The Atlanta Streetcar is good for tourists. What about regular commuters?

I rode the streetcar to work for a week. Here’s what I learned.
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Atlanta Streetcar

There’s little doubt that the Atlanta Streetcar, which finally started service a few weeks ago, will be a good thing for the city’s tourism business. Its 2.7-mile loop connects all those Centennial Olympic Park attractions—Coke! CNN! Civil Rights! Fish! Football! Ferris wheel!—with the King Historic District, which on its own merits draws more than a million visitors each year. The trolley gives tourists and conventioneers staying in the hotels clustered around Peachtree Center an easy way to get from the hotel district to spots like the Sweet Auburn Curb Market.

The streetcar could also offer some assistance to “local tourists.” Families might take MARTA from the suburbs to Peachtree Center and hop on the streetcar to reach the aquarium, for instance. Downtown parking annoyance and expense avoided! Brookhaven or Doraville dwelling Millennials might catch the trolley to bars on Edgewood Avenue (the homeward journey for late-night revelers would still require Uber).

But what about everyday use? Is the streetcar a practical option for people who live and work within walking distance of its 12 stops? People like me for instance. My Cabbagetown loft is a few miles from Atlanta magazine’s office near Peachtree Center. It’s a brisk 35-minute walk, great on breezy spring days, wretched in winter or mid-summer. By car, the trip varies from a zippy 15 minutes to an aggravating 45, depending on traffic, convention crowds, and construction. I tried commuting by MARTA when I first moved to Cabbagetown, but it was frustrating. The walk to the King Memorial station requires a trek through a creepy tunnel (more on that shortly) and down super-busy DeKalb Avenue. Then the trip requires either a transfer at Five Points or a long walk through downtown, all adding up to at least an hour. But I crave an alternative to driving. Watching from my car as the streetcar construction went on (and on and on), the trolley route seemed like a plausible option. Here’s what I learned testing it last week.

Monday, January 12

I head out in the chilly fog. It’s a little over half a mile from my loft to the King Historic District streetcar stop, where several people wait. Says one man: “It’s fast once it shows up.” Which it does—after 10 minutes. Inside the car, I count 12 other passengers, including two men in trench coats and expensive-looking loafers and a handful of people who look like they’re riding to get off the cold streets. We reach Peachtree Center in about 10 minutes, and I walk a quarter mile to get to the Atlanta magazine office. Total trip time: 41 minutes. Tweets skimmed: about 50. Tweets posted: 4. Emails answered: 2.

Heading out at the end of the day, I realize that the best stop on the homeward route is Park Place—or twice as far from my office as Peachtree Center. No one else is at the stop and I board a nearly empty car. One of my fellow passengers works in marketing for the streetcar. “The handrails are made out of an anti-microbial material,” he tells me. Good to know. Total trip time: 50 minutes.

Tuesday, January 13

Despite efforts to improve appearance and safety, the Boulevard Tunnel remains unpleasant.
Despite efforts to improve appearance and safety, the Boulevard Tunnel remains unpleasant.

Rebecca Burns

To reach my outbound stop at the corner of Jackson Street and Auburn Avenue, I have to walk through the Boulevard underpass tunnel, which unlike its counterpart at Krog Street is not so much a hipster street art destination as a latrine/dump. Despite efforts to brighten the tunnel with a mural and improve safety with lighting and security cameras, it remains dank and filthy. On the plus side, this means I walk really fast.

The streetcar shows up moments after I reach the stop. Again there are about a dozen passengers; again a mix of students, workers, and folks seemingly seeking warmth. We zip along and then . . . the trolley stops. We sit there. And sit for a few more minutes. SUVs and cars have pulled into the intersection and blocked our tracks.

I tap on the glass door and ask the driver if he can let me out so I can walk the rest of the way. No, he says.

My fellow passengers grow equally restless. “Can’t you blow your horn or something?” asks a stocky woman wearing a puffy jacket and a visor. She’s anxious about getting to work late.

There’s a break in traffic and we creep through the intersection, only to stop again. Cars are backed up in front of us; because the streetcar shares a lane with automobiles, there’s nothing we can do. The driver gets on the radio, checking to see if there’s an accident ahead. (Later, I learn via Twitter that a Georgia State student crashed into a ticket machine at the entrance to a parking deck, causing the backup.)

“Can you let us out?” asks the woman in the puffy jacket.

“No, I’m not allowed to let you out between stops. It’s not safe to let people out in the middle of the street,” the driver says.

“It’s not the middle of the street. The sidewalk is right there,” she says, pointing out the window.

A young man peers out the window at gridlock. “This is my first time riding the streetcar. It will be the last,” he says. He normally walks from his home on Edgewood Avenue to catch a MARTA train at Peachtree Center. He calls his boss to explain he’ll be late. “I thought this would be faster. I was wrong,” he says.

We crawl forward. The automated voice on the sound system informs us that we are approaching the Woodruff Park stop. As the cars glide open, a few passengers cheer and clap and almost everyone exits. The woman in the puffy jacket sprints away at remarkable speed  I follow at a brisk clip and pass the Peachtree Center stop before the streetcar reaches it. Total travel time: One hour and three minutes.

It’s raining hard when I leave work, and I’m glad for the shelter of the Park Place stop, and even happier when I hear the digitized clang clang clang of the trolley. After the morning’s misadventure, the ride home is uneventful, and I’m grateful to be sitting in the warm car and not staring at wipers on my car windshield. Total trip time: 36 minutes.

Wednesday, January 14

Commuting by Atlanta Streetcar turned out to take about the same time as walking the few miles from my home to my office.
Commuting by streetcar turned out to take about the same time as walking the few miles from my home to my office.

On this foggy morning, the walk to my stop is easy and the streetcar shows up soon. We zip along Auburn Avenue; blessedly there is no repeat of the previous day’s traffic snarl. As we pull into the stop at Woodruff Park, I’m confident that this trip will set a time record. Then the driver asks a young man sitting in the back row to exit. He ignores her. One of the Downtown Ambassadors comes on board. “Sir, we have to ask you to leave,” she repeats at least five times. Eventually the young man gets out of the seat, hikes up his baggy jeans, and stomps off. The Ambassador glances at two other passengers near the rear of the car. “I just got on,” a man says, and gestures toward the woman sitting across the aisle from him. “She got on after Centennial.” The Ambassador nods at him, and then at the driver, and we pull off. As I head toward the door, I ask her what happened. She says that although streetcar rides are free for now, operators are trying to reinforce the concept that there will be a fare at some point, making people exit after riding one loop of the route. “It will help them get used to having to pay for one trip,” she says. It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to determine that MARTA, attractions,  and businesses want to prevent the streetcar from becoming a haven for the homeless, a mobile form of downtown’s libraries and parks. Total trip time: 38 minutes.

I work late, and that evening it’s cold, cloudy, and dark when I rush down Peachtree. When the trolley clangs in the distance, I break into a trot across Woodruff Park, arriving at my stop just as the streetcar pulls in. There are about 20 people on board, and for the first time this week, my fellow riders appear to include several clusters of tourists. “I see the Ferris wheel!” a little girl squeals. “No, that’s the big Coca-Cola sign,” explains her mom. “Oooh,” says the girl, her face pressed to the window. Total trip time: 35 minutes.

Thursday, January 15

I teach a class at UGA on Thursday afternoons, and this week I have an appointment before class, so I head straight to Athens from home, rather than driving downtown for the morning. Heading up mist-shrouded 78, I wish for the thousandth time that the plans for a “Brain Train” connecting Atlanta’s universities with Athens had not stagnated. Driving home that night in steady rain with temperatures dropping, that wish grows more fervent.

Friday, January 16

In the morning, the rain has stopped, but the parking lot and driveways of our loft complex are coated with a sheer layer of ice. Normally on a day like this, I’d either work at home a bit waiting for the ice to melt before driving in, or bundle up and walk. Today, I pull on a heavy scarf and head to the streetcar stop. Everything goes smoothly, and I get to work in 33 minutes, faster (and warmer) than walking, and free from the angst of navigating iced roads in Atlanta.

It’s much warmer when I leave work that evening, and the walk through downtown is pleasant. I reach Park Place a few minutes ahead of the streetcar and its clanging chime triggers a happy Pavlovian response. Among the 20 passengers, I spot a few tourists, along with a group that appears to be locals. They get out at my homebound stop—Edgewood and Hilliard—and head for Harold’s Chicken and Ice Bar. Total travel time: 37 minutes.

So, am I trading in my Civic for a trolley?

The result of this test is a resounding . . . maybe. Using the streetcar takes longer than driving. But on the plus side, I like being able to catch up on Twitter and email, and love not having to hunt for a spot in the parking deck. Yes, getting trapped in traffic in the streetcar was frustrating, but in my decade of commuting downtown, I’ve had plenty of vexing experiences stuck behind conventioneers, blocked by construction crews, or forced on detours thanks to parades and festivals. Sure, it might be healthiest to simply walk every day. But the combination of walking and riding the streetcar takes about the same amount of time, while providing a break from the weather and—yes, I’ll concede to iPhone addiction—a chance to catch up with communication at the start and end of the day.

Like most Atlantans who want to switch to mass transit, the question I face is not really about getting to and from work on the streetcar: I’m pretty convinced it works for me. But, just as when I commuted by MARTA when I lived in Avondale Estates, I’ll sometimes need to get around town during the day to places that aren’t easily reached by MARTA. Some meetings, reporting trips, or after-work plans will require me to bring my car to work (and pay to park) or fork over cash for cabs and Uber. That’s a frustration that can’t be pinned on the streetcar, but on Atlanta’s overall lack of transit options.

For now, I’m planning to use the streetcar as often as I can. Thanks to the few months of free service, I can do that while hanging on to my downtown parking spot without any budget implications. In March, I’ll decide whether to make the switch permanent. In the meantime, I’ll post the occasional Tweet about my experience. And if you’re riding the trolley, I’d love to hear how it’s going for you.

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