Most New Orleanians see the streetcar as simply a means of transportation. We are fond of our streetcars, just as we are fond of (and proud of) all the things that make our city distinctive. But they are a way of getting to school and to work as well as to the French Quarter without the parking nightmare that is downtown. We are, however, unsurprised to see tourists riding the streetcars for fun, like a less expensive alternative to the horse and buggy rides by Jackson Square. We understand that our public transportation is a visitor’s afternoon entertainment. Few cities share this distinction. I can’t imagine someone going to New York City and riding the subway for recreation. One could compare the San Francisco trolley cars and the gondolas in Venice but those are all I can think of.
It is easy to see the charm of the streetcars, even by natives who ride them everyday. They certainly aren’t a rapid way of getting from point A to point B, nor are they exceedingly comfortable. The St Charles streetcars aren’t even air conditioned. But they are beautiful in their way. Their furnishings are a rich mahogany, not plastic. The windows can be raised and lowered with a satisfying clack-clack-clack. The seatbacks can be swung back and forth, turning a set of two benches into a sort of dining booth without a table. The engine hums along as the bell clang clangs through the city. Children love to sit in the conductor’s seat in the back and pretend to drive. (There are controls in the front and back of each vehicle because they do not turn around like conventional cars. When a streetcar gets to the end of the line the conductor walks from one end to another, swinging those seatbacks as he goes so all the chairs change direction, and then takes his place at the other end.)
Streetcars have existed in New Orleans since the mid 1800’s and in their heyday they covered a large portion of the city. Unfortunately in the 1960’s buses became more popular to the powers that be and all but one of the streetcar lines were phased out and their tracks paved over. The St Charles streetcar line was added to the National Register of Historic Landmarks in 1973, mostly as a way to prevent losing the last of the streetcars. It still runs a 13.2 mile crescent shaped track through uptown and is the oldest continuously operating streetcar line in the world. From it you can roll past the old mansions along St Charles Avenue, which will soon be tastefully lit for the holidays with thousands of twinkling white lights. You will also pass under the city’s iconic live oaks that form a canopy overhead. Stop and stroll through Audubon Park on one side of the street or Tulane and Loyola Universities on the other. Your ride will eventually culminate downtown at Canal Street, where you can get off or continue to ride back to your original spot.
You can also transfer there to the Canal Street line, This route was closed in the 1960’s but reopened in 2004 and now runs 5 ½ miles through the Central Business District to an area called MidCity. Because this line is newer it has more amenities (think: air conditioning) though perhaps less charm. It will however bring you to the cemetery district, an extensive area with lots of above ground tombs and ornate statuary. An attached secondary line will bring you to City Park where you can go to the New Orleans Museum of Art, walk through the Besthoff sculpture garden (which is free), rent a swan boat, or eat beignets at Morning Call.
The little Riverfront line reopened in 1988. It only consists of 1.9 miles but all of it is along the river and through some of the most beautiful areas of the city. It will take you from the Riverwalk Marketplace to the Aquarium of the Americas to the French Market. This may be the most popular line among the tourists due to convenience but, again, the vehicles are much more up to date. More comfortable but not the authentic experience of St Charles.
A fourth line recently opened in October of this year. The Rampart/St Claude line runs along an area that is not often travelled by tourists. This line will bring you to Armstrong Park and the Mahalia Jackson theater, and through the Treme neighborhood, made famous by the HBO series, as well as Marigny, Bywater, and St Roch districts.
A ride on a San Francisco trolley costs $5 each way. A gondola trip in Venice will run you around $104. The New Orleans streetcar costs $1.25 per ride, or you can get an all day Jazzy Pass for $3 at the RTA website. This is a bargain and highly recommended, either as a way of getting around town or just a chance to relax and cool off in the middle of a busy day, imagining all the people who may have ridden on that very seat over the past 150