Atlanta Looks To Portland As A Model For Its Streetcar

Mar 4, 2016

As Atlanta looks to expand its 2.7 mile streetcar loop to more than 50 miles, one inspiration is the city of Portland, Oregon. 

Portland takes pride in its 16-mile streetcar system, which claims some 15,000 riders a day. Since its own ribbon-cutting in 2001, Portland has inspired cities across the country, from Dallas, to Cleveland, to Charlotte, to launch streetcar systems of their own, in the name of economic development.

Oh, and Atlanta, too.

“There was just massive residential, commercial revitalization,” says Tom Weyandt of the Portland model. As Mayor Kasim Reed’s former senior transportation policy advisor, Weyandt was part of the team that found inspiration in the economic revival Portland’s downtown has seen around its streetcar in recent years.

“There was no question,” he says, “that [this was] in areas that, in all likelihood, would not have seen the development absent the streetcar.”

Portland claims it has seen $2.3 billion in private investment within three blocks of its streetcar line since its route was announced.

But the meaning behind that figure is up for debate, says Jeffrey Brown, an urban planning professor at Florida State University, who has studied a number of the new streetcar systems in recent years.

He says Portland tracked development near its streetcar, and then credited that development to the streetcar. However, he says, that development could have been caused by things like zoning regulations and financial incentives that encouraged development along Portland’s streetcar route.

He cautions other city officials against thinking a streetcar alone can revitalize a district.

A.J. Robinson, president of the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District, says that the Atlanta Streetcar is already reviving downtown. He credits the first streetcar loop with $2 billion in development either in-progress or completed nearby.

“We have a tremendous amount of energy going on around Centennial Olympic Park, and just unbelievable visitation," Robinson says. "And if you want to get off at the curb market, which people have rediscovered, there’s a tremendous uptick in business.”

Sweet Auburn Grocery owner Tegegne Haile says the store hasn't seen an uptick in business since Atlanta's Streetcar started.
Credit Kate Sweeney / WABE

WABE paid a recent visit to the curb market — now known as Municipal Market — on Edgewood Avenue, where we met Ingue Kim.

Kim has run his Country Produce store here for 13 years. His store's displays of fruits and vegetables is the first sight that greets visitors when they set foot inside, steps away from the streetcar stop. And Kim says many of them, especially tourists, like what he has to offer.

“They like homegrown and fresh," Kim says. "Walnut, pecan, homegrown honey.”

He has now started stocking more items like peaches and peanuts to appeal to tourists seeking Georgia items.

A few blocks down the streetcar line is Sweet Auburn Grocery, a general convenience store. There, owner Tegegne Haile sits at the counter, as he has done for 28 years.

“You don’t see tourists come in this store. And I don’t see no foot traffic. So I don’t see no marked improvement in my business,” he says.

He used to get customers from the Silver Moon Barbershop next door, which had been there since 1904. But the historic barbershop closed in 2012, during the streetcar’s construction.

“That place being closed has affected my business,” he says.

He’s hopeful that new apartments under construction nearby will bring him a different kind of business soon — students and professionals.

And it is largely that youthful demographic — who are flocking to hip cities like Portland, Oregon — that the streetcar expansion plan is bent on attracting.

“The city is changing," says Weyandt. "It’s attracting new kinds of people, and therefore it has new kinds of transportation demands. I don’t suggest that the streetcar is the answer, but it’s a piece of the answer.”