Wednesday, January 7, 2015

A Streetcar Named Stupid

The New Orleans Regional Transit Authority is hosting an informational meeting tonight at 6pm at Joseph Craig Charter School about the N. Rampart / St. Claude streetcar line, which is already under construction.

According to the Bywater Neighborhood Association's Facebook page, "During the meeting, the project team will be introduced and track alignment, station stops, shelter design, and the project schedule will be presented. Traffic control, major events and community outreach during construction will be addressed as well. Representatives from the construction and management team will be available after the presentation to answer questions."

Rampart St. Claude streetcar map

Unable to attend the meeting, I offer the following input:

As someone who lives and commutes along St. Claude Avenue, I am concerned that this project demonstrates a kind of shortsighted, tourism-centered approach to New Orleans urban planning that actually diminishes the quality of life for residents.

St. Claude Avenue is also known as State Highway 46, and is one of few entry points to the city from St. Bernard Parish and the Lower 9th Ward.

Commuters and other locals will bear the brunt of construction-induced inconvenience over the next two years, only to reap the arguable benefits of a streetcar line that extends through the touristic French Quarter and only partially through the more residential Marigny neighborhood.

Moreover, engineers have identified the potential for environmental degradation that streetcar construction may cause.

Bus lines already exist to connect downtown's Canal Street to the Lower 9th Ward, via N. Rampart / St. Claude. Buses here are cheaper than streetcars, as they operate along existing infrastructure. They are just as safe as streetcars, can fit more people, and are wheelchair and stroller accessible. They even have bike racks on them!

Investing in more intuitive bus schedules would yield greater returns for people interested in travel along St. Claude and N. Rampart, and to other destinations. There is no reason why a person should wait upwards of an hour to catch the bus home when the City is spending resources on a stunted streetcar line for tourists who want the "authentic" New Orleans experience.

In truth, waiting for public transit has become a pretty authentic New Orleans experience, and we'd be better served if transportation money were spent where it is needed and useful.

UPDATE 8/19/15: I'm not going to say I told you so, but
"Report: New Orleans RTA focusing too much on streetcars, ignoring needs of local commuters"

1 comment:

  1. Without the benefit of much local NOLA knowledge, I agree with your skepticism about how short and tourist-centric the line seems to be. Milwaukee is dealing with similar criticisms about a streetcar line that has been approved.

    After some quick research, though, it looks like the NOLA line was originally supposed to extend all the way souteast to Poland Ave, but was scaled back because of lack of funding:

    My sense is that the approved (and almost nonsensically short) portion of the streetcar line is planned as a sort of "phase 1," after which the line will be extended if the first bit proves viable. This is a common strategy, since it often takes a successful first-run demonstration of a transit project to secure enough funding through programs like the Federal Transit Administration's New Starts and Small Starts. Albany has been getting more and more funding for their Bus Rapid Transit system through that same phasing strategy, which has been working out pretty well so far.

    As for the question of whether or not a streetcar is "needed" - I can't weigh in on that so much in the context of NOLA. I will say, though, that bus systems are sort of the historical consolation prize of transit users. Streetcars used to be omnipresent in cities like LA, New Orleans, Seattle, Detroit, West Berlin, etc. etc. (even Albany!), but were torn up with the help of automobile company lobbies - who then made money on the deal not only by forcing more people to abandon transit for driving to carry out local trips, but by manufacturing buses to be used in place of the old streetcars. Adding to their consolation prize status, they are generally subservient to private vehicle traffic in that they are almost always directly affected by auto congestion (except for areas where that have queue jumping / bus-only signals, etc.), and as a result are often unreliable, slow, and undesirable. Something like a streetcar, if implemented somewhere that makes sense, has a dedicated right-of-way that elevates transit "above" the car, ideally increasing usage and ridership - particularly by improving the reliability / frequency factors, which have shown to be one of the most important factors in people's mode choice. I.e., if I know that I can walk to the streetcar stop and one will reliably be there within 10 minutes regardless of when I leave my home/work, I will be more likely to use that instead of driving.

    Affordability is a whole other issue. Buses are often cheaper than things like streetcars (though not always - again, look at the subway), so what are the less affluent who rely on the low cost of bus transit supposed to do? LA and Atlanta have been sued by the federal government over this issue, actually. To me, it's sad that we choose to heavily subsidize gasoline, yet balk at subsidizing transit to a degree that even approaches that. If that imbalance was corrected, a lot would be improved upon.