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The New Orleans streetcars: The demise

By Robert S. Sargent, Jr.
web posted October 11, 2004

Before 1948, you could get on a streetcar at Canal Street in New Orleans, and head down river through the French Quarter and beyond, turning up Desire Street to Tonti and looping back. But, by 1964, like every streetcar line except St. Charles, the "Streetcar Named Desire," arguably the world's most famous streetcar line was gone. What happened to the more than 200 miles of streetcar lines, and what is triggering their comeback?

Electric streetcars were first introduced to New Orleans in 1884 at the New Orleans Cotton Centennial Exposition, but it wasn't until 1893 that the first electric line, the Carrollton Line, began operations. Electric lines quickly expanded until by 1922 there were over 225 miles of track, its peak.

It was also in 1922 that Louisiana chartered the New Orleans Public Service, Inc. (NOPSI), and until 1983 it was the only corporation that owned or controlled street railway, power, and natural gas companies. NOPSI was empowered to build bus lines, and in 1924 the first buses were operating. Many things adversely affected the streetcars from the mid 1920s, from strikes, the reliance on automobiles, and the Depression, to the most important: cheap, efficient buses.

In 1917, the first of many reports and surveys commissioned over the years was released analyzing streetcar routes and recommending changes. As these reports were aimed at efficiency, many lines were dropped in favor of cheaper bus lines. I talked with a man (Robert Sargent Sr., currently a poet living on Capital Hill) who worked for NOPSI from 1939 to 1941 and was in charge of some of these reports.

"I was born in New Orleans in 1911, and lived there until I was six years old. I moved away until I was offered a job there. At the time, I was working for Mississippi Power and Light in Jackson, and I was offered a job working in the transportation department with New Orleans Power Service in 1939. I was assistant to the head of the transportation department until 1941 when I went into the navy in World War II. I kind of ran the office, and the office was responsible for all the scheduling, and we did all the studies that we were conducting at the time, studies to cut down on expenses. These studies were called ‘origination-destination' studies, and the idea was to find out where people who rode in the transportation system originated and where they ended up, so that the buses could be routed more efficiently. You couldn't change streetcar tracks, but you could change the buses."

A streetcar in New Orleans (Photo: Paul M. Weyrich)
A streetcar in New Orleans (Photo: Paul M. Weyrich)

I asked the former NOPSI employee if the studies recommended the elimination of any streetcar lines. "I don't think so. The whole purpose of the studies was where to put in new bus lines, and where to re-route the old ones. At that time, though, it was accepted that we were going to make the change. Buses were so much more efficient. You didn't have to build any tracks for them, and if you eliminated tracks, you saved money on the upkeep of the tracks. By the way, I'm pretty sure I remember the studies that showed that certain parts of the Desire Line needed changing. While we didn't recommend its elimination, it could have played a part in its demise."

"Another thing I remember was the original streetcars were two-man cars. They had a conductor and a motorman: a motorman to drive it, and a conductor to collect fares and announce the stops. In order to save money, they redesigned some of the cars and made them into one-man cars. That was sort of an intermediate step to buses." (After 1924, new streetcars were ordered in New Orleans, and according to Louis Hennick and E. Harper Charlton, in their classic The Streetcars of New Orleans, "The new cars could be operated as a one man or two man car….However, New Orleans City Council would not change city ordinances which required two man crews on all streetcars. This failure…accelerated the motor bus conversion program that was soon in coming.")

There is a conspiracy theory put forward to explain the conversion from streetcars to buses which goes something like this: In the 1930s General Motors together with other oil and tire companies bought out streetcar systems all over the country, dismantled them, and substituted buses. The idea was that people would dislike buses so much that they would have only one choice: buy automobiles. The result, of course, was the destruction of vital downtowns and the creation of suburban sprawl and pollution. This is a widely accepted theory that involves a long story that is out of the scope of this article. From Bradford Snell's research with the Stern Fund in 1974, controlled by Ralph Nader's Public Citizen organization; through Senate hearings headed by Ted Kennedy with testimony by San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto; through Hollywood's version of the conspiracy with Who Framed Roger Rabbit, where the mean Cloverleaf Company bought up L.A.'s streetcars and "destroyed" the public transportation system; to the documentary shown in 1996 on taxpayer funded PBS, Taken for a Ride, this theory, like all conspiracy theories, has a life of its own.

For those skeptical of conspiracy theories, there is ample evidence that the theory is politically driven, and has little basis in facts. I refer interested skeptics to: General Motors and the Demise of Streetcars by Cliff Slater in the Transportation Quarterly, Summer 1997, and Kennedy, 60 Minutes, and Roger Rabbit: Understanding Conspiracy-theory Explanations of The Decline of Urban Mass Transit, by Martha Bianco, with the Center of Urban Studies at Portland State University. Lyn Long at the University of California at Irvine with the Institute of Transportation Studies has given a seminar called Taken for a Ride? Revisiting the GM Conspiracy Theory as recently as Sept. 17, '04. As far as New Orleans goes, streetcar ridership began falling off in the early 1920s, before GM supposedly became involved, and, I might add, public transportation was and is municipally owned. NOPSI dismantled the streetcars in New Orleans, not GM.

From the end of World War II, one streetcar line after another was closed down in New Orleans until, in 1964, the Canal Line, the last of the lines except for St. Charles, was eliminated. Something happened in the mid 1980s to completely change the thinking about streetcars in New Orleans. Next week: "The Comeback."

Robert S. Sargent, Jr. is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right and can be reached at rssjr@citcom.net.

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  • The streetcar makes a comeback by Paul M. Weyrich (May 14, 2001)
    Of all things, writes Paul M. Weyrich, the streetcar is making a comeback ... perhaps even to your town
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