Rail Redux

The Atlanta streetcar, once the preferred mode of transit in the city, is resurrected in Georgia State’s backyard

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This summer, the city of Atlanta expects to wrap construction on its new streetcar line, an ambitious, and somewhat controversial, project that will bring transit down Edgewood and Auburn avenues.

City officials expect that the almost three-mile streetcar loop will spawn a number of significant changes to a corridor that has long suffered from lack of retailers, connectivity and, until the late 1990s, residents. Economic growth and improved east-west mobility are two of the primary goals for the streetcar, with the long-range plan to link into additional transit connections along the BeltLine, the city’s ongoing transportation and redevelopment project along a historic 22-mile railroad corridor circling downtown.

Projections estimate each streetcar will take 177 autos off the road, lessening the congestion on the area’s crowded surface streets. For the Georgia State community, the line could mean a steady stream of visitors, office workers and downtown residents passing daily through the campus.

“The streetcar will give Georgia State incredible visibility, as well as access,” says President Mark P. Becker. “It will run through the heart of campus along both Auburn and Edgewood avenues, with five of its 13 stops within Georgia State’s downtown footprint.”

There’s no way of knowing how many students, staff and faculty will become regular streetcar riders, but Becker expects it will happen if the right elements are in place.

“One route that looks particularly well-suited for students living in university housing runs along Auburn Avenue from Piedmont to Woodruff Park,” he says.

There’s another point to ponder: Will riders realize they are putting a new twist on an old story?

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While the 2014 streetcar is designed to keep things moving around the city’s core, the first such cars helped people get out of town. In the early 1870s, when the trolleys were powered by horses and mules, city dwellers hopped aboard for trips to the countryside. At the end of one line, near present-day Ponce City Market (the former City Hall East), were springs and parks. At the end of another, Brisbine Park boasted a baseball diamond, grandstand and fields for races and exhibitions.

Tim Crimmins, professor of sociology and the director of Georgia State’s Center for Neighborhood and Metropolitan Studies that for 10 years has scrutinized urban community issues, says back then the trolleys were a means of getting people out of the city for recreation.

“They began as a major way of getting people to and from events,” Crimmins says. “But by the 1880s, the trolleys were subsidized by the sale of suburban land. Investors who were developing land on the periphery provided access to the property they owned. That was a driving force for growth, not just in Atlanta, but around the U.S.”

The present-day streetcar marks another quirk in Atlanta history: The debut of the new route will come close to coinciding with the 125th anniversary of the city’s first eclectic streetcar line. It rolled out on Aug 23, 1889, when real estate developer Joel Hurt unveiled a power-driven trolley to transport Atlantans to his new neighborhood, Inman Park. The community on the eastern end of Edgewood Avenue was a suburb in progress, and getting residents back and forth to the city center was a key concern. (Hurt’s cars are long gone, but their home, the aptly named Trolley Barn at 963 Edgewood Ave., still stands as a reminder of those early transit options.)


Streetcars ramble through Five Points in 1948.

Hurt wasn’t the only entrepreneur to kick start a transit company back then. The Metropolitan line, a trolley pulled by a small steam engine, was the quickest way to get from downtown to new communities south and east of town as far as Decatur. The principal investor was Lemuel Grant, whose mansion still anchors the Atlanta neighborhood (and park) that bears his name. But it wasn’t long before the engine gave way to electric lines, and by the turn of the 20th century, the trolleys were the biggest consumers of electrical power. It quickly became clear someone was going to have to oversee the new industry.

A struggle erupted over who would consolidate the various lines, provide the power and establish the infrastructure to handle both. The winner: the Georgia Power and Electric Trolley Company, the forerunner of the modern company that lights up the city.

“Georgia Power won because it had the best capacity to generate electricity,” says Crimmins. “It had developed lakes in north Georgia to create hydroelectric power that was transmitted to Atlanta. It was also the point when electric power was introduced into residences, even though the trolleys remained the major users.”

Atlanta wasn’t alone in developing an intricate web of trolley lines, and by the beginning of the 20th century almost every major American city had such a network. At home, the streetcars meant an easier commute to the Georgia Institute of Technology Evening School of Commerce, the forerunner of present-day Georgia State.

“One of the advantages of the school was that it was accessible by the trolley,” says Crimmins. “But the trolley’s primary ridership was men coming into town to work.”

In the era of Jim Crow, the system was as segregated as the rest of Atlanta.

“There was a serving class who rode the trolley from African-American neighborhoods to middle- and upper-class white neighborhoods for jobs,” says Crimmins. “It was common practice for employers to pay a daily wage, plus car fare. But a bill from 1891 that segregated railroad cars was extended to the trolleys, even though Hurt testified at a hearing that it would be too expensive for the companies to have two cars or a permanent division between a white and black section. So it fell to the conductors to enforce the separation of the races, with the whites in the front and the African-Americans in the back, where even there they could be ordered to give up their seats to white riders.”

It wasn’t long before the trolley systems were threatened by the popularity of the automobile. New infrastructure that catered to cars was built, and by the time World War II ended, trolleys were well on their way to becoming impractical modes of transportation.

“The creation of the interstate highway system caused a decline in ridership,” says Crimmins. “Georgia Power remained in control, but after the war, it converted from electric to bus systems. There were buses with electric motors still tied to the trolley lines, which were more flexible because they could pull right up to a curb. But by the 1950s, Georgia Power divested itself of the transit lines, and the system went to regular buses.”

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Fast-forward to 2014, when the contemporary Atlanta streetcar is set to take on a role reversal. Instead of shuttling people out of town, city officials see a downtown trolley as a magnet that will draw locals and visitors alike. The line will be dotted with art galleries, retail shops and restaurants that riders can enjoy between the destinations such as the Martin Luther King Jr., historic site, Centennial Olympic Park, the World of Coca-Cola and the Georgia Aquarium.

“I think there’s a sort of nostalgia for the trolley, but that isn’t going to bring people from Marietta to downtown,” says Crimmins. “What you can argue is the business plan. It’s something that connects a major convention facility at the World Congress Center with hotels and various sites and offers relatively easy access through the downtown district. The city hopes it will disperse some of the concentration of convention business along the route and create enough of a market for shops at street level. It’s a reverse of the development the trolleys supported in the 1880s.”

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The trolley also holds some appeal for curious students, says Joseph Hacker, who teaches transportation planning and economic development in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies.

“They’re very interested in it,” he says. “One of the big assumptions is that students will use it, and as the university expands eastward, I think there’s an opportunity that they will. There are also a lot of apartments being built not far from the line, and if more students live in them it might be a nice way to get to and from campus.”

The streetcar does have the potential of revitalizing the areas adjacent to campus, Hacker adds.

“I think it could make the Fairlie-Poplar area come alive in the evenings,” he says, “but there also needs to be events and reasons to draw people downtown. Until there is that connection, there may be problems getting people to come to where people aren’t. But it is quaint.”

Part of the charm is the nostalgia trolleys create in a generation who, like Atlantans 125 years ago, never saw or rode one.

“There is that historical tradition of having street cars as part of urban life,” says Cathy Liu, associate professor of public policy and a specialist in planning issues. “Now, they’re part of that general idea of making our downtown more livable and pleasant for visitors and residents. We have been having suburban development for a long time. Now people have realized the importance of downtown areas as centers of cities, and more development and investment are going in. I see the streetcar as one piece of that overall shift.”

For its part, the city is jump-starting the economic revival by creating a program of pop-up shops and offering incentives such as a few months free rent to business owners and entrepreneurs who locate along the trolley line. Those shops and restaurants will give riders options along the route.

“The trolley is definitely appealing for workers who can hop on and off and stop at different places and for tourists who want to see the downtown area,” says Liu. “It can certainly help downtown’s image. It’s appealing, and it’s a part of history.”

That history hasn’t escaped Mayor Kasim Reed, one of the project’s leading supporters.

“The streetcars are an integral part of the story of Atlanta,” he said. “It’s about revisiting our ‘routes,’ as it were. These days, streetcar systems are being used to help revitalize cities in the U.S. and throughout the world. And these are not experiments. They are proven to work.

“Building the Atlanta Streetcar now is not about nostalgia. It’s about accommodating growth and planning for the future.”

H.M. Cauley is an Atlanta-based freelancer and author of three travel books about the region. Along with being a regular contributor to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Atlanta Business Chronicle and other local publications, she is working toward a Ph.D. in Georgia State’s English Department.

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