Photo Credit: Atlanta Downtown Improvement District & Gene Phillips Photography
By Candler Vinson
Atlanta recently received the first two cars of the Atlanta Streetcar fleet, which is slated to open later this year. The 2.7 mile Streetcar route runs from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Center to Centennial Olympic Park, connecting The Old Fourth Ward, the Sweet Auburn neighborhood, and Downtown Atlanta’s attractions, such as the Georgia Aquarium, the new College Football Hall of Fame, Philips Arena, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, and more. When it opens around Memorial Day, rides for the first three months will be free. It is also acting as a major catalyst for the neighborhoods around it, generating significant excitement and spurring new dense, transit-oriented development.
In the past twenty years, cities across America have been bringing back a seemingly antiquated transportation method, the streetcar. The most well known of these is the Portland Streetcar, the first system to utilize modern streetcars, but according to a recent article from the Associated Press by Jason Keyser, there are over 30 American cities that are bring back their streetcars. Cities such as Houston, Raleigh, Detroit, and Kansas City are only a few of the cities that have recently invested in modern streetcars, many of which are running on or near the routes of earlier streetcars.
Today, the results of the car-centric “American Dream” are manifest in urban decay, sprawling suburbs, increased greenhouse gas emissions, increased automobile traffic, immense public spending for highways and maintenance, increased impermeable surfaces and storm water runoff, and communities that lack social interaction. In addition to this, the social and health costs are enormous as well, with urban sprawl a major facilitator in inactivity, which correlates to obesity, hypertension, and anxiety. Again, take Atlanta for example: Charles Montgomery, citing research by Lawrence Frank and his team of researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, states that people living in Atlanta’s suburbs are likely to weigh ten pounds more than their counterparts in the neighborhoods surrounding Atlanta’s MARTA system and that almost all Atlantans, 94% of them, commute to work in personal vehicles.
Now, streetcars are seen as the solutions to these suburban woes. Portland’s streetcar illustrated the impact that investing in urban cores with reliable, comfortable, safe public transportation can do. In 2007, The New York Times reported that the Portland Streetcar “has helped sweep in $2.4 billion in new commercial and housing development, with 7,248 new housing units,” a huge return on the original $100 million dollar investment raised through local taxes to build it. Since then, dozens of cities across American have constructed or are in the planning stages for streetcars and light-rail, hoping to reap similar benefits.
Candler Vinson is an Atlanta native passionate about urban sustainability, conservation, environmental policy, and community planning. A recent graduate of Emory University, Candler is a correspondent for The Urban Times and an employee at The Imperial in Oakhurst, among other things. He spends his days reading, writing, riding public transportation, and contemplating how to improve Atlanta and support the people who are. You can follow him on Twitter @CandlerVinson.