Streetcars are an iconic fixture in New Orleans, a reflection of our city’s connection to the past. Although the technology is old and often inefficient, we cling to these aging steel transports because of their beauty, craftsmanship and history.
The nexus of all of this is the St. Charles streetcar line, which has run through Uptown and the CBD since the early 19th Century. We take pride in the fact that it is the oldest continually operating streetcar line in the nation.
Today, there are plans to extend streetcar lines to other parts of the city, capitalizing off of the perceived success of the much newer Canal Street line. Instead of just a quaint remembrance largely for tourists, these plans aim to turn streetcars into a primary mode of transportation for all New Orleanians.
Already plans are in motion to construct a spur to go between the Union Passenger Termination and Canal Street which would almost (but not quite) create another connection between the St. Charles Streetcar Line and the Canal Line. Another plan will sent a streetcar line down through the Marigny and the Bywater.
Now, I don’t believe these plans are necessarily misguided, but I do wonder if new streetcar lines are actually going through a proper cost-benefit analysis. The purpose of our public transportation should be to transport the most people to the most places in the least time for the least money. The name of the game is overall ridership – not just of a single line, but of the entire public transit system.
Throughout the country, other cities have been building light rail systems that have largely not improved overall ridership, and have actually made some trips inconvenient. In Houston, for example, the construction of a seven-mile light rail line into downtown entailed shutting down multiple parallel bus lines, including a free “trolley” line. The ridership numbers on the rail line were satisfactory, but only because the system was reoriented towards insuring high ridership numbers for a single transit line.
Transit rail infrastructure is thus a problem when it becomes an end unto itself. The purpose should not be to have more rail, but to provide cost-effective public transport. Because of its vastly higher capital costs (combined with comparable operating costs), rail transit will rarely win a cost-benefit analysis versus buses. Also, buses are more flexible because they aren’t tied down to a single rail line, providing smoother operation.
Ultimately, the main reason why streetcars began to disappear in the 1920’s and 30’s is because they are an older, more expensive technology. Their time had passed.
Of course, part of the problem is how we define “cost-effective.” The low-hanging fruit for public transit (i.e., those riders who are easiest to entice) are those with limited transportation options, usually poorer individuals without cars. Rail advocates often point out that while buses may appear more cost-effective, they do not attract “choice” riders, i.e. those who would not normally use buses.
Let’s call this what it really is. “Choice” riders are people who are too snobby to ride the bus but will ride on rail transit because they perceive it as being more upper-class. It should be self-evident that we should not be spending copious amounts of scarce funds to encourage the wealthy and middle class to use public transit.
On the other hand, New Orleans is a special case. Our city thrives on its image, which not only feeds tourism but is also cherished by residents. Streetcars are a part of that image, and it does actually tie into the bottom line. Moreover, streetcars are actually much cheaper to construct than modern light rail systems and tend to interfere less with traffic.
To conclude, then, it is not necessarily the case that proposed streetcar expansions are a bad idea. In particular cases, they may indeed be a better choice than existing bus lines. Heck, New Orleans may even benefit from a small streetcar network, as is planned. However, on a grand scale the age of the streetcar is simply gone. Nostalgia is simply not a good transit policy, no matter how much we may wish it to be.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.