Streetcar is cool, but will it be useful?

When a new public transit technology comes to a city, it’s a chance for everyone to think again about transit. People who think they’d never ride transit often give the new technology a try. Sometimes, the results can change the city for the better, and create new possibilities for transit all over the city.

All those hopes cling to the new Atlanta Streetcar. As in other cities that have built modern streetcars including my hometown of Portland, Ore., the hope is that the pleasant experience of riding the streetcar will make people value transit as a whole, as well as making downtown a more attractive place to live, shop, work and play.

The modern streetcar movement, which began with Portland’s streetcar in 2000, has always been about the emotions that streetcars generate. They’re as sleek as an airplane, yet they remind us of the vast streetcar networks that existed a century ago. The emotional genius of streetcars, then, is that they’re futuristic and nostalgic at the same time, and that’s enough to charm almost anyone. A tech-obsessed teenager can ride with his grandmother who recalls the streetcars of old, and both will feel their heartstrings pulled.

But streetcars present a risk: With all that excitement on the part of everyone involved, it’s easy to forget that transit must also be useful.

The Atlanta Streetcar line will be only 1.3 miles long from end to end, and a streetcar will come every 15 minutes if everything’s on time. So if you just missed one, should you really wait? Or should you just start walking?

It depends on your walking speed, but for most people, when going such a short distance, service every 15 minutes is just not worth waiting for. Start walking! You will often get to your destination before the streetcar comes.

As you walk, maybe the streetcar will overtake you and you can hop on. That’s nice, but notice what you’ve just proven. If you’re going to use the streetcar to get somewhere on time – a job, a meeting, a day care pickup – you have to allow enough time to walk the whole way. In that case, what has the streetcar accomplished?

It’s fun, it’s sleek, it will be helpful to those who can’t or don’t want to walk. But is it useful?

If you usually get around by car, it’s easy to miss this point. In transit, frequency is freedom. Motorists (and cyclists) have a vehicle that’s ready to go when they are. Only when transit competes with that convenience — with a vehicle that’s always coming soon — does it begin to be relevant to the lives of people who value their time, and thus to the life of the city.

Jarrett Walker is an international consultant in public transit planning and author of “Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives.”

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