Empty spaces and empty streetcars in Atlanta

The City of Atlanta needs to stop hiding behind the bogus $2 billion list of so-called “investments” made near the streetcar and look at the spaces beside the tracks, then judge those along with the empty train cars I see every night when I walk home.

When the Atlanta Streetcar began charging $1 fare for each ride at the beginning of 2016, after a year of free service for all, ridership plummeted. Our apartment building is two blocks from the tracks and I have the opportunity to see the empty or near-empty cars running in the evening on my walk home from the MARTA station. It’s a grim sight and a frustrating situation for a transit line that seemed to have some real promise for turning around the fortunes of a section of Atlanta — particularly Auburn Avenue — that has lagged in development.

Auburn’s section of the streetcar track is lined in many spots with empty and crumbling buildings, surface parking lots and other disused parcels. It’s hard to see any difference over a year after service started. Why? Wasn’t the idea of putting a streetcar in this spot (versus in a place that’s already economically vibrant) largely to encourage development?

Economic development claims vs. the view from the streetcar

Here’s a quote from A.J. Robinson of the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District from a recent news article:

“The streetcar was never to us seen as this ‘somehow we’re going to solve all the traffic congestion of Atlanta. We are primarily interested in the value of the economic development.”

Economic development. I’d love to see some of that. At some point during the process of planning the streetcar route, was there no one at the city level saying: “Is there even a chance to develop empty spots around the tracks”? Many of the parcels are owned by large institutions like GSU and Big Bethel church, and neither of them seem to be on board with the idea of filling the places alongside the tracks with urban density (in fairness Big Bethel did release a rendering showing their vision of what could become of a surface lot the church owns: a large parking deck, lined with a narrow strip of student apartments…meh).

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has mentioned a figure as high as $2 billion as the amount of investment that’s been spurred by the streetcar. The list of investments contains many items that can only be termed as “bogus,” including major attractions like the Civil Rights center that were planned long before the streetcar was funded. It also includes parking facilities, which is ridiculous — the presence of parking is a hindrance to streetcar ridership and to effective land use for the kind of walkable urban places that match this type of transit.

There are some new student apartments going in on the Edgewood Avenue stretch, but we already have a lot of student housing near the streetcar and it isn’t producing any ridership that I’ve seen. The spending and mobility habits of GSU students seems to not really align with the streetcar service.

This area needs more than students, and the city’s lack of ability to get new non-student residences and businesses developed on the streetcar line isn’t only hurting ridership. It’s also hurting the handful of businesses that have opened.

Small businesses struggle and the streetcar isn’t helping

I’ve spoken with a couple of owners of businesses on Auburn Avenue who’ve verified that the streetcar is not bringing in customers. They say that street traffic from pedestrians is so unreliable that regular opening hours are difficult to maintain

These stores get no foot traffic from the surface parking lots. No customers came from the empty Atlanta Life buildings and weeded, empty lots.

No foot traffic came from the empty, boarded-up buildings. And stores certainly get little or no business from the streetcar stop across the street. Why would anyone take a streetcar to an area that has so much blighted space?

We need help with believing that the future is transit based

Mayor Reed says: “The future of this city and this region is going to be transit based.” Sounds great. I’d like to see some of that sentiment present in the land use around the streetcar. The Urban Land Institute has this to say about making these transit lines truly pay off:

“How can cities ensure that streetcars are not just another gimmick, another public subsidy for a few out-of-towners?
The answer is clear: make the streetcar system work as transportation for locals; make it effective enough to convince people who drive to get out of their cars.”

This describes the very remedy that Atlanta needs to help match the streetcar’s transit style to the land use around the tracks. There should be a great density on the route of things for locals, including new market-rate residential buildings that put Atlantans next to transit. And there should be a complete absence of all the things that discourage vibrant, walkable places that locals enjoy — meaning surface parking lots, empty buildings, weedy lots and other blighted spaces.

The streetcar line as it moves through Downtown Altanta on Luckie Street. Everything in red is an active-use building. Everything else is a parking lot or a parking deck.

Mayor Reed has also pointed out, when facing criticisms of the streetcar, that this is only a starter line that is meant to, eventually, reach the Atlanta Beltline’s northeast trail. Which is certainly a good idea, connectivity-wise. But answer this: who is going to ride a streetcar through city streets in mixed traffic from the lush greenery of the Beltline — with all of its retail and restaurants alongside it — to come to the stretch of Downtown Atlanta served by the line? People who want to look at parking lots?

We’ve got to prioritize repairing this mismatch of development and transit infrastructure all over Atlanta. The streetcar line should be near the top of that repair list.

You can view other photos I’ve taken of disused properties next to the streetcar tracks here: http://streetcarviews.tumblr.com/