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Can extensions of street rail in Atlanta get dedicated lanes?


stuck streetcar
Atlanta Streetcar, stuck in traffic as it shares lanes with cars
There’s an interesting passage inside this news article on the struggles of the Atlanta Streetcar. It quotes MARTA board chair Robbie Ashe, who says the transit agency has learned an important lesson from the streetcar’s struggles. Supposedly we should “Expect the next round of plans to include a separate transit-only lane for the blue cars.” Specifically, Ashe says this:

“Dedicated right of ways are important so you’re not running a train that has the opportunity to be stuck behind a car.”

Sounds like a good lesson to learn. I took the photo above this year — it shows the streetcar stuck in traffic on Andrew Young International Blvd during an event that drew a lot of cars into Downtown. This kind of delay hurts the ability of street rail to be as speedy and efficient as it should be, and prevents it from being a viable alternative to driving to events (the streetcar links to the Peachtree Center MARTA station).

But can dedicated lanes be really worked into a route that connects the current streetcar to the Beltline? Is Atlanta ready for the idea of losing lanes of car traffic for the purpose of adding new street rail?

Councilman Howard Shook, who represents part of Atlanta’s  Buckhead, asked for a streetcar plan to be eliminated last year through that neighborhood’s section of Peachtree Road. This came on the heels of a controversial plan to add bike lanes to Peachtree. Those bike lanes were abandoned after residents decided they didn’t want to share the road with bikes (and lose a car lane in the process). 

Similarly, drivers on Peachtree would have encountered delays if streetcar rail and stops occupied one of the travel lanes.

“We know from previous analysis and discussion that a lot more thought needs to be put into this,” said Shook in a city press release. “The day may come when the public will support sharing precious Peachtree Road capacity with streetcars, but today isn’t it.”

The “S” Line

This year, Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall introduced a plan for an “S” shaped route of street rail that would incorporate the current Atlanta Streetcar and expand service into the southwestern part of the city, and also to the northeast to — and along — the Beltline.

Here’s map of part of that concept:


Notice that, according to the legend, there would be stretches of new rail once again sharing lanes with cars, thus putting transit riders in the same traffic conditions as drivers. Would Robbie Ashe’s announcement about dedicated lanes apply here? Would this kind of plan be altered so that we don’t end up putting more rail lines in jeopardy of being hindered by car traffic?

City of Atlanta voters might be able to vote yes or no this November on a sales-tax increase that could fund this rail expansion, along with several other transit projects.. Here’s an article about that vote. It has this description of the “S” line:

Creating a light rail component that would intersect with MARTA and the Atlanta BeltLine at key locations from Murphy Crossing in southwest Atlanta to Armour Yard in an “S” shaped pattern. The light rail would connect Atlanta University Center to Downtown, King Center, Carter Center, Ponce City Market, Piedmont Park and Ansley Mall, among others.

Given the pushback in Buckhead against sharing a car lane with street rail, one can easily imagine residents elsewhere opposing the same — and perhaps becoming even more passionate about the complete loss of car lanes for use by rail.

It’s a tricky issue, but an important one. If street-level rail is going to truly succeed as an alternative to driving in Atlanta and as a truly useful mobility solution for all, it has to be in dedicated lanes. Otherwise we’re squandering the potential for rail to work on its own terms — and instead we’d be forcing it to be compromised by the expectations of access by drivers in the public domain of our streets.