Monday, December 1, 2008

A matter of aesthetics?

A recent post by Matthew Yglesias got me thinking about streetcars and a reluctance of some to, ahem, get on board:
One impediment to streetcar construction in DC is that our local lords of historic preservation have decreed that there can be no overhead wires in the so-called “L’Enfant City” — the original planned City of Washington that includes the bulk of the offices and so forth. It’s worth pointing out that historic central cities in Europe seem to have no problem incorporating modern trams into their landscape.
What got me thinking is the overhead wire issue. For those unaware, Atlanta used to have a very active and popular streetcar system. You can see a map of the streetcar system from the 1940's here; it went pretty much everywhere in the inner ring of suburbs (Emory, Decatur, East Atlanta, Grant Park, Piedmont Park/Midtown, West End). I personally am a fan, and would love to see more streetcars; I'd even love to resurrect as many of the old routes as possible since they tend to run along the very commercial districts that are now popular (Virginia Highlands, EAV, Little Five Points, even along Memorial Avenue by the cemetery).

About a year ago I was talking to a family friend, a man about my parents' age. A great guy, a history of involvement with the public process, neighborhood development, and a man with a love for the city of Atlanta. He is one of the few people I know who actually got rid of the big house in Morningside where he'd lived since the 1970's and moved into a condo on Peachtree Street in Midtown. (Most folks I know simply talk about doing it and don't follow through.) So I consider the guy pretty enlightened when it comes to having a vision of how Atlanta needs to grow, what sort of city it is and can be.

We got to talking about streetcars, and I expressed how I thought we needed to resurrect the old system. He got very animated in opposition to this idea for a simple reason - overhead electric lines. He simply believed that a streetcar system which used overhead wires to power the cars was backward looking, ugly, and would ultimately fail. I of course found it hard to argue in favor of overhead wires - they are indeed ugly and obtrusive. I mostly felt that he was overstating their impact.

I think I was wrong, however. His reaction has not been rare, in my experience. When I was working for a senator in the state legislature, we worked on legislation to create a state-level funding mechanism to channel federal streetcar funds to local pilot programs if/when they were ever available. We had a lot of pushback from other legislators because they didn't like the idea of clanging trolleys and overhead wires. (Nevermind that a representative from Vidalia doesn't need to be concerned with overhead wires in Atlanta... methinks there was some other politiking involved.) Anyway, I was surprised at how a single floor speech decrying clanging and overhead wires could muck up legislation.

I believe that San Fransisco's cable car system does not have overhead wires. It seems pretty clear to me in this picture. You can see that the power comes through a third channel between he two guide rails. Obviously there are lots of considerations, such as cost and speed, but I think that any streetcar proposal should start out talking about cable car system (or any modern equivalent that exists) to just take the overhead wire talking point off the table.

This is all pretty pointless, of course, since the Atlanta Streetcar initiative has been pretty dead lately. It got wrapped up in the mayor's Peachtree Street Taskforce, but I haven't heard peep about that in maybe a year. I'm pretty sure streetcars are a pipe dream for Atlanta, with or without overhead lines.


  1. While the trolleys do not have overhead lines, the buses in San Francisco do.

    An extensive system of overhead streetcar lines might be a little much for many folks, but a few lines down Peachtree Street as proposed is really not that big of a deal.

    After all, it's not like all of our power lines have already been buried.

    That said, I think the street car might be a little more helpful (and less redundant) by running down a few East - West streets, rather than down Peachtree and then around a tourist loop. Say, 17th Street, 10th Street, Ponce, Auburn, and Abernathy.

    The current plan (if it still exists) seems like more it's more a marketing initiative than anything else.

  2. The "not a big deal" position was my original one. I have since changed my mind because I think too many people have a knee jerk reaction to overhead lines, and it is a non-starter. I think in practice, it would not be a big deal. I also think that unless you can move past it, the public will never embrace the idea and it won't get off the ground.

    I completely agree with the E/W idea. I'd add Memorial to your list, as well.

  3. To me it's not the street cars per se. It's people on the street waiting for street cars. People on the street.

    Most of those folks whisking underground on MARTA used to be street side at Broad and Walton (and a few other places) waiting on buses. It was noisy and smelly but bustling with people. You felt like you were in a big city.

    Late one night in San Francisco the electric bus we were on lost it's connection to the overhead wire. The driver said tough luck, call a cab.

  4. streetcar technology has changed a bit so that the overhead wires are far less obtrusive now---whatever, i'm probably your parents' age, too, but i would bring the streetcars back, wires and all, in a heartbeat. By the way, SF cable cars are basically towed by a subsurface cable---there's no third rail.

  5. Cable cars aren't powered by a third line in the street, they're pulled by a cable that is running continuously on pulleys that are below the street. The operation is somewhat analogous to a ski lift, but instead of the cars being fixed to the cable, they clamp-on to the cable using a hand brake and clutch system.

    It would be prohibitively expensive to retrofit streets for cable cars, because in addition to the basic mechanical system that would need to be installed to operate the cable car system, the infrastructure network below the pavement would also need to be relocated.

    I'm for overhead lines. There are a lot of overhead lines in Atlanta anyway.

  6. Last I heard from people involved with the Peachtree streetcar project, it was placed on the backburner because of Atlanta's shortfall. (If you recall, proponents of the initiative were relying on the city to kick in some cash. That was before the deficit was announced.) Keep an eye out for state lawmakers introducing bills before the legislative session that would tinker with a parking tax in the city — that was one of the ideas tossed around to raise revenue for the streetcar.

  7. My point was less whether the cable cars use electricity or a cable, but more that technology does exist to avoid overhead lines. What I'm hearing is that it may not be feasible? Anyone know of other options to avoid overhead lines?

  8. Don't forget about Dublin. The LUAS ( is a truly amazing, modern system that is powered by overhead lines. The buildings and scenery in Dublin are much, much older than most anything in Atlanta, and I didn't think the overhead lines looked out of place whatsoever.

  9. Some info on trams without wires:


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