AP / David Goldman

A casual experiment in Atlanta doesn't help dissuade "tourist trolley" fears.

One of the big knocks on modern streetcars is that they exist primarily for tourists and not for everyday transit riders or commuters. Rebecca Burns of Atlanta magazine (and our Future of Transportation series) put that question to the test last week on the city's newly opened 2.7-mile downtown trolley loop. She tried riding the streetcar to work for a week from her home in Cabbagetown to the magazine's office near Peachtree Center.

The piece is delightful and worth a full read, but for those only interested in the final score here it is: it would have been quicker to walk. Burns writes that she can make the trip on foot in about 35 minutes. On the trolley she tallied 333 minutes across 8 commutes, good for just under 42 minutes a pop. Even tossing out an outlier trip that took more than an hour, her average commute exceeded 38 minutes.

Burns offers a fair if charitable conclusion: the near-tie on time goes to the trolley because she doesn't have to brave the weather and can catch up on emails. But the casual experiment underscores broader concerns that modern trolleys can too often fail to function as part of the public transit network despite requiring massive amounts of public transit funding. By sharing lanes with other vehicles, streetcars can have their speed advantage neutered to that of a bus, only at a greater cost.

Great for tourists. Potentially great for local development. Not always the best option if you need to get somewhere without a car.

A map of the Atlanta streetcar system. (City of Atlanta)

Among the notable moments of Burns's travelogue was an all-too-routine run-in with a passenger car blocking the trolley tracks. When the blockage failed to clear Burns and her fellow passengers asked the driver to let them off. He said he couldn't do that, citing safety protocol. All told, the commute that morning took Burns 63 minutes by streetcar. She seems to have channeled her inner Taylor Swift and shaken it off, but not everyone on board felt the same:

A young man peers out the window at gridlock. "This is my first time riding the streetcar. It will be the last," he says. He normally walks from his home on Edgewood Avenue to catch a MARTA train at Peachtree Center. He calls his boss to explain he'll be late. "I thought this would be faster. I was wrong," he says.

This rider's perception is revealing: since trolleys are being sold to the public (at least partly) as a transit option, people expect reliability and speed to matter. The truth is many modern streetcar networks aren't designed to meet that expectation. They circulate through popular districts because they can't easily expand to meet broad mobility needs or to access new parts of a city. That's not necessarily a bad thing but it does require a narrower rider mindset—there's a limited functional goal here in there same way there is with, say, an airport tram.

There's emerging data to frame this discussion. Jeff Brown and Luis Enrique Ramos of Florida State recently analyzed the various factors influencing ridership in seven streetcar systems as well as 15 light rail systems across the United States. In an upcoming paper (not yet available online) they report that one factor stuck out among the rest for streetcars: "special trip attractors," or things like convention centers, sports arenas, and other tourist-oriented destinations.

The number of these attractors within a short walk of a streetcar stop multiplied boardings by an astonishing factor of five compared with expected ridership. These attractors mattered for light rail, too, though to a much weaker degree (less than two-fold). Critically, for light rail but not for streetcar systems, things like nearby employment, service frequency, bus connections, and transfer hubs influenced ridership.

Here's the takeaway (with a mandatory pre-publication, things-can-change caveat):

These differences are most likely a reflection of the different travel markets served by the two modes with LRT [light rail] playing a more utilitarian role and streetcars more of a tourism or special activities-serving role in the local transit system.

For good measure, Brown and Ramos also compared ridership factors for modern streetcar systems and legacy systems, such as those in New Orleans or Philadelphia. What they found was that ridership factors for legacy streetcars—which tend to be more entrenched in the broader transit system—resembled those of light rail. Bus connections matter. So does car access: not having it raises legacy ridership but not modern trolley ridership. Special attractions also mattered in both cases, but only half as much on legacy lines as on modern ones.

The point (same caution):

On balance boardings on legacy streetcar systems appear to be influenced more strongly by variables that are commonly associated with the use of LRT and/or bus transit than is the case for their modern counterparts.

The legacy systems might be suffering some tourist creep of their own. Yesterday in The Lens, a New Orleans-based publication, writer Peter Horjus lamented the fact that a new mixed-traffic trolley line on Rampart/St. Claude streets will duplicate three existing bus routes. Above the service redundancy, his concern is that the city is shifting toward a two-tiered mobility system—rail for tourists and buses for locals:

The Rampart/St. Claude "tourist trolley" has its adherents, perhaps above all because it does not bear the stigma of poverty associated with those of us who take the bus. I'm sure it will promote development and gentrification, and passengers along this short strip will probably enjoy the ride. But what we're building is not a complementary and synergistic set of public transit options.

Back to Burns in Atlanta. She understandably wants a better commuting option. She writes that traffic is too variable (driving can take her anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes), and that riding MARTA requires an awkward train transfer (total travel time can take an hour). Buses don't get a mention, and we're left to wonder whether the effort of bringing a streetcar into town might have been better spent reconfiguring the local bus network. Ultimately the trolley might be the best fit for her, and if so, that's great.

But she will be a bonus for the system as it currently exists, not its base.

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