Streetcars on the BeltLine

By Mike Dobbins

Jan. 2 –There remain a few people who believe that streetcar transit will actually, finally, someday, somehow, arrive on the Atlanta BeltLIne. Their beliefs are well-intended, and their persistence, if not their numbers, is impressive, to the extent that politicians and agencies are loath to deliver the inevitable eventual flat-out no.

The reasons for the impending demise of BeltLine streetcar transit are many, including cost, lack of funding, technical barriers, time to deliver, changing travel technologies and behaviors, but naming one is sufficient explanation: it doesn’t get people to where they need or want to go, the fundamental purpose and need for any successful transit system.

To memorialize this costly 25-year dance with delusion, however, I offer here a way to make streetcars happen on the BeltLine. What has worked famously on the BeltLine is the trail and to a lesser extent the events, the art and the arboretum. The result is that the trail isn’t wide enough to accommodate its users, whose different travel modes have risen in conflict with each other. Widening the trail into a few feet of the space so zealously guarded by the streetcar people would solve that problem. In addition, what would really respond to its users’ needs and pleasures would be places to sit, to rest, to get a latte or sandwich, to go online, and to relieve oneself.

Given the BeltLine’s symbolism and its fantasy, there could be no better way of meeting needs and enhancing pleasure than to place streetcars on the BeltLIne, NOW! Start purchasing mothballed streetcars from around the world, place them on about a hundred feet of track each, outfit them to meet needs and provide pleasure, spacing them about a quarter mile apart. Ultimately, perhaps 30 or more streetcars would show up, their use and design retrofits tailored to the neighborhoods’ needs and desires. Curating the streetcars properly would result in a streetcar museum, much in the way that some super-rich people curate automobiles.

I could go on and on with the ideas that spring from this one, but I’ll sign off with this: the BeltLine becomes the place, maybe the only place in the world, where streetcars live forever.

An image of a coffee shop in a refurbished No. 176, from the West Albany line. (Freehand drawing by Mike Dobbins)