42: New Orleans

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Streetcar
RTD Streetcar

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The St. Charles Street line is still carrying people into Downtown New Orleans 180 years after it was built as a steam railroad. The 6 minute peak headway is a good indication of how useful it still is.

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Streetcars run in dedicated right of way in the St. Charles median (“neutral ground” in local terms) but stops are basic.

 

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Streetcars ran down Canal Street from 1894 to 1964; after a 40 year break they’re back.

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At Dumaine Street, the Riverfront line stops next to the French Market.

New Orleans-Metairie-Hammond, LA-MS
population 1,452,502 (2012)

The St. Charles Street streetcar line in New Orleans is a true historical artifact: a pre-WWII streetcar line, still operating on its original route, still using 1920s equipment, serving a classic streetcar suburb. Once, this was completely typical; today, it is the only unmodernized streetcar line in the United States.

A ride down St. Charles Street is a reminder that traditional streetcar lines resemble local bus routes more than they do light rail. While they have their own right of way in the grass-planted tree-lined Neutral Ground, the streetcars are slow, averaging just under 8 mph. Stops are spaced two blocks apart, the driver collects the fares, and there is no traffic signal priority.

While it was listed on the National Historic Register in 1973, the St. Charles Street line is very much public transportation. It’s an integral part of the New Orleans RTA network, connecting the CBD to Tulane University, Audubon Park, and some of the densest neighborhoods in the city. It’s busiest line in the system, and 70% of the riders are locals.

Of course, the New Orleans streetcar network was once much bigger. In 1926, there 26 streetcar lines; half of those were gone by the end of the 1930s. In 1948, the “Streetcar named Desire” become the Desire bus, and by the end of 1953 only two streetcar lines — Canal and St. Charles — were still operating. When the Canal Street line, running down the center of the city’s showcase street, was replaced by buses in1964, there was broad public support for the move. That history is much the same as other U.S. Cities. But the St. Charles Street line, which ran through well-preserved historic neighborhoods, survived due to a desire to protect the character of the city. The limited budgets of the private New Orleans Public Service Corporation, which operated the system without public subsidy until 1983, ensured that the old cars survived long after other surviving systems had converted to more modern equipment.

By the 1980s the tourist potential of streetcars was obvious. In 1988, New Orleans opened its first new streetcar route since 1926. The 2-mile line, built along a publically-owned freight rail line on the Mississippi River Levee, connects a line of tourist hotspots: the French Quarter, the Aquarium of the Americas, the Riverwalk mall, the cruise ship terminal, and the convention center.

The riverfront line was a one-off oddity, enabled by the waterfront right of way and operated as a separate system, unconnected to the rest of the rail system, with no particular provisions for connection to bus and a different fare structure. It started operations with imported cars from Melbourne and rails spaced 4′ 8 1/2″ apart, unlike the 5′ 2 1/2″ tracks on St. Charles.

In the 1990s, the RTA recommitted to streetcars, and for the last two decades it has been engaged in rebuilding the old system. In 1997, the Riverfront line was upgraded with a new fleet of cars, the tracks were relaid to match St. Charles, and a short section of connecting track was built on Canal Street to link the lines.

After Riverfront, the RTA’s next step was restoring streetcar service on Canal Street in 2004. Unlike most new U.S. streetcar lines, this new line were designed to be an integral part of the transit system. It runs 3 miles from the river to a bus transfer center at Cemeteries, where riders connect to points further north. A branch serves City Park and the art museum. This was the city’s busiest bus corridors, and, as on St. Charles, the streetcars serve as everyday transit, not a circulator or tourist attraction. In 2010, 43% of New Orleans transit ridership was on streetcars.

The next step after Canal Street was supposed to be an east-west line. RTA proposed a 2.9 mile line along Rampart and St. Claude serving residents of the French Quarter, Bywater, and the 9th Ward.

But Hurricane Katrina intervened in 2005, ripping down overhead wires across the system and flooding half the streetcar fleet. It took 4 months to get the first streetcars running, and nearly three years until the entire system was in operation again.

The cost of rebuilding set expansion efforts back, and the drop in tourism hurricane put a new focus on serving visitors. This undercut the goal of upgrading bus corridors with streetcars. In 2009, RTA came back with a more modest proposal for a shorter Rampart line, plus a spur along Loyola near the Superdome and a second line to the convention center. The 0.8 mile Loyala spur — which also serves City Hall, the Greyhound Bus terminal, and the Amtrak station — was funded by a $45m TIGER GRANT in 2009. It opened in 2013. The Rampart line is now under design. Its 1.3 mile first segment is less than half what was originally proposed, but it leaves the ability to extend onwards.

In no other US city are streetcars as important as they are in New Orleans. On St. Charles Street, a historic relic carries both tourists enjoying a quaint experience and residents simply trying to get somewhere.

But it’s hard to serve both of those roles well. The resulting compromises are visible in the vehicles and the lines alike. Because the new cars are are replicas of historic streetcars, they’re harder for wheelchair passengers — or people with groceries — to board. The Loyola line may help tourists get from the Hyatt Regency to the French Quarter, or spur new development, but it’s not much help to locals trying to get somewhere fast. All of its stops are less than 1/4 mile from stops on the St. Charles line, the entire route is only a 15 minute walk, and frequency is 20 minutes at best.

Even on St. Charles street, a long route that serves a variety of destinations with high frequency service, the streetcar is no faster and no more reliable than a bus, but it’s surely more fun. New Orleans has a conflicted relationship with its past, and so does its transit system.

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