Unlike most new lines in U.S. cities, the Center City Connector would operate in its own exclusive lane.
What should be the purpose of streetcars?
This is a divisive issue for many: should we put public money into building streetcars that are going to primarily serve as development tools, versus being transportation lines only?
Particularly with streetcars that flow in mixed traffic with cars and have to suffer through that same congestion, this is a hot-button topic. In the article linked above, it appears that Seattle is planning to move away from development-focused streetcars with a line that is built for speed by having its own exclusive lane of travel.
The Atlanta Streetcar’s 2.7 mile downtown loop will travel in mixed-traffic lanes with a low operating speed. Because of that, it’s much more of a development tool at this point for places like the long-struggling Auburn Avenue corridor, as well as a means of transporting tourists to major sites. It is, to a lesser degree, a source of effective everyday transportation (though it can certainly serve that purpose for some workers, as well as GSU students, residents and visitors).
In a way, pitting these two streetcar functions — development vs. transportation — against each other is a false argument because nothing stays the same in cities. The development-tool streetcar line of today, if successful in building walkable density around it, could end up becoming an exclusive-lane route of tomorrow, with a focus on transportation.
Tweaking transit lines to serve changing cities
The use of fixed mass transportation lines always changes along with development around those lines, as well as societal shifts. Just consider the park-and-ride MARTA stations. Once thought to be the most logical use of land around the stations, the surface parking lots for many are now slated for conversion to mixed-use, transit-oriented developments that will serve a population that is increasingly interested in living less car-centric lives.
With the Atlanta Streetcar, parts of the route, like the Peachtree Street segment, could obviously be converted to exclusive lanes at some point. I’d like to see that happen. But I say let it serve as a development tool first, building up a greater density on the route (a recent rezoning project for the Auburn Avenue corridor of the route will help facilitate that).
By the time that phase is passed, we’ll be ready to extend the line — hopefully to the Atlanta Beltline and its destined transit element — and use it primarily as a transportation tool that works as part of an interconnected, multi-modal system. And perhaps by then we’ll be able to convert the entire route to exclusive lanes. I don’t know the actual hurdles that would need to be overcome technically to make that conversion happen, but it’s pretty easy to imagine it taking place.