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Atlanta Streetcar Ridership Downturn Should be Expected

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If officials can stick to their longterm plan, everything should work out.

The Atlanta Streetcar has taken some hits in the last year, and all signs point to things getting worse (at least superficially) before they get better. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, ridership for the first quarter of 2016 is down almost 50 percent compared to last year.

Ouch.

There is a silver lining, though. Last year, the early months were hands-down the worst for ridership, and ridership decreases are a natural effect of instituting a fare, even if it's $1. Those decreases are bound to be more dramatic in a younger, less established system like Atlanta’s compared to, say, Portland, which maintained a massive fare-free zone for the first 10 years of its streetcar operation.

It’s tough to see the forest for the trees in the wake of most recent streetcar news. The forest, in this case, is the Beltline Initiative’s long-term plan. Ridership numbers look low right now, but, let’s face it, it isn’t serving some major communities in the city. It basically takes kids from Georgia State to Edgewood and back. The next proposed expansions would add Georgia Tech and Inman Park into the mix (plus Little Five Points and up-and-coming Marietta Street by proxy).

There is still bad news, though. Two of the streetcar’s worst months last year were April and May. So, stories coming out in June may report yet another downswing. Luckily, the summer months following should bring a big jump in ridership with the onset of tourist flocks and (cue applause) Festival Season — and the numerous bar crawls, tours, and concerts that come along with it.

Without the hard numbers it’s tough to say how depressed streetcar ridership actually is. But, initial figures had January ridership at close to 22,000. The AJC reported that January and March combined had a 62 percent decrease over last year.

Likely, that means this year’s ridership numbers thus far have been steady, and the percentage swings month to month are due to a downturn in February of last year.

The streetcar has fallen short of month-to-month projection goals in the past. It’s also exceeded those expectations in some months. What’s important, now, is for it to develop a level of consistency so the organization can lay out some future benchmarks.