Posts Tagged ‘Atlanta Traffic’

The Streetcars

Traffic wasn’t always this way.  Years earlier, Atlanta had a streetcar system.  So did Macon, Savannah, Columbus and Athens, among others.  Even in the early days, the inherent advantages of steel wheels operating on steel rails were apparent.  Animal horsepower would switch to electric horsepower.

Near Five Points

As with other cities, the new trolley was used as a tool of real estate development.  Inman Park, Atlanta’s first suburb, was served by an electric powered car line:

Inman Park Trolley Car Barn

Fortunately, the car barn and Inman Park remain to this day:

Inman Park Today

The new car lines were built with private capital, so the car routes followed existing traffic patterns or tried to establish new patterns (such as the Inman Park line).  Trolley cars were a new technology, subject to the same rules that affect all new technology.  Which is to say that car lines were built, often with the hope that they would be purchased by better established companies.  Briefly, from an online site:

In 1871, the Atlanta Street Railroad Co. began operating the first mule cars. Eventually there were six operating street railway companies, which in 1891 merged into the Atlanta Consolidated Street Railway Co. Between 1889 and 1894, electric operation was adopted for all streetcar lines.

What followed was the first of a series of expansions and consolidations.  What happened in Atlanta also describes transit development in major cities across the United States.  In the early days, streetcars were a mania, with numerous operators getting in “on the ground floor” of this new technology.  Not unlike the previous and subsequent manias where a lot of investment money is thrown into a new technology.  Things reach a frenetic stage and then the economic realities close in and the investors sober up.  Some lose their investment, while others luck out and get bought.

Because of Atlanta’s central status in the Southeastern United States, the city developed a substantial transit system.  The Atlanta system carried passengers on 210 miles of track, comprised of 24 city car routes.  Several of these routes, such as the venerable 23 – Oglethorpe line, were very long.  Some operated on segments of private right of way.  The 2 – Ponce de Leon line traveled through the Frederick Law Olmsted designed park land.  Most people rode the cars, even the city’s school students.  Here, a map from 1924:

Atlanta Streetcar Routes - 1924

The streetcars went away in 1949, and probably with just cause, their design dating back to the 1910’s and earlier.  Likewise, because of the massive effort by the United States in World War II, many transportation systems had suffered deferred maintenance.  The war effort drew away all available resources.  At the end of the War, things needed to be repaired and improved.  It often was easier to abandon them and start anew.

Georgia Railway & Power City Car

The Interurbans

This is not a paean to the late great Georgia Railway & Power streetcar, but with the passing of the Atlanta streetcars, two interesting operations were also casualties.  In addition to its city lines, GR&P had two interurban lines.  These lines operated at higher speeds, traveling both from Atlanta to Marietta and from Atlanta to Stone Mountain.  The cars on these lines were more than just a streetcar, but not as big as a Class I railroad passenger train.  They were ideally suited to local intercity travel.

Interurban & Trailer on Houston Street after arriving in Atlanta from Marietta

Typically, these cars would operate on city streets at modest speeds.  Once they reached the edge of town, they would operate at much higher speeds (up to 65 mph) on private rights of way.  The Atlanta interurban lines were a small part of a much larger phenomenon.  The electric powered interurban was very popular in the Midwest and the Northeast, with thousands of miles of track.  In addition to carrying passengers, the interurbans also carried package express (similar to UPS and FedEx) and freight.

The Marietta interurban, formally known as the Atlanta & Northern, would leave Marietta’s city square at the striking of the hour on the courthouse clock.  Less than an hour later, the car would pull up to a station facility in downtown Atlanta, having traveled through Smyrna, and Bolton; the line generally followed Atlanta Road.  Outside of cities and towns, the line ran on private right of way, operating in the city streets of Marietta, Smyrna and Atlanta.  It crossed the Chattahoochee at Bolton, then returned to private right of way on what is now Marietta Boulevard.  It was on that particular stretch of track where the Atlanta & Northern flew at top speed.  Once to Marietta Road, the car returned to staid city street speeds, ending up in downtown Atlanta near Five Points.

The line enjoyed popularity for years.  An Atlanta Business Chronicle article  reports the sentiments of the day.  The Marietta interurban also played a significant role during World War II, ferrying a large number of employees out from Atlanta to the Bell Bomber Plant (now the Lockheed-Martin facility at Dobbins AFB).

But after World War II, the A&N would go away.  The details are clear: “Marietta route sold in 1946 to Atlanta Northern Lines, which converted line to buses in 1947, and resold line to Southeastern Greyhound Lines in 1948.”

There are still some vestiges of the Marietta interurban, most notably the Ashby Street car barn.  For details, please see here.  In other areas, if you know what to look for, you can see where the line had operated.  At the center of this change was an individual named J. C. Steinmetz.  According to this website:

The Greyhound Lines of Georgia was a result of the work of J.C. Steinmetz, whom the officers of the MTC  [Motor Transit Corporation] had sent in 1927 to the Southeast to spearhead the growth of Greyhound in that direction and to provide Greyhound with a gateway for the important (that is, potentially lucrative and therefore profitable) passenger traffic between Florida and the populous Midwest.

Steinmetz proved to be quite capable of handling his job.  In addition to the takeover and dismantling of the Atlanta & Northern, he also established several city bus lines that served areas not covered by the Georgia Railway & Power streetcars, most notably the Garden Hills neighborhood in Atlanta.  These lines were ultimately purchased by Atlanta Transit.

The Ashby Carbarn site notes:

The demise of the system cannot only be attributed to the buses of Steinmetz. Although his purchase was a contributing factor, the writing was on the wall for all to see. The mobility of the gas powered bus, the rise of Greyhound Bus Lines and the automobile manufacturers, along with tire and rubber companies were too strong a lobby for the privately held interurban public systems to overcome. After WW II, the automobile age boomed, war vets were returning, gas rationing was a thing of the past and the pent-up consumer demand for the freedom of the automobile all contributed to the interurban’s final demise.

Steinmetz was also involved in a similar transaction in 1949 which ultimately closed an 18-mile long electric interuban which operated between Milwaukee, Wisconsin and the western suburb of Waukesha.

There was a certain sense of inevitability to the closing of Atlanta’s electric powered car lines.  Popular tastes change, people seek out the new and novel.  At the time of the A&N’s demise, Marietta’s mayor was making loud sounds about getting the car line out of the town’s central square; presumably, this made Marietta look old fashioned.  Nor was this problem the sole property of the interurbans.  The Class I railroad passenger train was facing the same challenge of competing modes of transport.  Like the interurban, the privately operated railroad passenger train in America was also doomed.  In no small part, the highway killed it.

Regardless, I feel that the disappearance of the Marietta Interurban Line and the Stone Mountain line is at the center of Atlanta’s descent into traffic problems.  You have to wonder what would have happened if the line had been retained.  Sixty years later, would this have been the vital transit artery between Cobb County and Atlanta?

The Four Lane

The sale of the Marietta interurban line more or less coincided with the construction of an improved nearby highway, U. S. Route 41 (called the Marietta Four-Lane by locals).  The Four Lane drew passenger traffic away from the electric powered interurban.  The resulting loss of passenger traffic made the electric powered train go away, supplanted by a rubber tired diesel bus which used the new highway.  The Atlanta to Stone Mountain line met a similar fate.

There was, of course, some wailing at the departure of the streetcars, but most of Atlanta was too preoccupied with other matters to really care.  The War was over and people were ready for change.  Also, the streetcars had fallen into decrepitude, so a nice new shiny bus was welcomed.  The bigger matter was that most people were, instead, looking at a nice new shiny automobile.

The Automobile Ascendant

As Interstate and local highway construction developed momentum, Atlanta ended up as the crossroads of concrete in much the same manner as it had become the crossroads of railroads.  It’s all location, location, location, but while the railroads were able to keep a handle on their traffic flow, automobiles would prove to be a much more complicated problem.

In the early days of Interstate construction, it was assumed that only through traffic would use the highways; local traffic supposedly would continue operating on existing surface streets.  As a result, I-85 was two lanes in each direction.  I-75 was two lanes in each direction.  When they merged in the center of Atlanta, the two roads had three lanes in each direction.  Even then, the numbers didn’t work out, but the die was cast.  Atlanta had placed its faith with the ability of the automobile.


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