Atlanta’s streetcar plan puts some folks in the slow lane

The news that Atlanta approved a multibillion-dollar streetcar network wasn’t surprising. But one seemingly small detail stands out as an example of so much that’s wrong in the transit debate — and why transit often falls short of its lofty expectations.

You see, this summer I got a wild hair to go see my Atlanta City Council in action. The subject was the proposed expansion of the Atlanta Streetcar from a 2.7-mile loop no one wants to ride to a 50-mile network of criss-crossing lines that somewhat more people might want to ride, if they were too tired to walk and couldn’t find an Uber.

As someone who has written several times that there's nothing wrong per se with transit, just with the ways transit advocates seem determined to do it, what caught my attention was a complaint by Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms. She was not pleased the Beltline did not touch her district, a fact of geography to which she seemed to have reluctantly reconciled herself. But she was particularly steamed the 11th District would also be unserved by the other 28 miles of streetcar routes.

“I’m just completely perplexed that we are still being left out,” Bottoms said. “Where’s the consideration for the Cascade area, for the Campbellton Road area, for the Greenbriar (Mall) area?”

As I listened, I wondered if someone would tell her the truth: that a streetcar isn’t what people in those areas want.

Oh, they might think they want it, if they've never spent much time on one. But I have.

For four and a half years, when I lived in Brussels, I took a streetcar to and from work every day. My 3-mile commute each way took about 25 minutes, what with the frequent stops, traffic lights, stalled cars and congestion in a shared lane — all problems Atlanta’s streetcars will face, except on the Beltline. The trip often took longer; had it done so consistently, I’d have stopped riding.

For good measure, earlier this year I rode the entire Atlanta Streetcar loop. It took about 40 minutes.

So there are few commuting options I can imagine disliking more than moving at streetcar speed along the 5 miles of Campbellton Road between Greenbriar Mall and the Beltline. That could take a full hour, and for most riders it’d be only the first segment.

At that June meeting, Paul Morris, CEO of Atlanta Beltline Inc., told Bottoms much the same thing: “The modeling and the analysis showed the utility of (a Campbellton Road) line was difficult to, from an operations and ridership standpoint, make work. So that (line) was converted from a streetcar line to a higher-capacity bus route.”

But “bus” is a dirty word among transit fans, as Bottoms’ reaction reflected. It’s not a trendy, shiny object like a streetcar. It’s just often the most economical, flexible mode to employ, and the one that riders would actually appreciate the most if it were done right.

Now, back to the plan approved this month. No prizes if you guessed it includes a line running down Campbellton Road to Greenbriar Mall.

I suppose that line’s inclusion would fit nicely in the kind of glossy magazine an ambitious politician might send outside her district in the name of attracting votes — I mean, investments. But the people of southwest Atlanta who think they’re getting a good, modern connection to the rest of the city will probably be disappointed.