Could Atlanta Once Again Become A Streetcar City?

Mar 3, 2016

Picture it: an Atlanta where nobody drives.

At the turn of the 20th century, that was—obviously—the case. So, how did people get around? Between 1871 and about 1910 the answer was primarily by streetcar.

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At its height, more than 200 miles of streetcar track crisscrossed the city, from College Park up to Marietta, and from Westview Cemetery over to Stone Mountain.

And as the city today presents a proposal to expand its current 2.7 miles of streetcar to more than 50, it’s worth remembering that the two streetcar systems, separated by decades, have one thing in common.

As A.J. Robinson, of the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District explains, it comes down to two little words: economic development.

“The streetcar was never to us seen as this ‘somehow we’re going to solve all the traffic congestions of Atlanta,’" Robinson said. "We are primarily interested in the value of the economic development.”

In other words: improving the tax base and standard of living in places where the streetcar runs. That’s a principle goal of the streetcar today, and it was also the goal back in the 1870s, when Atlanta Streetcar version 1.0 was getting its start.

“The first operating charter was issued in 1871 to the Atlanta Street and Railway Company … and that was operated by two former railroad men turned real estate developers,” historian Patrick Sullivan with New South Associates said.

Back then, the aim of the Atlanta streetcar was to turn the forests and fields surrounding downtown into viable real estate.

“East Atlanta, Virginia Highlands, Grant Park ... essentially, the suburbs that ring downtown Atlanta all predominantly owe their existence to streetcar development,” Sullivan said.

Looking at a map of the old streetcar lines is a lot like looking at a map of Atlanta today. That’s because streetcar companies were required to pave where they built, and those paved lines became many of the streets we know and love—or don’t love—driving each day today.

But could it happen again?

“I think that would be a possibility in a city that has yet to be built,” said Michael Dobbins, an architecture professor at Georgia State, and former Planning Commissioner with the city of Atlanta under Mayor Bill Campbell.

At the turn of the 20th century, the streetcar was drawing Atlanta’s map. But now, he says, Atlanta already has a map, which would make it difficult for the streetcar to have nearly the same economic impact.

"The historic streetcars … pretty much paid for themselves, with a combination of fare and rising property values," Dobbins said. "We already have high property values. We don’t have a lot of uptick that a streetcar’s going to contribute to."

Dobbins says Atlanta would be better served by investigating other transit modes that he says might be a better fit for 21st century Atlanta, like improved bus service.

Tom Weyandt helped plan Atlanta’s current streetcar loop as former senior transportation policy advisor to Mayor Kasim Reed. He says that yes, buses should be part of Atlanta’s transportation picture. But he adds, buses don’t "necessarily provide the incentive for the kind of economic development and economic investment that a fixed guide-way facility provides."

Weyendt says streetcar lines can entice new businesses and housing, as well as the sort of foot traffic that helps to "humanize a street." And it can happen today, in the 21st century, just as it did in the 19th and 20th.

Click here for the next story in this two-part series.