Workers & Economic Inequality

A Streetcar Named Disaster

Blog Post by: Jacob Anbinder , on December 10, 2013

Atlanta is a notoriously car-dependent city. But less than a year from now, downtown drivers in Georgia’s capital will have a new rival for the road: the Atlanta Streetcar.

The Hot, New Old Thing

Slated to open in early 2014, Atlanta’s 2.7 mile loop line is just the latest example in a national resurgence of popularity for the streetcar, as an NPR story noted last month. Portland and Seattle each opened new lines in the last 15 years, and Washington, D.C. is soon expected to inaugurate a new route along the gentrifying H Street corridor.

It’s easy to get caught up in the hype surrounding these new mass-transit projects in Atlanta and elsewhere, especially for those advocates desperate for any sort of municipal investment in transportation.

But rather than clamoring for streetcars of their own, cities should do the opposite: make like Nancy Reagan and just say no.

The persistence of the streetcar isn’t, as one might assume, a sign of renewed interest in investing in public transit for those who need it to get around.

It’s exactly the opposite—a flashy way for cities to make themselves look forward-thinking while papering over very real transit issues.

Running Over Mass Transit

The problem is inherent in streetcars’ very design. Unlike light rail, they share traffic lanes with cars and cyclists, making their speed comparable to that of a city bus. A very expensive city bus, since they require installing tracks, constructing stations, and purchasing pricey rolling stock.

As for the Portland streetcar that advocates love to point to? A reporter for The Oregonian beat it in a footrace earlier this year.

In fairness, some streetcar supporters recognize such shortcomings. In response, however, they claim the economic benefits of the streetcar—the idea that a fixed transit link will attract new business better than a bus route—justifies the initial investment.

But while there’s a correlation between areas with new streetcar lines and economic growth, there’s no proof that a streetcar line causes these changes. In Seattle, Portland, and soon D.C., the routes run in areas that were already rapidly gentrifying.

For less than the cost of installing a streetcar route, cities could create a business improvement district, incentivize small-business development through tax breaks, or, better yet, vastly improve service on existing bus systems.

That last point—the fact that streetcar investment will surely come at the expense of real transit improvements—is perhaps the greatest problem with the streetcar trend.

Catering to the In-Crowd

At its core, it’s a tacit admission that the whole scheme isn’t really about improving transit.

It’s about attracting the kind of rider, be it tourist or local, who refuses to ride the city bus, with all of the race and class issues implied.

This was the issue explored in a mildly controversial Atlantic Cities piece, which asked if it were possible for cities to “build a less stigmatized bus.”

By pushing ahead with a streetcar, cities not only imply it isn’t possible to destigmatize public buses, but that they’d rather invest millions pursuing the desires of those already averse to mass transit, rather than improve service for people who really need it.

Nowhere is this a more relevant issue than in Atlanta, where transit issues have long been linked with broader racial tensions. The sotto voce explanation for the acronym MARTA—the name of the city’s subway and bus system—is “Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta.”

This denial of the real needs of transit users helps explain why the Atlanta line will only have one transfer point with the subway system, and even then just for westbound travelers.

Still, it’s clear some politicians are already wary of streetcars and their supposed benefits. John Cranley, the mayor-elect of Cincinnati, recently axed that city’s plans for a $133 million line, saying the costs outweighed the benefits.

Other mayors would be wise to follow Cranley’s example. But the federal government also has a role to play. The Federal Transit Administration, which is funding half of the Atlanta streetcar’s $100 million construction cost, should stop doling out funds for such exclusionary projects and focus resources on more practical transit improvements.

There’s a limited pot of money out there for good mass transit. Let’s not waste it on streetcars no one will use.

Tags: washington d.c., transit, seattle, public transportation, portland, npr, mass transit, marta, light rail, infrastructure,

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