Our Views: Other cities look to iconic N.O. streetcars as examples _lowres

Photo illustration by The Advocate.

In glorious weather of the Louisiana fall, how can one feel closer to history than riding down St. Charles Avenue in our historic streetcars?

We know the streetcars are historic, but now they’ve been officially named a National Historic Landmark.

That designation by the U.S. Department of the Interior is a welcome accolade for one of the iconic images of New Orleans and Louisiana. “The St. Charles Streetcar line has been an enduring icon for New Orleans,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said. Supporters of the streetcar had worked on this designation for years, and it is well-deserved.

It is also emblematic of the streetcar, which is making a comeback in many cities. At the peak, streetcar lines took pennies and dimes from passengers nearly 16 billion times a year, according to the Department of the Interior. The St. Charles Line is the only line from that boom era still running today, having operated on the line’s tracks since the 1920s.

The comeback of the streetcar is noticeable, and not just in San Francisco’s touristy offerings on Nob Hill. There are streetcar lines operating or planned in cities around the country, promising an alternative to gridlock and a more pleasant commute, or as a way for other cities to show off sights and historic neighborhoods.

Riders can see one way the St. Charles Line and the system in which it operates is particularly special: its effectiveness as mass transit.

If a tourist can get a thrill from a streetcar ride, in New Orleans regular commuters can and do use the streetcars for work and day-to-day travel in the city. As millions of dollars are spent on building and outfitting streetcar lines elsewhere, the question is whether the utility and frequency of the actual transportation will be practical for more than just occasional riders.

New Orleans streetcars are not only a famous tourist attraction, they’re a fixture of St. Charles Avenue, one of the great urban streets in the world. The streetcars offer transit options for those who live in the city, and that fact impresses other U.S. cities seeking to emulate our success.