You have reached your limit of free articles this month.

Enjoy unlimited access to myAJC.com

Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks.

GREAT REASONS TO SUBSCRIBE TODAY!

  • IN-DEPTH REPORTING
  • INTERACTIVE STORYTELLING
  • NEW TOPICS & COVERAGE
  • ePAPER
X

You have read of premium articles.

Get unlimited access to all of our breaking news, in-depth coverage and bonus content- exclusively for subscribers. Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks

X

Welcome to myAJC.com

This subscriber-only site gives you exclusive access to breaking news, in-depth coverage, exclusive interactives and bonus content.

You can read free articles of your choice a month that are only available on myAJC.com.

Atlanta Streetcar ridership plummets, and many don’t pay


Ridership on the Atlanta Streetcar plummeted 58 percent last year as the city began charging to ride.

What’s more, as many as half of those who took a spin on the downtown rail line didn’t bother to pay. That may be one reason Atlanta recovers a far smaller share of its expenses from passengers than some other streetcars around the country.

The declining ridership comes as Atlanta also has struggled to resolve dozens of safety, security, operational and other problems uncovered in state and federal audits.

Yet for all its shortfalls, streetcar supporters contend the ultimate solution would be a major expansion of the system.

» RELATED: Map of Atlanta Streetcar expansion plans 

» RELATED: Interactive timeline of streetcar’s first two years 

Supporters say they’re not concerned about the drop in passengers. They cited a big uptick in riders in January as evidence a turnaround may have begun. And the city recently introduced a mobile app that could encourage more people to pay.

But, bottom line, supporters say: If the streetcar were expanded beyond its modest 2.7-mile loop, more riders would get on board.

“The system has to connect to other forms of transit, and it has to take people to places they want to go,” said William Johnson, the Atlanta public works commissioner who oversees the streetcar.

Critics say it makes no sense to expand a system they see as a failure.

“You’ve got low ridership, and half are not paying,” said Benita Dodd, vice president of the fiscally conservative Georgia Public Policy Foundation. “It’s a recipe for disaster.”

The $99 million streetcar debuted in December 2014, carrying passengers between Centennial Olympic Park and the King Center. The city initially announced it would be free for the first three months, but later decided to forgo charging passengers for an entire year.

The extended “free” period did not yield as many passengers as expected. In 2013, a MARTA consultant estimated passengers would take 1.1 million streetcar trips the first year if they didn’t have to pay. Yet riders ended up taking just 880,083 trips in 2015, Federal Transit Administration statistics show.

Atlanta began charging a dollar in 2016, and the number of passenger trips plummeted to 371,041.

Johnson downplayed the decline in passengers.

“When you’re offering a service for free, you’re going to get much higher ridership than when people have to pay,” he said.

On a recent weekday afternoon trip, most seats on the streetcar were empty, though 10 to 14 people — many of them tourists — rode at any given time.

JoElle Shuman of St. Paul, Minn., was in town for a conference. She rode the streetcar to entertain her 4-year-old son, Knox.

She was underwhelmed.

“We rode it thinking we’d see some things,” Shuman said. “There was no place really that we wanted to get off.”

Janice Gregory of Oklahoma City enjoyed her trip.

“I loved it,” Gregory said as she rode with two friends. “You get more places, the prices are not high.”

Atlanta’s Johnson sees cause for optimism in early 2017 numbers: passengers took 32,934 streetcar trips in January, up 21 percent from the previous January. The big jump came despite the streetcar being shut down for two days because of inclement weather, he said.

But getting people on board is just the first step. Getting them to pay — and to help cover this year’s $5.3 million streetcar budget — also has proved difficult.

Johnson said Atlanta does not track how many customers pay. But based on ridership and revenue, he estimated that a third to a half of passengers did not pay in 2016. There’s nothing to prevent someone without a ticket from boarding a streetcar, though employees can check for tickets.

The free rides affect the bottom line. For the current fiscal year the streetcar has recovered just 4.5 percent of its operating and maintenance expenses from passenger fares to date. (The rest of its funding comes from federal grants, Atlanta Downtown Improvement District contributions, Atlanta car rental and hotel/motel taxes, and advertising revenue.)

Other streetcar systems recover far more from passengers, according to a report Johnson delivered recently to the City Council Transportation Committee.

Transit systems with streetcars in Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla., (30.1 percent); Tucson, Ariz., (20.7 percent); and Memphis, Tenn., (18.5 percent) recovered far more from passengers in 2014.

Among the nine systems included in the report, only Portland, Ore., (4.3 percent) recovered a smaller portion of its expenses from passengers than Atlanta.

Johnson said many factors — including fare amounts, the size and location of streetcars, and the population densities of surrounding areas — could account for differences in passenger revenue. He said Atlanta’s farebox recovery is “typical for systems of this kind and size.”

In December Atlanta introduced a mobile app that allows passengers to buy single rides or long-term passes. It has already been downloaded more than 1,800 times and has generated $3,185 in sales, according to the city report.

Johnson said the app will encourage more people to pay. But he said making people pay is not Atlanta’s top priority now.

“The city’s focus is on improving convenience and access, and on expanding the streetcar to make it an attractive transit option for residents and visitors,” he said.

Dodd, the Georgia Public Policy Foundation vice president, said an expansion doesn’t make sense, given declining ridership and other problems.

She said the future of public transit involves ride-sharing and on-demand services. And she fears an expansion will make the streetcar “too big to fail,” encouraging Atlanta to waste more money.

“Why not stop while it’s still manageable?” she said.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Local

Traffic reopens after Ga. 316 crash in Gwinnett
Traffic reopens after Ga. 316 crash in Gwinnett

All lanes have reopened on westbound Ga. 316 at Harbins Road in Gwinnett County after a three-vehicle crash, police said. A tanker truck was involved, according to the WSB 24-hour Traffic Center. All lanes were closed earlier. “There were entrapments involved and some of the occupants have been transported to the hospital,” Cpl. Frederick...
South Georgia wildfire close to 100,000 acres
South Georgia wildfire close to 100,000 acres

The wildfire that started in southeast Georgia earlier this month has burned almost one-fourth of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, officials said Saturday. Known as the West Mims Fire, the blaze now has torched 94,664 acres and is just 8 percent contained, according to a statement from the team that is battling the blaze. Waycross will be impacted...
Record high temperature possible Saturday
Record high temperature possible Saturday

Today: High: 87 Tonight: Low: 67 Tomorrow: High: 85 Better prepare for heat, metro Atlanta. Saturday’s temperature is expected to be near a record high. The forecast high of 87 is just 1 degree lower than the record for this date, Channel 2 meteorologist Brian Monahan said. And the forecast is also well above the average high temperature...
8-month-old gets liver transplant from godmother
8-month-old gets liver transplant from godmother

He’s known as “Finn the Mighty Warrior” on a Facebook page devoted to him, and this 8-month old fighter continues to battle against two rare liver conditions. >> Read more trending news But Finn O’Sullivan won’t have to fight alone. The infant, in need of a transplant, found a match — not from a relative...
At 100-day mark, gauging Trump’s impact on Georgia
At 100-day mark, gauging Trump’s impact on Georgia

President Donald Trump. Curtis Compton/AJC One hundred days into the tenure of the most mold-shattering administration in modern history and President Donald Trump has moved at breakneck pace to try and strip away federal regulations, reset the country’s economic relationships abroad and dismantle the biggest pieces of his predecessor’s...
More Stories