Atlanta, Georgia, is boasting a new vehicle-on-rails-in-the-street the city is calling the Atlanta Streetcar, so marked, painted, and advertised. As the marketing promises, it is truly a wonderful vehicle, connecting the National Park Service’s Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site with Centennial Park and Georgia State University and downtown in between. Hiking between any of these pairs is a good walk, but more than that from end to end.
Atlanta Streetcar opposite Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site
This railed people mover moves quickly enough when traffic permits, without the emissions and noise of carbon fueled vehicles, utterly quiet – thus posing yet another hazard to the ear-bud impaired and cell phone compulsive-addicted. As a well-connected people mover, it is a real asset to the city. But it is not a streetcar.
The nostalgic appeal to the common streetcar notwithstanding (streetcars are very much alive and well in thriving North American cities like Philadelphia, Boston, Toronto, Pittsburgh, Charlotte, and a major tourist attraction all their own in New Orleans), this railed vehicle employs a technology which bears only scant resemblance to the streetcars found everywhere in the first half of the last century.
Contemporary city systems thrive because their older technology has been renewed, revised, and rebuilt. Other cities, like Atlanta, actively destroyed their older systems to make way for those who could afford automobiles. Their 50-year old systems usually needed extensive reinvestment and renovation to serve contemporary needs, were usually operated by undercapitalized private enterprise that needed more profit than an unsupported public utility could provide, and many Americans were more excited about driving their automobile as far and as fast as they pleased than in pedestrian mobility.
A recent visit to Los Angeles found much lamenting of the old Pacific Electric, now totally gone. Once the largest electric railway system in the world, with 4-track mainlines and high speed, frequent service on routes to far-flung destinations in Southern California, Angelinos first built the PE, then expressways along the PE, then expressways in place of the PE, at a time when most citizens still did not have cars. Such were the political and economic pressures of the day.
However, while the PE did a marvelous job moving thousands of people and its rights-of-way were irreplaceable, the truth is that current standards of comfort and service would not tolerate the Red Cars. The expressway system of the 1950′s and 1960′s, themselves employing now outdated technology, may not work so well either, but that new Lexus still feels good inside.
Atlanta streetcar, Peachtree St., 1944.*
The Atlanta Streetcar is no Lexus – in fact, a bit utilitarian — but it is much closer to present-day standards of comfort and quiet. More importantly, it represents an almost wholly new technology with the aim of knitting back together our cities fragmented by the automobile. With the infelicitous name “light rail vehicle (LRV)” (no wonder they called it something else), this technology represents a new/old way of thinking about and living in the city, one that is mobile, connected, safer, and can dramatically reduce our utter dependence on the auto.
The Atlanta Streetcar, as an articulated vehicle, actually lacks some of the nimbleness of the old streetcar. Its proposed $1 fare may be fine for tourists with small families but prohibitive for GSU students or daily commuters. Likewise its lack of an interconnected fare structure with MARTA. Its raised platforms permit speedy boarding/unloading, but sacrifice the increased connectedness of corner stops. Fifteen minutes is too long to wait for a car (the old streetcar slogan: “Always one in sight.”). It is not yet a system. It needs its planned connections to the Beltline, Midtown, and on Peachtree. Its biggest drawback, lack of an override control on numerous stoplights, has already been resolved by MARTA buses on select routes. But these are flaws of a new prototype, easily corrected.
The Atlanta Streetcar is not the streetcar of old, and it is only new to Atlanta. Other cities are using its technology quite successfully. But it is here finally, and it is the future.
*This car actually exists and operates at the Seashore Trolley Museum in Connecticut.