Why Did Some Streetcars Survive When Most Didn't?

Streetcars are making a comeback across the country, but in New Orleans, they never went away

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Flickr user: gwen, under a Creative Commons License

America is experiencing what the Secretary of Transportation calls a "streetcar revival." At least 20 cities, encouraged by the availability of federal TIGER grants, have expressed an interest in building new streetcar lines. Each week seems to bring a new project: Kansas City now envisions a $101 million, four-mile line ready by 2015; Indianapolis began to contemplate two miles of downtown track in late summer; just a few days ago Providence scheduled several public meetings for its $126 million concept. The list goes on and on.

The renewed interest forces the question of why America abandoned its streetcars in the first place. The short answer, of course, is the rise of the automotive engine. Streetcars ruled city streets in the late 19th century — propelling the growth of early suburbs — and in many places continued to dominate urban travel through WWII. But in the end the personal car and the transit bus, with the flexibility to go where they pleased, largely won the day.

Still some streetcars survived, if barely. A small handful of cities, such as Philadelphia and Boston, maintained short streetcar lines beyond the 1950s, largely because they traversed tunnels or rights-of-way that buses could not. San Francisco's streetcar system wasn't totally abandoned, but it fell largely out of favor following the mid-century introduction of PCC (Presidents' Conference Committee) cars, which looked like buses. Buses also looked like buses, and didn't require a fixed track to run on. The city's cable-car system also survived, but only as the result of a strong activist effort to save them.

Still, the mere fact that streetcars not only escaped extinction but are now mounting a comeback speaks to the transit mode's allure. The country's oldest continually operating line may offer some insight into this survival-turned-revival. That's the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line in New Orleans, which has continued to clang since 1835. In the weeks after Hurricane Katrina, it was even pulled by horses. Today, it still glides along a grassy median on the avenue, through the city's Garden District and toward the French Quarter.

The line's unique right-of-way has something to do with its continuation. But charm has something to do with it too, writes Darrin Nordahl in his 2008 book, My Kind of Transit. Nordahl argues that people ride the St. Charles streetcar because it's an enjoyable experience. The car design inspires social exchanges, the pace seems to reflect the "gentility" of the Big Easy, and the history itself creates a natural nostalgia. "These consistent features of wonderment aboard the St. Charles streetcar — history, connection to the urban context, stimulation of the senses, and sociability through architectural detail — offer important lessons about providing a memorable transportation experience," he writes. 

In other words, the old New Orleans streetcar is inextricably linked to the city it navigates. This sense of permanency is a big reason for the St. Charles streetcar's success. It's also something buses lack: because they can go anywhere, they belong nowhere. Writing about the St. Charles streetcar recently for Architect magazine, Wayne Curtis points out that the fixed status of the line has long had a way of attracting stable development in the corridor:

In New Orleans, transit and development have always gone hand in hand. It’s home to one of America’s earliest urban transit systems — in 1835, horse-drawn cars on tracks starting making the trip from Canal Street some five miles upriver to the new town of Carrolton, which was being carved out of old plantations. Those who established the St. Charles line implicitly understood TOD [transit-oriented development], even before the acronym came along. The backers assumed the line would trigger development, and among the boosters were those who sought to sell lots along the way. It worked. The Garden District (among other neighborhoods) was born.

This ability to "trigger development" may go a long way toward explaining the current streetcar renaissance. A recent study of the relationships between streetcars and development [PDF], sponsored by the Federal Transit Administration, found evidence that streetcar lines "positively affected the built environment, particularly in attracting new development or enhancing revitalization." Take, for instance, their positive impact on property values. Retail outlets within 200 feet of a streetcar line had a real-estate premium up to 167 percent; single-family homes (32 percent within 100 feet), apartments (45 percent within 1,320 feet), and offices (120 percent within 1,320 feet) felt a similar surge.

Of course that's not to say all the new projects are certain to succeed. Far from it. In a recent post at his blog The Transport Politic, Yonah Freemark argues that many of the proposed new streetcar lines suffer from limitations that render them no more efficient — from a transportation perspective — than the buses they replace. The most important of these conceptual flaws is a failure to provide streetcars with dedicated lanes that separate them from the general traffic flow. "This means that streetcars will be stuck in the same traffic as everyone else, making speed improvements impossible," Freemark writes.

The success of the general streetcar revival may be uncertain, but it doesn't look like the mode will fade in New Orleans anytime soon. If anything it stands to grow: this past June the city received a $45 million federal grant for a streetcar extension expected to begin service next summer.

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