At the time of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was arguably home to the most robust streetcar system in the United States. Its three lines not only traversed the central business district but extended out into additional urban neighborhoods, with the St. Charles Avenue line representing the country's oldest in continual operation. Streetcars were the only form of rail transit in the city, and the only transit mode that officials said they would rebuild in full after the storm.
For all its devastation, Katrina also presented urban scholars the rare chance to study city growth during a rebuilding process. Transportation policy experts Andrew Guthrie and Yingling Fan of the University of Minnesota used this unfortunate opportunity to evaluate the streetcar's impact on redevelopment in New Orleans. In the Journal of Planning Education and Research, they report that the streetcar did attract commercial developers, but might have displaced residential ones in the process:
We find that distance to stops strongly predicts building permits. Residential permits increase with distance to stops; commercial permits decrease. Findings confirm streetcars support commercial development, yet suggest potential displacement of residential uses.
Focusing on the streetcar network, Guthrie and Fan analyzed post-Katrina building permits on a street relative to its distance from a streetcar stop. While they considered many factors — including property damage, distance to the city core, and distance to pre-Katrina commercial centers — they found streetcar stop distance the most compelling. Here's a shot of the study area (New Orleans has since chosen to expand its streetcar network, but the planned lines weren't part of the study):
The researchers found opposing commercial and residential trends within 750 feet of streetcar stops throughout the system. In that zone, every 100 feet they moved away from a stop showed about a 20 percent drop in commercial permits. On the flipside, every 100 feet away from a stop led to a 24 percent increase in residential permits in this inner zone.
The trend held up throughout the system. In the downtown area overall, commercial permits started around 1 per street segment near a streetcar stop and dropped to .2 at 750 feet away from it. The same thing happened in the urban neighborhoods outside the central business district, with permits falling from .4 to .1 moving away from the stop up to 750 feet. Meanwhile, residential permits started low beside the stop, at .15 per street segment, then rose to .5 at 750 feet away.
In other words, the streetcar shaped post-Katrina New Orleans in a very measurable way — over and above any effects of proximity to pre-Katrina commercial centers. Retailers packed in tight around the streetcar system, hoping to be within walking distance of a stop. In the process, they might have forced residential developers to move farther away from the streetcar line.
Guthrie and Fan conclude that modern streetcar lines do have the potential to influence commercial development in major U.S. cities, "even outside downtown business districts." That's a notable finding given how strongly U.S. cities are now touting streetcar projects as potential engines of economic development. Whether or not they can live up to that potential is an ongoing debate.
At the same time, applying this insight to other places may prove exceedingly difficult. Myriad factors played a role in the recovery of New Orleans, including demographic shifts, local and national politics, and massive amounts of federal aid. Add to that the city's intense push for revitalization and its unique cultural attachment to the streetcar and this has the look of an isolated case study. Post-Katrina New Orleans was a singular situation, and we can only hope it remains that way.