Lauren Nassef

This past January, the Federal Transit Administration signed an agreement with the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority for $45 million in federal economic stimulus funds to build a new, 1.5-mile streetcar line. It would link Canal Street with the Union Passenger Terminal, a 1954 structure that’s now home to the Amtrak and Greyhound stations.

Skeptical New Orleanians wondered why. Of course, connecting to a regional transportation center was a sensible thing. But the line passed block after block of bleak, asphalt-savanna surface parking that flanks partially filled office towers. Why not route the new streetcar through communities that already had a denser residential population?

The answer came pretty quickly. Routing the streetcar through an underused part of the city, it turned out, was like adding water to sea monkeys. The blocks came to life almost immediately.

The Domain Companies, a developer specializing in mixed-use developments with projects in New York and Louisiana, announced that four of those empty blocks would soon give rise to some 450 new apartments and 125,000 square feet of retail and restaurants. Other projects also quickly took root in the area: An auto dealership would be converted into a much-needed downtown supermarket, and the 1,193-room Hyatt Regency New Orleans, which sits just north of the new streetcar line and has been empty since Hurricane Katrina, started getting a $243 million overhaul. The area even got a new name: the South Market District.

“What we felt made this site ideal,” Matt Schwartz, principal of Domain Companies, told The Times-Picayune, “was the streetcar expansion.”

If all goes well, the South Market District will be a textbook example of how transit-oriented development (TOD) is supposed to work. Bring in transit, and builders of higher-density residential and retail will follow.

Yet listen carefully, and you can hear an echo in New Orleans. Because bringing TOD to New Orleans is a bit like telling Chicago about these tall buildings called skyscrapers. A popular bumper sticker here gets it right: “New Orleans: So Far Behind We’re Ahead.”

In New Orleans, transit and development have always gone hand in hand. It’s home to one of America’s earliest urban transit systems—in 1835, horse-drawn cars on tracks starting making the trip from Canal Street some five miles upriver to the new town of Carrolton, which was being carved out of old plantations. Those who established the St. Charles line implicitly understood TOD, even before the acronym came along. The backers assumed the line would trigger development, and among the boosters were those who sought to sell lots along the way. It worked. The Garden District (among other neighborhoods) was born.

The New Orleans experience also helps answer a common question among transit planners and cash-strapped municipalities: Why streetcars? Why not just expand bus routes? They’re cheaper, more flexible to route, and far quicker to implement.

The short answer: because where streetcars go, people follow. People simply like streetcars better than buses—studies suggest that ridership typically increases by about one-third when streetcars replace a bus route. They’re smooth. There’s less lurching. And there’s less uncertainty about where they end up.

Developers like the permanence of streetcars. Nobody invests in a retail complex or apartment building because it’s near a bus stop—that could move next week. But streetcar systems, which cost on the order of $40 million a mile, are viewed as longer lasting, certain to be around for at least a generation. You can put money on them.

There’s another reason that is perhaps underappreciated in policy circles: Streetcars have charm. The streetcars serving the St. Charles line today are chiefly 900-series Perley A. Thomas cars, built in High Point, N.C., in the early 1920s. Their distinctive look, feel, and sound have created a coterie of fans. The St. Charles streetcar is one of the few mass-transit systems to earn four-and-half stars on Yelp—or get any attention at all, for that matter. The 74 reviewers enthuse about the cars as if they were an undiscovered diner.

“There’s something about the smell of streetcar wood that just takes you to another era, and I love feeling the breeze through the open windows,” wrote a visitor from San Francisco. Another from South Pasadena, Calif., wrote that this was “The first public transportation I didn’t hate.”

And it’s not just starry-eyed Californians. New Orleanians love them, and the cars attract commuters as well as tourists. “It’s impossible to be unhappy when you’re on the St. Charles streetcar,” wrote a local resident. Another suggested qualified love: “Consistent in its inconsistency. Dangerous in a yesteryear fashion. But as distinctive and charming as some seasonal berry sorbet.”

Darrin Nordahl is the city designer for Davenport, Iowa, and the author of My Kind of Transit. In that book, he takes a long look at American cities—particularly New Orleans, Seattle, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh—where visitors and residents alike have fought to keep their streetcars, cable cars, monorails, and funiculars operating. Nordahl writes that he had an epiphany in Hong Kong, while riding the funicular. “Public transportation here was not just a means to a destination, but a destination itself.”

Nordahl has read through a great many transit plans for cities large and small. All these plans focus on issues such as headway (timing between cars), geographic coverage, ridership, and “passenger miles traveled.” But not a single city plan has taken up the issue of what makes a trip truly enjoyable for passengers. As Nordahl writes, “The experience offered to the passenger—the ‘fun-factor’—did not seem to weigh anywhere within transportation proposals.”

He believes they should. “Once upon a time, traffic engineers told us how we should design a street,” Nordahl told me. So streets ended up being what one writer has referred to as “traffic sewers”—concrete sluices designed strictly for cars. That attitude has changed. “Now there’s this movement all across the country where we’re redesigning streets—they’re narrower, and travel is slower, but they’re very inviting and comfortable for pedestrians,” he said.

Much the same approach could be applied to transit, he suggested. Nordahl singles out the St. Charles streetcar as a good example. Like a narrow street full of intriguing storefronts, the streetcar has an almost baroque complexity of textures and materials: leather, steel, brass, mahogany, dangerously wide-open windows. (Compare this to the bus interiors of plastic with a few steel accents, and sealed windows, at times covered with billboard-sized advertising that permit only dim and blurry views of the outside—treating the customer like Spam in a highly decorated can.)

The St. Charles streetcar line is an exception in many ways. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is thus exempted from meeting a number of modern standards (such as handicapped accessibility; heat and air-conditioning; windows that open just a few inches). But it and other streetcars suggest that paying attention to the experience is not just an exercise in feel-goodism. It makes practical sense, in part by attracting “premium riders.” These are people who take public transit not because they lack other options, but because they choose to leave their cars behind. That’s a benefit for all, since it spreads the costs more widely, allows popular lines to underwrite routes in less popular or populated areas, and reduces the stigma of public transit. Everyone wins.