Planes, Trains, Automobiles… Just Take The Streetcar

00:00 January 21, 2013
By: 2Fik
[Courtesy of James Macaluso]

Streetcars have been a viable, fun, and economical way for citizens and visitors to get around New Orleans for over a century. During that time, they serviced many miles, were dismantled when buses came into fashion, and were fi nally reduced down to one line: a line that was fraught with robberies and crashes. With a new-found, worldwide push for eco-friendly and cost-effective forms of travel and public transportation, the streetcar is becoming the focus of a project to expand lines.

The 1965 book The streetcars of New Orleans, by Louis Hennick and E. Harper charlton, meticulously details the beginning of public transportation in the city and surrounding neighborhoods. The book is opened by the statement, "Any chronological outline of the development, operations, and decline of city transportation in New Orleans, specifi cally rail transportation, reaches back in time…to 1831." The fi rst railway system in New Orleans began at Elysian Fields Ave and Decatur street and ran north fi ve miles to Milneburg at Lake Pontchartrain, the area referred to as Lakeview today. Even though the trains for the passenger cars had not arrived from Europe yet, the six cars still rolled on down to the lake thanks to a team of horses that carried a group of passengers, including Governor Roman, city offi cials, a musical band, and investors through the marshy terrain to a lakefront resort on April 23rd , 1831. steam locomotives were fi nally used in september 1832, on the same line. Over the next few decades, the city expanded lines to connect suburbs of New Orleans to the city using mule-and-horse or steam engine-drawn cars; those neighborhoods are now the Uptown, Central City and Midcity areas that were thought of as rural areas at the time. The fi rst electric streetcars, like those that are still in use today, were introduced during the New Orleans cotton centennial Exposition in 1885, and were eventually put into use after much debate and testing beginning in 1893.

The streetcars didn't only advance transportation needs of the city; they played a role in literature, fi lm, and food and beverages. A famous scene in the 1951 fi lm A Streetcar Named Desire, when characters Blanche and Mitch go on a date, shows the type of bars and restaurants that lined the Lake Pontchartrain that city dwellers reached exclusively by streetcar. if not for the striking of streetcar drivers, we would not have the popular and iconic po-boy sandwich. During the 1929 streetcar workers' strike, the Martin Brothers' coffee stand and Restaurant gave sandwiches made with long loaves of French bread and meats to any members of Division 194 workers, or "the poor boys," who were out of the job to protest low wages. A beer brewery located right on Tchoupitoulas street, the NOLA Brewing company, was also touched by streetcars, and made the smoky Mary beer named after the Pontchartrain Railroad company train that took passengers from the lake down to the river, and later, a rollercoaster at the now iconic shuttered amusement park Pontchartrain Beach.

Continuing on charlton and Hennick's book, Earl Hampton, Jr., wrote in his 2010 book The streetcars of New Orleans: 1964-Present about the phasing out of streetcars as early as the 1920s in favor of gas and electric buses. Hampton writes, "Life means change. For example, New Orleans lost all streetcar lines but one…" by the 1970s. The st. charles line was granted a place on the National Register of Historic Landmarks in 1973. The Regional Transit Authority, established in 1979, was given control of streetcars by the city in 1983, and systematically modernized and revived the service to what it is today by reviving the Riverfront line in 1988 and the canal street line in 2004.

Today, NORTA and its subcontractors, Veolia Transportation Developers, realize the importance of the streetcar for the sake of nostalgia, convenience, and as a practical form of public transportation. The Director of Marketing and communications for Veolia Transportation, Patricia Bell Mercadel, says, "initially ridership was lower system-wide following Katrina, but since population has returned, streetcar ridership has grown dramatically."

Due to that increase in ridership and an emphasis on using more clean energy-fueled forms of transportation, the two organizations have been continuing their efforts to expand the reach of streetcars. "it is extremely important to the successful maintenance of the city and to its economic growth," claims Mercadel. The latest line on Loyola Avenue in the cBD will shuttle business district workers as well as droves of sports fans during game seasons to the Mercedes Benz superdome and New Orleans Arena, and will be done just in time for the superbowl on February 3rd , 2013. Even more lines are planned for the city, and the possibilities for more lines are numerous. Mercadel states, "The fi nal design phase is underway for a rail line on North Rampart street between canal street and Elysian Fields Avenue."

The non-profi t public transit advocacy group Ride New Orleans promotes and encourages world-class public transit systems for the purpose of creating better community infrastructure and an improved quality of life. Executive Director Rachel Heiligman believes that streetcars are helpful to the community and should be made a priority. she explains, "streetcars are great at generating economic revitalization along the corridors that they run. The surge of private investment along Loyola Avenue in anticipation of the new streetcar coming online is indicative of that. And because of the tremendous economic impact streetcars offer, many corridors would benefi t from them. some of the easiest areas to target for future expansion are where streetcar additions would help to better connect the existing system. similarly, adding service along Howard Avenue between the st. charles and Loyola streetcar lines would create a continuous connection for riders."

Rachel Heiligman admits that streetcars can be cumbersome, slow, and often overcrowded. Keeping the cars in the classic style also creates issues with modern needs, and the fare of $1.25 only generates twenty percent of the funds needed to operate the cars. she says, "New Orleans's streetcars are not only iconic, but along the st. charles streetcar line, they are designated as historically signifi cant. That said, our streetcars are not museums; they provide critical transportation service and a need to be retrofi tted and operated to today's standards. The lack of accessibility for disabled riders on the st. charles streetcar line is a great case in point."

Ride NOLA also wants the city to consider expanding public transit to include other new forms, as well as redesigning the streetcar lines. Rachel explains some solutions. "There are other transit modes like bus, rapid transit with dedicated lanes, and light rail that can provide a much better quality of service, including faster travel times and greater capacity, and New Orleans and the RTA should be open to exploring these modes. One of the greatest sources of streetcar delay is the many times that a car crosses over its tracks. Not only does this scenario slow streetcar service, but it also increases the risk of crashes between the streetcar and an automobile. By limiting the number of intersections where cars can cross over the streetcar tracks, the streetcars would be able to travel more quickly. Other ways include: spacing stops farther apart from one another so that the streetcar can achieve higher speeds, giving the streetcars signal prioritization so that it does not have to wait for red lights, putting the streetcar in a dedicated lane, and speeding up the boarding process by selling fares at the stops instead of on board and moving to a smart chip fare system."

Streetcars are a historic and fun way to get around areas of town. Mercadel emphasizes, "The cars continue to attract worldwide attention and grow in admiration with locals and tourists." so, the next time you're uptown, just hop on the streetcar.

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