The proposed pilot program to improve Canal streetcar performance is kicking up a lot of online pushback. In my view, the critics are shortsighted.
The Canal line, from the Cemeteries to the Riverfront, takes over half an hour to go 2.7 miles and is notoriously unreliable due to an excessive number of stops and right-of-way crossings. The pilot program would address this by closing 17 street crossings and eliminating around 30 stops to shave 12 to 15 minutes off the line’s full run. That may sound drastic, but it’s a common strategy in cities across the country. As a professional transportation planner, I see it as a positive move, one that will reduce travel time, increase reliability, and help the transit system overall.
Critics of the Regional Transit Authority’s plan are painting the program as a punishment to the drivers of mid-city rather than a boon to the transit riders of New Orleans. Looking a bit closer, the substance of these critiques rings hollow, amounting to little more than complaints that driving a car might be more difficult in this one specific area. Given our collective history bending over backwards to accommodate the private automobile, these critiques are worthy of ridicule.
But let’s review aspects of the proposal one by one.
First of all, this is a pilot project, which is an important approach. It allows the RTA to test an idea and make changes based on real-world experience. It will provide an opportunity to craft a solution that best serves all roadway users.
Second, this project will not create a wall in Mid-City cleaving the neighborhood in two. There are more than 55 crossings in the study area and 17 of them will be closed. Functionally, this means maybe having to drive an extra block or two before you make your left turn or U-turn.
Third, walking an extra block or two will not necessarily generate a new set of barriers for transit users who are mobility impaired. And those for whom the impact is too severe still have the option of using RTA’s para-transit service. For others, it’s likely that more reliable service and shorter streetcar rides will be well worth the tradeoff of walking an extra block or two.
Further, this won’t make life significantly more difficult for drivers, either. The idea that traffic congestion will get worse is purely speculative and likely wrong. Upper Canal Street has three lanes in each direction and about half the traffic volume to justify that much road capacity. To me, this complaint boils down to driving becoming marginally less convenient in an area where driving is so convenient that people drive at reckless speeds.
Some critics claim there are other ways to address the Canal streetcar problems — automated arms to temporarily block intersection crossovers, motion-activated signage, or just adding more service. These are legitimate solutions, but each is more expensive, and more permanent, than what’s being proposed. For instance, the annual cost of one additional streetcar (over $100K per year in operations and maintenance) is about as much as this entire project!
The real problem with today’s Canal streetcar line is easily identified: way too many stops, one on literally every other block. No transit planner in his or her right mind would look at Canal and think it doesn’t need to shed some of those stops.
Currently, the problems with the Canal streetcar ripple throughout the entire system, given that every bus route but one crosses this line. And it’s cynical to speculate that stops will be removed without any consideration of how the decision serves riders, the Canal streetcar line, and the larger transit system — have some faith that planners and advocates are actually trying to help.
In the end, transportation planning is always about trade-offs. There’s only so much right-of-way space, so it comes down to making smart, balanced choices in allocating that resource. The downside of the pilot project is the potential for minuscule delays as drivers make left turns and cross the Canal Street median. The upside is a positive improvement in the experience of transit riders all across the city.
For the past 75 years we’ve moved heaven and earth, destroyed communities, and cooked the planet, all in the name of making it easier to drive private cars and trucks, too often with a single occupant. Driving an extra block or two to whip your U-turn is a fair trade-off if it means a streetcar full of people can get to work on time.
Bobby Evans is a transportation planner who lives in New Orleans. His work is focused on improving biking, walking, and transit infrastructure and policy. He has a master’s degree from the University of New Orleans’ program in Urban and Regional Planning. He enjoys biking throughout the city with his wife and one-year-old daughter.
The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.