Atlanta used to have extensive public transit, actually

Vintage photos and a brief history of Atlanta’s public transit heyday

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Atlanta used to have extensive public transit, actually
Two operators and passengers on an Atlanta Consolidated Street Railroad Company electric streetcar in 1896. Streetcars were generally run by a two-person crew, but Georgia Power Company cut costs by switching to one-person crews in the 1920s, taking advantage of weak labor unions in the South.

Photograph courtesy of the Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center

Of the many subjects Atlantans love to argue over—who has the best lemon pepper wings, the term “Hotlanta,” whether the Hawks will ever win anything—public transportation is always at the top of the list. As we reported in our February issue, the plan to build light rail on the BeltLine has drawn opinions from all corners of the city: Advocates say it will provide desperately needed alternatives to cars, while critics say it will only cause more crowding on the pedestrian paths.

It may be hard to imagine today, when gridlock traffic is synonymous with Atlanta, but riding public transit was once the norm. For the first half of the twentieth century, Atlanta’s public transportation system rivaled even that of bigger Northern cities like Baltimore and Pittsburgh. By 1928, the city’s streetcar system was so extensive, you could hop on in East Point and ride up to North Druid Hills, only changing trains once. Before cars became ubiquitous and city planners carpeted the city with multi-lane highways, Atlantans rode public transportation to work, school, shopping and entertainment. They didn’t all do it together: Atlanta’s streetcars and trolleys were strictly segregated until Civil Rights activists integrated them in 1959, and transit routes often favored riders in white neighborhoods. Racism underlies the long history of public transportation in Atlanta and shaped the system as we know it today.

Here, a brief look at the city’s former streetcar system and why Atlanta’s public transit had such a decline.

Atlanta used to have extensive public transit, actually
Operator Jesse S. Kirk aboard an Atlanta & Edgewood Street Railroad Company streetcar in front of the company’s trolley barn in 1889. The building, now an events space, is still standing in its original location in Inman Park.

The first electric streetcars

“Atlanta must move in the matter of rapid transit,” proclaimed an Atlanta Constitution editorial in 1889. The city was growing, and demand for transportation was outstripping horse-drawn trolley cars. People wanted the glamorous technology of the future: electric streetcars.

Later that year, the Atlanta & Edgewood Street Railroad Co. responded to the call. Its first electric streetcar, accommodating about 20 passengers, ran from Five Points to Inman Park. Powered by electricity through an overhead cable, it ran along a fixed railroad track at a dizzying 10 miles per hour, around twice as fast as horse trolleys (and requiring much less hay). Competitors soon followed, adding miles of streetcar lines around the city in a free-market bonanza with little oversight from the city, and hawking their routes to potential riders. “The nine-mile circle ride of the Consolidated line is a delightfully cool one,” advised an ad in the Constitution. “The schedule is a good one, and one can be taken on Peachtree or Houston Street every fifteen minutes.” Georgia Power Company consolidated most of the market by 1902, and Atlanta became known for its timely and efficient public transit.

From the beginning, however, Black Atlantans experienced a second-class transit system. Streetcar lines ran abundantly between Black and white neighborhoods, in part because Black service workers rode them to work in white homes. But the state segregated the streetcars in 1890, and empowered white conductors to enforce the law, even by gunpoint. In the 1920s, Black businessmen launched a jitney bus service that ran similar routes as the streetcar to save Black riders from the humiliations of Jim Crow, but Atlanta City Council broke it up. Public transit remained segregated until 1959, when a movement by local Black ministers won legal integration; the transit company hired its first Black drivers two years later.

Atlanta used to have extensive public transit, actually
A streetcar travels through an Atlanta neighborhood during an ice storm around 1936. Streetcar routes often favored wealthier, mostly white communities, one of the reasons the city’s public transit system fell apart when these passengers switched to cars.

Photograph courtesy of the Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center

Atlanta used to have extensive public transit, actually
Public transit, cars, and pedestrians co-exist along South Broad Street in downtown Atlanta in 1925, with the famous Rich’s Department Store visible in the background. Urban planning that focused heavily on automobiles led to the demise of public transportation in Atlanta.

Photograph courtesy of the Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center

A postwar boom, then bust

As photos of early 20th-century Atlanta make clear, the city wasn’t always glutted by traffic: cars shared the street with pedestrians and light rail. Wealthy Atlantans began migrating to cars in the 1920s, but public transit ridership didn’t peak until the late 1940s. Georgia Power Company had swapped out the aging streetcars for trolley coaches—electric busses powered by an overhead cable. Faster, roomier, and with innovations like forced air (a precursor to air conditioning), Atlanta’s new state-of-the-art trolley system was one of the biggest in the country. And it was run—Georgia’s business class loved to boast—as a profitable private business, unlike the state-run systems in New York and Chicago.

The years after World War II were boom times for Atlanta’s public transit: In 1946, trolleys transported 154 million riders—not bad for a metro population of less than a million. (In 2019, before the Covid-19 upended public transit nationwide, MARTA’s total ridership, including buses, was 125 million.) Just a few years later, however, transit began its long decline. What happened? The private sector model is partly to blame, says Nicholas Bloom, author of The Great American Transit Disaster.

“The geography of Atlanta meant that private companies were pretty profitable without government help,” he explains; Atlanta isn’t surrounded by water or big hills, so companies could lay track without building expensive tunnels. Georgia officials mostly ignored public transit, pouring public dollars into highways instead. By the time MARTA took over transit as a public agency in 1972, the car had already won the fight for metro Atlanta. Business leaders eager to revitalize downtown emphasized construction of heavy rail trains, which underperformed and pulled resources from bus networks, more useful for daily commuters, especially those in lower-income, majority-Black neighborhoods that had been largely shut out from trains.

Since public transit’s decline, nearly every attempt to expand it has been met with ferocious opposition, from transit skeptics who think it’s a waste of taxpayer money to homeowners concerned about outsiders coming to their neighborhoods. “It is uncomfortable to admit it,” Bloom writes, “but Americans and their political representatives kneecapped mass transit.”

Atlanta used to have extensive public transit, actually
A busy afternoon on Broad Street in 1949, when Atlanta’s state-of-the-art trolley system was one of the biggest in the country.

Photograph courtesy of the Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center

A public transit future?

Supporters hope that BeltLine light rail could help turn the tide on Atlanta public transit. We’ll likely never be a world-class city for transportation—Bloom notes there’s been too much development to reverse engineer a public transit system—but he sees many opportunities to get people out of the cars into other modes of transportation. “There are multimodal forms of transportation—e-bikes, ridesharing, electric scooters, those are all popular alternatives,” he says.

He thinks public transit advocates should be patient in their quest to transform Atlanta’s car culture, and focus on the long game: “It took Atlanta 80 years to get to this point—it will take another half century to make it a more transit-oriented place.”

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