Six lessons from riding the Atlanta Streetcar for eight weeks

For starters, if you spend $98 million on the thing, why not run it more frequently?

Since January 12, I’ve made the Atlanta Streetcar my primary commute option. This experiment amounted to 25 workday commutes by trolley, for a total of 47 trips. (Shouldn’t that be 50 trips, you ask? Indeed. But a few times I walked one leg of the route—not voluntarily. More on that shortly.)

So, what’s it been like?

First, the hard data. I logged door-to-door travel time from my loft in Cabbagetown to Atlanta magazine’s office near Peachtree Center. This includes walking to and from stops, waiting for the streetcar, and the actual trolley ride itself. Average trip time: 35 minutes in the morning; 36 minutes in the evening. The fastest trip was an evening commute of just 21 minutes. The longest was a morning ride that dragged on over an hour because of an intersection-blocking traffic snafu. (You can read more about that drama in my log of this experiment’s first week.)

To put the trip times in perspective, walking the roughly two-mile route ranges from 35 minutes (wearing jeans and flats) to 40 minutes (pencil skirt and heels). Driving is unpredictable. Some days bring zippy 10-minute trips; on other occasions it’s taken an hour in total travel time, thanks to convention hordes and our overcrowded parking deck. Taking a MARTA train or bus would require transfers and even more walking—on even grittier stretches of urban terrain than my streetcar commute involves.

streetcar_rburnsNow, the qualitative analysis. Overall, I’ve enjoyed the streetcar commute. It’s less stressful than driving and infinitely less taxing than dealing with downtown parking. On the streetcar, I can catch up on email, read articles for work, and keep up with Twitter. I enjoy chatting with fellow passengers and walking through downtown, especially now when the weather’s improving and the daffodils are budding in Woodruff Park.

The streetcar also spares me from walking below the Downtown Connector—nowhere I’d choose to walk alone after dark. On several occasions when I worked late, I was happy to be able to ride home in the warm, well-lit trolley—with a watchful Downtown Ambassador sitting nearby—instead of navigating that underpass at night.

So far, I’ve experienced only a few glitches beyond the aforementioned hour-plus traffic snarl. One day, we halted for a mysterious 10-minute “technical difficulty,” but thanks to the intervention of an Ambassador, we were allowed to disembark even though we weren’t at a platform. The worst experience was this past Tuesday morning, when electrical problems put the system on the fritz. I only learned of the delay through Twitter, and chose to walk, thankful I’d decided to wear boots that day, what with the heavy rain and the gentleman urinating on Auburn Avenue. Most delays have been caused by other drivers, not the streetcar operators. Once we waited for 5 minutes at the King Historic stop while a funeral home’s hearses maneuvered out of the streetcar lane.

The number of riders has inched up over the weeks, but I’ve never been on a car with more than 25 other people; it’s usually about a dozen—in a car that can seat 60 and carry up to 195. (One night I rode home alone. “I chose to think of this as my personal $98 million limo,” I told my husband.) In the mornings, I wait at the King Historic District stop along with senior citizens from nearby Wheat Street Towers and a few other Cabbagetown/Old Fourth Ward commuters. En route, we pick up Georgia State University students. In the evening, the mix changes, with a few tourists, more GSU students, and twentysomethings headed for Edgewood Avenue. Morning and evening there are always a few riders who appear to be homeless—or at least compelled to carry all their belongings on the trolley.

By my back-of-the-napkin math, there are only a couple hundred working-age residents who could plausibly use the Atlanta Streetcar for regular commuting as I’ve been doing. On its western end, the 2.7-mile route loops through mostly commercial and tourist districts, and the eastern end, despite a few apartment and loft complexes, remains relatively sparsely populated. The streetcar connects sections of Georgia State’s urban campus, but students also have a school-run shuttle service.

Boosters say the streetcar will transport more people around downtown, connect riders to the larger MARTA system, and bring business to struggling areas of town. If they want to come close to that, here are six things they should consider doing:

StreetcarSign1. Run the cars more frequently.
Right now, the cars are scheduled to run every 15 minutes. That’s ridiculous—and the reason it’s faster to walk. This morning, workers installing a ticket machine at my stop told me I’d just missed the streetcar. I had to get to a meeting on time, so I opted to walk, and kept on walking when I heard the trolley coming up Auburn Avenue behind me. I reached the Peachtree Center stop ahead of the streetcar.

Making the streetcar efficient to ride is the most important step to making it successful. After spending $98 million on the system, it doesn’t make any sense to adopt a penny-foolish strategy that limits trip frequency. Locals won’t ride regularly if they don’t see time-savings. Tourists will be far more likely to rave about the experience to their friends at home they didn’t have lengthy waits. And they’d be way more willing to hop off at a stop to check out nearby businesses if they felt confident that another car would be along soon. This I know from listening to tourists debate the very idea.

 2. Scale back those interminable waits at Centennial Olympic Park.
Want to ride the whole loop? Prepare for an annoyingly long wait at the park—up to 15 minutes. This makes it harder to use the trolley to get around downtown. In theory, my colleagues and I should be able to get on the car at Peachtree Center and ride over to Sweet Auburn Curb Market for lunch. In practice, having to wait for the streetcar, and then at the park before carrying on to the market, means the travel alone would consume our entire break. No time for BBQ or empanadas.

3. Keep the streetcar free through early summer.
The free trips have helped initial ridership (an average of 2,000 a day, according to Streetcar officials) but the bleak weather and learning-curve hiccups in service have been hindrances. The $1 fare is supposed to start in April—which is when Atlanta weather is at its best and most metro schools are out for spring break. Rather than create obstacles with ticketing, operators should leverage that season to generate the best possible word of mouth.

4. Keep it free for MARTA monthly cardholders—forever.
Integrating the streetcar fare system with MARTA’s Breeze Card is smart. Not so smart? Charging extra to regular MARTA riders, the very people most likely to use the trolley as a connecting route. Right now, according to Atlanta Streetcar spokesperson Scheree Rawles, the plan is that trolley fare will be extra. So if you pay $95 for a monthly MARTA card, you could be paying another $40 for a monthly streetcar pass. That’s too steep. Sure, charging a premium for one- and three-day tourist passes makes sense—and is a bargain compared with car rental and taxi or Uber/Lyft rates. But don’t gouge the locals who are critical to making this system work.

5. Keep those Ambassadors riding.
Those friendly pith-helmeted greeters are invaluable for new riders unfamiliar with the system. And they make everyone feel safe and comfortable. They can also spread information when there is a problem or delay. Again, this can’t be cheap, but it’s a good investment.

6. Bring back pop-up shops (and make them a little more useful).
Last summer, Central Atlanta Progress organized pop-up shops in vacant storefronts along the streetcar route. A brilliant idea, except for one little flaw: no streetcar to transport shoppers. Also, there was a disconnect between many of the shops—stylish socks, high-end dog treats, hipster Judaica—and the area’s major demographics: low-income seniors, students, and struggling artist types. While cute, the businesses didn’t offer much service for tourists. I live a few blocks from the King Historic District and regularly see confused-looking tourists searching for places to shop and eat. Many of the bars and restaurants on Edgewood Avenue don’t open until evening, and there’s nowhere to easily grab bottled water, or sit down and enjoy an ice cream cone. Practical offerings for residents are limited. I know I’d forgive a dozen streetcar snafus if I could pick up a Holeman and Finch baguette or stop at a produce stand on my way home from the trolley stop.