The streetcar is a living, rumbling link to New Orleans history. What was once an urban necessity that travelled over hundreds of miles of tracks through the city streets, a vital part of the economy, is now relegated to a glorified tourist attraction. That’s not to say it’s not well-loved and respected by local people in New Orleans. It is, for the most part. But if you’re looking to get around the city in an efficient and cost effective manner these days, the bus is a better option: few streetcars are used for local transit.
But changes in popular modes of transit hasn’t killed of the streetcar entirely in New Orleans. Many people these days ride the streetcar just for the experience of it. It’s a romantic notion that people are happy to buy into when visiting New Orleans. We have four separate streetcar lines here in New Orleans, all terminating on Canal Street, but the oldest and most popular is the St. Charles Avenue line. The St. Charles line is the only remaining original streetcar line in the city, dating back to 1835 (it’s also a National Historic Landmark, designated in 2014). The St. Charles tracks seamlessly connects some of the older neighborhoods in the city: French Quarter, American Sector, Uptown, and Carrollton.
The other three lines are the Canal Street line, the Riverfront line, and the Loyola Avenue line. These three lines run the newer (quieter) air conditioned red streetcars, while the St. Charles line still runs the original classic green cars that don’t have air conditioner (but the windows raise — it’s glorious in fall and spring and terrible in summer and winter). We also have a Rampart Street line currently under construction.
Recently, newer streetcar lines are being constructed less for transit and more for economic development: the Loyola and Rampart lines, for example, serve areas already well connected by busses, but streetcar lines are being built to attract more visitors and investment. These lines just happen to double as transportation. Mixed feelings among locals exist on the newer streetcar lines. Some people are very much in favor of them, others are ambivalent, some are even angry that scarce funds are being used to invest in these projects. That’s pretty typical for hot button issues here in New Orleans: the emotions and feelings fall all over the board.
As we live closer to a convenient bus line than a streetcar, we rarely use the streetcars ourselves. In preparation for this post we rode the entire St. Charles streetcar line from its terminus at Claiborne and Carrollton all the way to Canal Street. It was something neither of us had done before, but we wanted to experience it. It was fun and very scenic, but very crowded, mostly with tourists (it was a Sunday afternoon). Though streetcars aren’t really of practical use to many New Orleanians, both of us at least are glad they exist. We are in favor using public transit over cars any time that’s feasible, and honestly, the streetcars just look nicer than busses when you see them on the street. They make the city look good, they make it look as old as it is, they remind people in cars and on foot of days gone by. To ride the streetcar is to witness the past structure, and future hopes of the city of New Orleans.
When/if you visit New Orleans, be sure to ride the streetcar. It really is an experience like no other, and a streetcar ride is a great way to see more of the city. The popular St. Charles streetcar line offers beautiful views of the large historic homes that line St. Charles Avenue, and its line begins and ends at Canal Street so it’s a cinch to use it if you’re staying in the French Quarter. You can get a day-long Jazzy Pass for $3/per person, which is your best bet. This way you can get off and on as many times as you’d like and ride as many different lines as you’d like too (passes are good for the busses as well).