bridges collapse, and buses and cars break down quite frequently. Dedicated light rail would be ideal, but it is much more expensive than streetcars and requires vacant land.

      In many cases streetcars are actually cheaper to operate than buses in the long run. BeyondDC has a great graphic on this:

      I think you can find examples across the country of successes and failures. Tucson’s streetcar, for example, has exceeded expectations and helped completely revitalize downtown. And there, of course, are examples of failures as well.

      We have to spend money on all forms of infrastructure. We easily spend tends of millions of dollars re-configuring the interchange at Ashford-Dunwoody and 285 and traffic is still horrendous and we don’t challenge any of those projects. Cops are needed every evening at that intersection to direct traffic.

  2. You could also mention that the City chose this line for another good, forward looking reason: this line contained much of the property the City would use as maintenance sheds for the Streetcar. Seems obvious you would need to start there, and that it would be cheapest to put the maintenance sheds in perhaps the less well-off areas, which is exactly what they did. It’s forward-looking, which as you have pointed out here is sadly too much for some folks to digest.

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