Atlanta — Streetcar due to open next spring


Simulation of Atlanta's Peachtree St. streetcar. Graphic: Railway Preservation.

Simulation of Atlanta’s Peachtree St. streetcar. Graphic: Railway Preservation.

Atlanta, Georgia — Completion of Atlanta’s streetcar project (called a “loop” because, to provide two-way service, it consists of single-direction lines running on roughly parallel streets that form elongated loops) is just about six months away from its scheduled opening in the spring of 2014, according to an Oct. 14th report in the Atlanta Curbed blog.

As Urban Rail Today reported in the earlier article Atlanta Streetcar construction pushes forward (25 February 2013), the total route of the streetcar starter line is 2.62 miles, with a project cost of about $93 million. It would re-install a tiny fragment of the urban area’s once-extensive network of nearly two dozen urban and several interurban surface electric railway lines, the last of which was scrapped in 1949.

Streetcar trackage under construction in Ellis St., summer 2013. Photo: Central Atlanta Progress.

Streetcar trackage under construction in Ellis St., summer 2013. Photo: Central Atlanta Progress.

Looking to the future … the new modern streetcar line, designed to carry passengers between Centennial Olympic Park and the King Historic District, has 12 station-stops, with headways projected to be 15 minutes between trains. Ridership is projected at 2,600 per weekday.

All rides will be provided for free for the first three months of operation. After that, according to the blog post, fares will initially be just $1.00, “until MARTA upgrades its Breeze Card system to accommodate the light-rail route. Transfers from MARTA will be free.”

According to the project’s executive director, Tim Borchers, construction is now on time (overcoming earlier delays) and $2 million under budget.

Borchers, a streetcar expert from Australia, long respected in the U.S. rail transit industry, is extremely bullish on the potential benefits of the streetcar system. In an interview with Atlanta’s WABE-FM, he assured listeners: “It’s been happening all over the world. Streetcar systems are being used to rebuild decaying urban cores, give a financial boost to cities, relieve traffic, help the environment, and also, of course, provide public transportation.”

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Serving a “rainbow” ridership — How urban rail excels in attracting ethnically and socio-economically diverse ridership


Chart from paper shows overwhelming role of rail transit in contributing to growth of public transportation passenger-mileage.

Chart from paper shows overwhelming role of rail transit in contributing to growth of public transportation passenger-mileage.

by Lyndon Henry

A very curious argument is occasionally brought to bear against urban rail plans and projects — the claim that rail transit somehow has a class and ethnic bias favoring relatively affluent ethnically white segments of the population. This is particularly curious because, in a given city, the rail opponents that promulgate this contention — often trying to stoke public discontent or voter rejection of a ballot measure — will raise this fear among less affluent and predominantly minority neighborhoods, with a high percentage of residents more dependent on good transit service (which rail excels in providing). But then the same opponents will go to the opposite side of town and raise totally opposite fears among relatively more affluent ethnically white neighborhoods — urban rail will bring “those people” (supposedly, low-income minorities) into your neighborhood!

It’s ugly, it’s contradictory, but it does seem to work for rail opponents … up to a point.

Taking the “class/ethnic bias” attack on urban rail head on, back in July 2006 I presented a paper on this very issue to the 2006 National Meeting of the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials (COMTO), held that year in Austin, Texas (where I was then a data analyst for Capital Metro, the transit authority). I coined the term “rainbow ridership” to express the concept of ethnic and income diversity in transit ridership:

Serving a “Rainbow” Ridership — Designing and Providing High-Quality Public Transit for a Demographically Diverse Population

At the conference session, I also presented a PPT summarizing the paper.

The specific research question addressed in the paper is fairly simple:

Transit services, and major new transit system investments, such as rail transit, are typically aimed to fulfill several important types of travel needs. Two of the most pre-eminent of these needs are:

(1) Providing a basic, affordable service for transit-dependent travelers, many of whom are lower-income, or mobility-impaired because of handicaps, age, or other factors;

(2) Providing a high-quality service fashioned to attract more affluent urban and suburban travelers out of their motor vehicles, thus helping to alleviate dependency on private motor vehicle transportation and to reduce demand for peak roadway and parking capacity.

These differences reflect the contrasting needs of the demographically diverse population mix typical of North American urban areas today. But how well are these somewhat disparate needs being fulfilled?

Discussing several examples of how the “rail favors affluent whites” argument is wielded to try to stymie urban rail development plans and projects, the paper notes that

The portrayal of some kind of class and ethnic differentiation among transit modes — bus for the poor and nonwhite, rail for the rich and white — is highly dubious and certainly unsupported by evidence. The decision to install a higher-quality mode such as rail transit – or a busway, for that matter — is motivated by factors such as the desire to improve services for the riding public, to ameliorate environmental impacts, to facilitate greater efficiencies in transit operation, and to reduce the unit cost of transit service. Overwhelmingly, these goals are being achieved, and these benefits are being brought to very broad range of existing transit users as well as new riders attracted to the improved service.

In reality, rail systems appear to attract a far more diverse ridership, particularly with respect to ethnic background and income level, than do typical bus services. Inevitably, this implies that, for a given rail service in a specific corridor, a proportionately higher number of white/anglo and more affluent passengers will be attracted – even if the number of nonwhite, lower-income, and transit-dependent riders is equal to, or greater than, what would otherwise by carried by bus operations in the corridor.

For supporting evidence, the paper draws upon fact-based articles from the Light Rail Now website:

Light Rail and Lower-Income Transit Riders

Does Light Rail “Rob” Bus Service, or Make It Prosper? You Decide!

My paper also supports its thesis with summaries and discussions of a number of cases studies of ridership characteristics in operating rail transit systems: Los Angeles, San Diego, Denver, St. Louis, Minneapolis, and San Francisco.

Here are excerpts from some of the PPT slides presenting summaries of statistical data:


"Math exercise" challenges claim rail transit has class/ethnic bias, based on demographic percentage. Since rail attracts more, and more diverse, ridership, average income rises, but so does lower-income and minority ridership!

“Math exercise” challenges claim rail transit has class/ethnic bias, based on demographic percentage. Since rail attracts more, and more diverse, ridership, average income rises, but so does lower-income and minority ridership!


Los Angeles — Rail ridership (upper left) is 84% minority, bus ridership (lower right) is 88% minority.

Los Angeles — Rail ridership (upper left) is 84% minority, bus ridership (lower right) is 88% minority.


St. Louis is one example for which study data was available. Metrolink light rail transit system has attracted a more diverse ridership than bus system.

St. Louis is one example for which study data was available. Metrolink light rail transit system has attracted a more diverse ridership than bus system.


Summary of some study data supporting ethnic diversity on Metrorail system.

Summary of some study data supporting ethnic diversity on Metrorail system.


Minneapolis's Hiawatha light rail system also provided case study with data supporting rail ridership ethnic and income diversity.

Minneapolis’s Hiawatha light rail system also provided case study with data supporting rail ridership ethnic and income diversity.


Summary of some study data supporting income/ethnic diversity on Hiawatha LRT system.

Summary of some study data supporting income/ethnic diversity on Hiawatha LRT system.


From this evidence, the paper concludes:

High-quality transit services, especially rail systems, have demonstrated a marked propensity to attract middle- and higher-income ridership – the very people who would otherwise make up the majority of automobile users, clogging freeways and streets and contributing to an increased need for expansive roadway expansion and construction of parking facilities. In particular, the evidence suggests that higher-quality transit operations — particularly rail transit – tend to effectively serve two somewhat disparate transit passenger markets with two different types of service needs: (1) a basic, affordable service for transit-dependent travelers, including many lower-income, and (2) a high-quality service capable of attracting more affluent urban and suburban travelers out of their motor vehicles, thus helping to alleviate dependency on private motor vehicle transportation and to reduce demand for peak roadway and parking capacity. Overall, evidence suggests that high-quality transit service improvements tend to meet the needs of both categories of travelers with considerable success.

Thus, the research reported in this paper suggests that these types of higher-quality transit service actually produce a far more diverse ridership than is experienced with typical bus services alone. In effect, far from promoting inequity, the evidence suggests that these kinds of transit services foster a “rainbow ridership”, promoting passenger diversity within the nation’s transit systems.

The main takeaway from the paper can probably be boiled down to this: Rail transit tends to attract significantly more riders than buses, and from a much wider diversity of income levels and ethnic backgrounds. Be sure to read the complete paper to become fully informed on this critical issue.

How Portland’s light rail trains and buses share a transit mall


LRT train on Portland's 5th Ave. transit mall swings to the curbside station to pick up waiting passengers. Photo: L. Henry.

LRT train on Portland’s 5th Ave. transit mall swings to the curbside station to pick up waiting passengers. Photo: L. Henry.

♦ How can both buses and light rail transit (LRT) trains share the same transit-priority paveway or street? There are numerous examples that answer this, but certainly one of the best is in Portland, Oregon — the 5th and 6th Avenue transit malls.
Recently, the Austin Rail Now (ARN) blog posted an article focusing on Portland’s transit malls, and because of the more general usefulness of this information for many more communities, we’re re-posting it here with the kind permission of ARN. (It’s also been re-posted by the Light Rail Now blog.)
The opening context for the article is the urban rail planning project currently under way by the City of Austin, Capital Metro (the transit authority), and a transit planning consortium called Project Connect. Transit priority lanes are now being installed on two major downtown north-south streets, and it’s been expected that urban rail trains would share these with buses, including the MetroRapid premium-bus services now being implemented in several major city corridors. However, some transit advocates are noting that these lanes may have insufficient capacity to handle all the bus routes plus MetroRapid, much less adding LRT into the mix.
Portland’s experience thus provides an illustration of how LRT trains and buses can share a priority alignment in a way that works well.

Capital Metro and the City of Austin have a project under way to designate “Transit Priority Lanes” on Guadalupe and Lavaca Streets downtown between Cesar Chavez St. and MLK Jr. Blvd. It’s mainly to expedite operation of the planned new MetroRapid bus services (Routes 801 and 803), but virtually all bus routes running through downtown will also be shifted to these lanes, located on the far-righthand side of traffic on each street (i.e., the righthand curbside lanes).

According to a 2011 study funded by the City of Austin, the Official (City + Project Connect) Urban Rail route is also envisioned to use these lanes downtown. Alternatives to the Official plan have also assumed that these routes would be available for alternative urban rail lines serving the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.

However, there are legitimate questions as to whether these two lanes could simultaneously and effectively accommodate the two MetroRapid bus routes (10-minute headways each) plus all other Capital Metro routes (various headways) as well as urban rail (10-minute headway), all running in both directions.

Experience with both light rail transit (LRT) trains and buses sharing the same running way is rare in the USA, but one of the best examples can be seen in Portland, Oregon. For years, 5th and 6th Avenues through the downtown have been used by multiple bus routes as a transit mall, with a single lane provided for general motor vehicle access. In September 2009 LRT was added with the opening of the new Green Line; see: Portland: New Green Line Light Rail Extension Opens.

The integration of LRT with bus service in the 5th and 6th Avenue transit malls has worked well. Here’s a brief photo-summary illustrating some of the configurational and operational details.

• Buses and LRT trains share transitway

This illustrates how both bus services and LRT trains share the mall. Tracks, embedded in the pavement, weave from curbside to the second lane over. A third lane is kept open for mixed motor vehicle traffic.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

• LRT routes cross

This photo shows how the Green and Yellow LRT lines on the 5th Ave. transit mall cross the Red and Blue LRT lines running on 5th St. You’re looking north on 5th Ave., and just across the tracks in the foreground, the LRT tracks on 5th Ave. weave from the middle of the street over to the curbside, where a station-stop is located. This allows LRT trains to access stations but otherwise pass buses stopped at bus stops on the same street.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: L. Henry.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: L. Henry.

• LRT train leaving station

Here an LRT train has just left the curbside station, following the tracks into the middle lane of the street. This track configuration allows the train to pass a bus boarding passengers at a stop.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

• LRT train passing bus

Another train moves to the street center lane and passes the bus stop. Meanwhile, other buses queue up at the street behind.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

• Bus bunching

Buses are prone to “bus bunching” (queuing) in high-volume situations because of their smaller capacity, slower operation, slower passenger boarding/deboarding, difficulty adhering to schedule, etc. However, notice how they’re channeled to queue up in a lane off the LRT track.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: L. Henry.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: L. Henry.

Can and will Austin and Project Connect planners learn anything about how to create workable Transit Priority Lanes from examples like this? Time will tell…