How the New Orleans Streetcar Revival Left Bus Riders BehindHistorians in the News
tags: New Orleans, urban history, mass transit, Public Transportation
Judy Stevens leaves her home in New Orleans East three hours before her shift at a local hospital begins. Stevens, who works as an ophthalmic photographer (“If your eye doctor wants to see something behind your eye, I take a photo of it,” she says), doesn’t have a car and relies on a pair of buses to get to work. When Stevens talked to Politico about her onerous commute in 2018, she explained that she left so early because her first bus was often late, causing her to miss her second bus, which only runs every half hour. Things haven’t improved since then.
It was frustrating, then, when Stevens saw the city pour more than $50 million into the Rampart/St. Claude streetcar line in 2016, restoring a stretch of the city’s historic streetcar network that had been torn out in 1949. This line runs along the edge of the heavily touristed French Quarter into the historically black Treme neighborhood. It operated for just two years before the collapse of a hotel along its path shut it down. Today, more than a year after the incident, most of the line remains closed.
“They spent a whole ton of money sending the streetcar a few more blocks down St. Claude,” Stevens says. She’s only been on that line once, with her grandson when he came to visit. “I don’t think that was worth it. I think it should have been spent on more buses.”
The recent struggles of the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority are well known in New Orleans, where only 12% of the region’s jobs are reachable by public transit in 30 minutes or less, and transit commuters spend an average of 44 minutes riding to work, compared to 24 minutes for those in cars. “For way too many New Orleanians, the transit system here doesn’t work as a reliable means of transportation to get to where they need to go,” says Alex Posorske, executive director of Ride New Orleans, a rider advocacy group. “We’ve got a 20% carless rate and a high poverty rate in the city. So there are lots of residents who have no other option.”
The woes of New Orleans transit users reflect a multitude of factors, including the city’s oft-flooded geography, its postwar resistance to desegregation, its increasingly tourist-dependent local economy, and the lingering effects of Hurricane Katrina. The coronavirus crisis recently added a new stress: Ridership plunged in 2020, as did revenue from sales and hotel taxes. It took $43 million in federal CARES Act funding to save the agency from severe service cuts in 2020. Those strains have left the Crescent City with a bifurcated transit story: a beloved, if much-diminished, heritage streetcar network that’s most useful as a tourist amenity, and a struggling bus system largely used by working-class people of color.
For locals who have long pushed the city to put their mobility needs over those of visitors, that goal represents a long-overdue opportunity to get New Orleans back on track.
It wasn’t always this way: At one point in the 1930s, New Orleans had one of the most robust transit networks in the United States. But the forces that helped create that system also proved its undoing. “The public transportation system has always reflected both the city’s growth, especially suburban growth within the city limits, and its desire for racial segregation,” says Kevin McQueeney, a professor of history at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana, who studies the history of New Orleans transit.
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