To celebrate the Atlanta Streetcar’s (belated) fifth birthday, I decided to spend an evening riding around its limited track, to learn how it’s being used, who’s using it, and possibly, how much potential it still has.
I wasn’t expecting a journalistic adventure, to be honest. But what I found was almost comical, in a sad way.
That’s not to suggest, however, that all hope is lost, as the streetcar’s supporters continue to stress. The future, they say, might even be bright.
A lightning rod for controversy even prior to its delayed opening, the streetcar has now been stuck in—and contributing to—Atlanta traffic for more than five years.
The initial 2.7-mile loop through parts of downtown, Old Fourth Ward, and Sweet Auburn debuted at the end of 2014, costing nearly $100 million to build, with federal grants footing less than half of that bill.
All these years later, and not a foot more track has been laid for the city’s transit inchworm. It was expected to be the first segment in a true system—a boon for intown tourism and an asset for local commuters.
It’s hard to argue the streetcar—even at rush hour on a nice day—has lived up to those expectations.
I arrived by bike at the Edgewood at Hilliard station at 5:16 p.m. Tuesday, just as one of the trolleys was leaving the platform, which was empty save for a few young men shooting the breeze outside the restaurant Hungry Ghost.
While bass rattled out from a bar farther east on the Edgewood Avenue strip, I spied a deserted and dirty pair of track shoes, cigarette butts, a few crushed cans of booze, and some graffiti adorning the humble station.
In the distance, just shy of the darkening downtown skyline, Atlanta United superstar Josef Martinez seemed to be laughing at me from a billboard for Grady Memorial Hospital.
You might as well walk, his jovial smile seemed to say as I stared west, the next streetcar still nowhere in sight at 5:30.
A woman named Aisha sat down next to me, down on her luck, asking for change and pitching me the sitcom that her life once was. (She and her twin sister, in grade school, had crushed on another set of twins, both comically thinking they liked the same boy.)
I gave her some notebook paper for the screenplay and a granola bar I had in my bag and wished her good luck.
At 5:38, I could finally see the streetcar’s headlights approaching the Sweet Auburn Market stop, past the Downtown Connector.
By 5:42, I was on board and moving, although I figured I could have walked to the farthest stop on the loop, at Centennial Olympic Park, in the 26 minutes I’d waited. I could have biked there and back, easy.
I’d paid my $1 fee, of course, but nobody checked.
Aside from me, there were two passengers and one security officer aboard: An older woman slumped in her seat, nodding off occasionally, and a young man wearing headphones with a small bag of groceries in his lap who seemed to be talking to someone on the phone.
There were peanuts littered by one of the doors.
At the next stop, the King Historic District station, a few more passengers filed on, including one man who was clearly lugging his entire life with him in miscellaneous bags. He placed them by the peanuts.
There were then seven—nine, if you count me and the security officer. That would be the most crowded this car got during my three loops around the track.
5:45, Dobbs Plaza station: no one got on or off.
5:47, Auburn at Piedmont: the man with groceries exited.
For the next three stops—Woodruff Park, Peachtree Center (where there’s a MARTA rail station), and Carnegie at Spring—no one boarded or left the train. It was quiet—even soothing.
One off at Centennial Olympic Park; one on at Hurt Park—no movement in between, at the Luckie at Cone or Park Place stops.
Back on Edgewood Avenue, at 6:03, I saw someone changing clothes outside the fire station. I won’t count that among the many pleasant sights along the track, such as the SkyView Ferris wheel or the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church.
At 6:05, we’d completed a full loop, and almost all of the passengers got off at Edgewood at Hilliard.
I lost track of the boardings and departures as I chatted with the security officer. He asked not to be quoted or named in the story.
The next two laps around those 2.7 miles, though, we were spent virtually alone, except for one young family clearly from out of town, who boarded at Centennial Olympic Park.
“Where do we pay?” asked the woman, baby in her arms, as the man fidgeted with a stroller—another child strapped in—so it wouldn’t roll off as we moved.
Staring out the windows, they took the full circuit back to the park, and no one else joined us for that entire lap.
I’d set out to interview some streetcar regulars, but after the first lap, it was clear I’d missed my window.
If anything, I decided, the streetcar is relaxing, at least between 5 and 7 p.m. on that particular Tuesday.
The route takes passengers by some of Atlanta’s most impressive architecture, a few of its popular parks, and a handful of the biggest tourist draws.
It’s also in dire need of a growth spurt.
In the 2019 fiscal year, MARTA estimates the streetcar system carried 285,000 people. That would represent an increase over 2016, when the city began charging its current $1 fee and about 250,000 trips were logged.
MARTA’s heavy rail system—obviously larger, with 38 stations to the streetcar’s 12—can move that many people in a couple of days.
MARTA sees an uptick in streetcar riders during major events, such as sports matches or concerts at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and State Farm Arena, or conventions at the Georgia World Congress Center.
It can also be packed for parties, such as recent Mardi Gras bar crawls. Sometimes, bands play on board as entertainment.
But for the system to truly be beneficial, it’s clear that more stations are needed across a broader swath of the city. That’s tough when many stops are so underutilized now, at least per this anecdotal account and others.
There is potential, however, for the limited system.
As part of the MARTA 2040 program—formerly More MARTA—significant streetcar expansion is a priority.
The next leg planned would link parts of Poncey-Highland, Old Fourth Ward, and Inman Park to the existing line. Construction is slated to kick off by 2025—or after another lifetime for the struggling system.
After that, another extension could produce about three miles of new rail connecting the downtown side of the loop to Southwest Atlanta and the Atlanta University Center.
For now, though, the streetcar is a fine place to read a book, take a nap, or escape the rain. One day, perhaps in my lifetime, it could be so much more.