The case for transit

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

The building of the Atlanta Streetcar system is moving along, with tracks and poles going in along Auburn and Edgewood Avenues from the Martin Luther King center to downtown. A panel discussion this weekend offered a little insight into how the city will be moving from the construction to operation phase early next year. My second column looks at how Charlotte is fighting skeptics and transit critics with a new ad campaign, which includes a response from a local transportation analyst.

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Streetcar, bike options coming

By Tom Sabulis

As part of Atlanta’s “Elevate” event Saturday, sponsored by the city’s Bureau of Cultural Affairs, I moderated a panel that focused on public art and transportation, and how the former can enrich the latter. With panelists representing MARTA, Atlanta Beltline, Atlanta Streetcar, Atlanta Bicycle Coalition and Atlanta Regional Commission, the conversation ranged from the cultural to project updates on a couple of anticipated transportation options coming downtown.

Here are some excerpts from the panel discussion:

Atlanta Streetcar: Tom Weyandt, senior policy adviser for transportation in Mayor Kasim Reed’s office, talked about the move to the operations phase once construction wraps up in late January-February.

“At that point, we shift into a period of certification and testing of the system. We’ll do driver training and all of the things that lead up to opening day. We’re also keenly aware that we have a whole series of educational steps that we have to take. We have to realize that (today’s) drivers have never seen streetcars on the streets of Atlanta before. The streetcars themselves are very, very quiet. We are going right through Georgia State University. I don’t know how many times I see students with earbuds wandering across the street. There are whole series of steps we’re going to have to take.

“We gave you a sneak peak of what the car is going to look like; we think it’s actually a pretty cool-looking car. The mayor suggested that for the car design … he wanted to have a car designed that would look like something James Bond would step out of.

“We tried to put a lot of thought into the details of the pedestrian environment and what the stops are going to look like. We tried to be sensitive to the problem that bicyclists face in riding parallel to streetcars, particularly on the eastern side of the route, which is very heavily traveled. We’re actually building a bike lane on the opposite side of the street so bicyclists will be able to go in a counter flow to the streetcar and minimize the opportunity for conflict.

“Those are the kinds of physical things that we’ve tried to take into account so far. We are also thinking about how we create a lively environment around it. I hate to use this term but … we’d sort of like (the streetcar) to be a Disney experience, whether you are a tourist going to the Martin Luther King Center or to the Ferris wheel. We’re kicking around ideas about how to enliven that experience, and we’re open to ideas at this point.”

Atlanta Bicycle Coalition: Executive Director Rebecca Serna updated the upcoming Bike Share program (www.atlantabike.org/bikesharestudy) and talked about safety issues around cycling and the streetcar.

“Bike Share is coming soon to the city of Atlanta, and we’re very excited about that. Our feasibility study recommended 500 bikes and 50 stations. The city is considering proposals right now, and it looks very promising. This is the kind if thing that really transforms a city because it puts so many more people out in our public spaces. (It will) create a lot of opportunities for connections with business, with culture, with each other.

“I’m very concerned about the streetcar crossings by bicyclists, just because most people don’t know that that is really a dangerous thing. You need to cross them at a 90-degree angle, and we’ve been working with the city to try and get more signs up and make sure we reinforce that type of thing.

“I’m not too worried about the safety impact of all the Bike Share bikes because when people get on a bike for the fist time in 10 to 15 years, they are extremely cautious. They’re paying a lot of attention. Cities like Boston that have done Bike Share were noted for being very unfriendly to bikes. It didn’t have any infrastructure (for bikes) when the (programs) started. But it created so much demand for infrastructure that they were able to make really big investments and make the city safer.

“On the whole, Bike Share has been an unmitigated success (in other cities). Washington D.C. hit 1 million trips on their one-year anniversary. It just blew away expectations.”

Pushing back on transit critics

By Tom Sabulis

A recent website column by William Lind, director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation, discussed ways transportation agencies can combat the criticisms of “professional” transit critics.

Lind writes: “One of the nice things about the libertarian transit critics, aka the anti-transit troubadours, is that they make the same arguments wherever they go. … Their arguments have changed little over the years, and our replies are still relevant … but cities that want to expand rail transit need to do more than reply when the anti-transit troubadours come to town. … Over and over, I have advised cities facing transit referenda to get out in front of the critics. …Tell the voters, ‘Here is what these guys are going to say, and here’s why it’s wrong’ before they get there. … If you wait until they have come and gone, your replies never catch up to the charges, and they can do you a lot of damage.”

Lind goes on to cite the “creative and effective way” to pre-empt critics being deployed in Charlotte, N.C.. He writes: “The Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) has taken the libertarian’s arguments, answered them, and turned the answers into simple graphics people can easily read and understand. Now, it is finding ways to draw attention to the graphics, which so far have just been used online and in flyers. They are easy enough to grasp that someone can do so as a bus goes by. This is exactly the sort of thing other cities that want more rail transit need to be doing. It is an excellent way to pre-empt the critics, to answer their flawed arguments even before they can make them. In politics as in medicine, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Here are some examples used in Charlotte’s ad campaign. (To see the graphics and design, go to: http://bit.ly/14KeK9V)

Myth: Transit doesn’t solve traffic congestion.

Response: One bus with 60 riders equals 270 square feet; 60 single-occupant cars equal 7,240 square feet.

Myth: Light-rail initial ridership projections are inflated.

Response: Actual light-rail ridership versus projections in the first year of operation: Charlotte +53 percent; Denver +29 percent; Dallas +20 percent; St. Louis +58 percent; Phoenix +90 percent.

Myth: Charlotte’s $7 billion transit plan is enough to buy a new car for every household in Mecklenburg County.

Response: $24 billion — actual cost for every household to get a new car (personal vehicles are replaced every 7-10 years). $7 billion — transit plan (includes capital, operating, regular maintenance and replacement costs).

I asked Baruch Feigenbaum, an Atlanta-based transportation analyst at the Reason Foundation libertarian think tank (and who has contributed to these pages), to respond to Lind’s charges. His response:

“Transportation should be about mobility, moving people and goods efficiently and cost-effectively. Instead, far too many transit proposals are based upon expensive fantasies of getting people to give up their cars for light-rail systems. Reason Foundation is libertarian and has frequently argued in favor of transit. My recently released mobility plan for Atlanta includes comprehensive, region-wide express and bus rapid transit networks that could be built for a fraction of the cost of light rail. Sprawling Atlanta is different than New York City or Tokyo or Paris. Atlanta’s transportation plans need to be based on that reality.”

2 comments Add your comment

Bob Peppel

October 22nd, 2013
10:04 pm

If the state legislature would like to reduce sprawl and promote transit, they could very easily do so by simply adding a $2.00 per gallon tax on fuel and designating that money for transit.

SAWB

October 22nd, 2013
12:10 am

Moving forward the expansion and innovative use of public transit is very important to the Atlanta region. However, it is vital that limited resources be allocated to serve the most people and help them get to where they want to be not where some else wants them to be.

The Streetcar project actually has potential and it will be interesting to see how it performs. It would be neat to see the line extend into the Old Fourth Ward, Inman Park and maybe as far as Little Five Points. However, it does give you pause to consider that this route could easily be run by existing buses and the resources allocated for transit expansion in other areas.