Transportation Deployment Casebook/2020/Louisiana Streetcar

Introduction to Streetcars: Characteristics, Advantages, and MarketsEdit

Technological CharacteristicsEdit

A streetcar (other names include “tram” and “trolley”) is defined as a passenger-carrying vehicle that runs on rail tracks typically laid on city streets.[1] Streetcars are typically powered by electricity (which is often transmitted either through overhead wires or the track itself) – which differs them from similar modes of public transport – such as horse-drawn carriages. While modern streetcar systems may be designed to ensure that streetcars have their own right-of-way, the defining characteristic of late-19th Century streetcar design was a mixed traffic system where roads were shared with regular vehicular traffic. This in turn limits their mobility, but also improves their access to public locations – as their routes run in-line with already established streets. Because of this, the streetcar’s primary use is for the distribution and shuttling of commuters within dense urban areas. A defining characteristic of the streetcar which differentiates it from the light rail is that the majority of streetcar routes are small (less than 10 miles in length).

Although streetcars and light rail are often used interchangeably, they are in fact, two distinct systems. The table below presents a comparison between Streetcars and Light Rails.[2]

Characteristic Streetcar Light Rail
  • Rail primarily laid on city streets.
  • Shared with other traffic (e.g. cars, busses).
  • Adaptable to any built environment.
  • Rail laid on private right-of-way (i.e. not on the street itself).
  • Requires soft curves and gentle grades
  • Often used.
  • Light
  • New
  • Heavy duty
Overhead Wire
  • Single span wire
  • Catenary
Rolling Stock
  • Small, single carriage
  • Large, multiple carriages
  • No dedicated stations. Often a simple sign represents a "stop"
  • Separate, purpose-built stations.
  • Often larger platforms and standing area.
  • Distributed, downtown loop, or shuttle.
  • Line haul or distribution.
Route Length
  • Typically less than 10 miles.
  • Typically greater than 10 miles.
  • Commuters, tourists, shoppers.
  • Commuters.

Advantages and MarketEdit

Streetcars have several advantages over other forms of transportation which enabled them to become the dominating transportation system across the United States in the late-19th Century and early-20th Century. For starters, the electric streetcar was far cheaper and more efficient to operate than the traditional horse-drawn modes of transport – as horse feed was expensive, horses were slower, and they tired eventually.[3] The capacity of a streetcar can vary considerably depending on the size and system (articulated vs. single car), however, it is typically in the order of 50-200 passengers.[4] This has the advantage of reducing the number of vehicles on a single road – thus reducing congestion. In addition, streetcars are quite durable and can continue service for up to fifty years – compared to internal combustion vehicles which typically require servicing after twenty years.[5] Although similar to trains in technology, the main advantage they have over heavy rail systems is that since tracks are laid on the city roads, they can take advantage of the fact that they have easier access to passenger locations and can perform stops in short succession of each other. While a streetcar’s mobility is limited to the current rail infrastructure, their mobility on that rail system is quite high as they can achieve short stopping distances and high access to passengers. Therefore, streetcars have the advantage of carrying a large capacity of passengers on the local road system while also ensuring high access for passengers to their destinations.

Public Transit in Louisiana Prior to the StreetcarEdit

As of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 as well as the removal of the Spanish barriers of trade, New Orleans had entered a period of rapid economic growth due to the commercial and population expansion. The population of New Orleans more than doubled from 1830 to 1840, where it raised from 46,082 to 102,193.[6] As such, in order to promote further economic progress, Americans were encouraged to invest in internal public transportation.[7] The beginnings of mass transportation also reflected that there was no need to live close to industry and businesses as walking was now a relic of the past.

One of the oldest forms of mass transit in New Orleans is the New Orleans Streetcar, which came in various forms.[8] Prior to 1835, streetcars were dragged by horses, which used a wooden walkway between the rails. The capitalization of the first streetcar line in New Orleans was worth $300,000 and the line did not have a separate right of way, but shared the streets with carts, drays, carriages, horses, and pedestrians. It also had a restricted speed limit within the city of four miles an hour and some tracks had to be one way only.[9]

Steam streetcars began operating in 1835 as a part of the St. Charles steam streetcar line. The line connected New Orleans and the suburb Carrollton, which has since been absorbed into the city.[10] A major problem of the streetcar was the escape of sparks from the locomotive engines which in many cases burned the dresses of the passengers. As population increased, complaints about congestion on the cars were also on the rise.[11] Additionally, steam locomotives were not practical for city use due to the costly financial constraints, smoke, and loud noise. Some proposed solutions for these issues involved: encouragement in terms of funding for a new innovative engine that would prevent the escape of sparks from its chimney; moving the passengers from steam to horse power during peak hours, and later ordering more locomotives. Lastly, these issues motivated them to start experimenting with other innovative forms of transport such as the overhead-cable-powered railroad (otherwise known as the electric streetcar).

As New Orleans expanded, many investors saw an opportunity to build canals, railroads, streets and levees that would connect the city with the inland of the United States as well as with the rest of the world.[12] The increased coastal traffic between New Orleans and the East Coast cities reflected the growing economic connections of the American people and the industries. For instance, a ship called Ohio carried passengers and cargo between Philadelphia and New Orleans. Also, ocean sailing ships reached the city by sailing up the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico. By the 1850s, New Orleans was the fourth largest port in the world.[13] This resulting increase in both the population and overall economic activity resulted in a greater demand for further mass transit options.

Invention of the Electric StreetcarEdit

The development of the streetcar can be attributed to a combination of various independently developed inventions throughout the 19th Century.

The precursor technology that developed the mother logic for the streetcar can be considered the stage coach. A stage coach is a four-wheeled horse-drawn coach (that was often closed) that was used to transport passengers on large journeys. The earliest stage coach route recorded was in England in 1610 – however, it is believed to have been operating as early as the 13th Century.[14][15] The stage coach had a capacity of around 4 passengers was able to achieve a range of approximately 60–70 miles per day.[16]

The omnibus is considered to be the first mass transportation vehicle in the United States.[17] The omnibus (Latin: “for all”) was invented by Stanislas Baudry in 1823 in Nantes, France.[18] Baudry’s omnibus had a capacity of 16 passengers. In addition to the invention of the omnibus, however, Baudry can also be credited with innovating the public transit system that is still in use today – although not directly. Although Baudry’s first omnibus route was designed to shuttle passengers from Nantes’ city centre to his bathhouse, passengers were free to enter and exit anywhere along the route. As such, his omnibus service began to be used by passengers who wished to make short trips along the route rather than to simply be transported to the bathhouse.[19] This innovation ushered in the rapid introduction of the omnibus system throughout Europe and was first brought to the United States in 1827.[20] However, unlike modern public transit systems, the omnibus routes did not have dedicated stations – rather, passengers signalled to the driver to stop the coach.

The streetcar was an innovative improvement over the omnibus. The first streetcar service in the United States was developed by John Stephenson in New York City in 1832.[21] This streetcar was similar to an omnibus in that it was a horse-drawn coach that carried approximately 20 passengers. However, it differed in that the coach had steel wheels and travelled along steel rails embedded into the road. This had the advantage of lower frictional resistance, which allowed the streetcar to be pulled by a single horse – thus allowing the streetcar to have lower operational costs than the omnibus.[22] These primitive streetcars were a hit and began to be developed across the United States – with New Orleans, Louisiana becoming the second US city to have a streetcar service.[23]

In 1871, Andrew Smith Hallidie patented the cable car which was one of the first non-animal drawn carriage technologies.[24] Similar to the streetcar, the cable car operated on purpose-built rails located on the streets. However, between the rails existed a chamber (known as a “vault”) which housed the cables that ran the entire length of the route. The cables were operated by “powerhouses” located by the side of the street which housed massive steam engines. The first cable car system began operations in San Francisco in 1873 – and by 1890, most US cities had an operating cable car system.[25]

Although Hallidie’s vision was for the cable car to replace the streetcar, the streetcar had in-fact made a triumphant return – albeit in a different form. In 1888, Frank Julian Sprague invented the electric streetcar in Richmond, Virginia.[26] The electric streetcar was made possible by the mid-19th Century inventions of the generator and transmitted power through overhead wires.[27] The electric streetcar had significant advantages over the cable car which enabled it to supersede the previous transportation technology. For starters, the electric streetcar only required overhead wires compared to the vaults, cables, and powerhouses that a cable car required. Overhead wires were far cheaper and easier to install than the excavation required for the vaults and cables.[28] Another disadvantage of cable cars was that they all travelled at the same constant speed, and the jamming of a cable anywhere along the line caused the stoppage of the entire route.[29]

The electric streetcar that first emerged in 1888 can be considered an amalgamation of the preceding transport technologies and systems before it. The first horse-drawn streetcars sought to improve the efficiency of the omnibus and adopted much of the same principals as the omnibus – such as route design and the ability for passengers to get on and off between the end-destinations. These first streetcars achieved efficiency gains by utilising purpose-built rails – not too different from those of the trains – but built into the roads to operate much of the same market as that of the omnibus.

When Andrew Smith Hallidie sought a method of mass transit which did not require the use of animal-drawn vehicles, he came up with the concept of the cable car. Horses were expensive to feed, maintain, and were somewhat unreliable – so the cable car had a major advantage over the first streetcars. However, the cable car was not without its problems, and with the advent of electricity transmission in the mid-19th Century, the streetcar was able to replace the technology which had previously replaced it.

The new generation streetcar – electric powered – combined the ideas of the original streetcar and the cable car. The electric streetcar had the advantages of the non-animal powered cable car while also not carrying with it the disadvantages of increased construction costs. The electric streetcar was able to run on much of the same rail as its horse-drawn predecessor with the addition of overhead electric wires. Meanwhile, the cable car required extensive excavation to install the cables as well as the construction of powerhouses to house the steam engines that powered it.

Early Market Development of the Streetcar in LouisianaEdit

Within New OrleansEdit

New Orleans was quick to implement the electric streetcar after its initial introduction in Virginia in 1888. New Orleans first adopted electric streetcars within five years of Virginia, in 1893, and New Orleans has is fortunate to still be continuously operating some of these lines in the 21st Century.[30] Many of the already-existing horse-drawn streetcar companies replaced their infrastructure and rolling stock to adopt the new electric transit vehicles – which aided in the city’s quick and rapid transition to the new technology. Such companies which made the transition from horse-drawn streetcars to electric streetcars include:[31]

  • New Orleans City Railroad Company
  • St. Charles Street Railroad Company
  • Orleans Railroad Company
  • New Orleans and Carrollton Railroad Company
  • Crescent City Railroad Co.
  • Canal and Claiborne Streets Railroad Co.

As such, pre-existing routes were upgraded to be able to operate its electric counterpart – with most lines maintaining the same routes. In fact, the first Louisiana streetcar route to be opened in 1835 (the St. Charles Avenue line) still operates to this day – which makes it the oldest continuously running streetcar route in the world.[32]

The first route in New Orleans to be upgraded to the electric streetcar was the Carrollton Line – operated by New Orleans and Carrollton Railroad Company.[33] The remaining railroad companies electrified their lines shortly after.

Outside New OrleansEdit

Besides New Orleans, the other major cities that operated electric streetcars in Louisiana at some stage between 1893 and 1920 were: Baton Rouge, Lake Charles, Alexandria, Shreveport, and Monroe.

Baton Rouge’s first streetcar routes were opened in 1890 and were horse-drawn. Two different routes were opened in 1890 but they were both soon consolidated in 1891 to create the Mule Car Line – which looped the downtown area. However, this route was electrified only two years later in 1893 – the same year in which New Orleans opened its first electric streetcar route.[34] In 1913, a second electric streetcar route was added to the city. The peak of Baton Rouge’s electric streetcar service was in 1924 when there were three routes serving the city. Soon after, however, Baton Rouge’s streetcars went into decline, and by 1936, there were no longer any existing streetcar services.

Streetcars were first introduced to Lake Charles in 1894. Between 1894 and 1926, there were four streetcar routes serving the city. Three of these routes were publicly owned and operated, while the fourth was privately owned and operated by Watkins and Missouri Pacific Railroad. These streetcars were immensely popular in Lake Charles, and at one point, even operated 24-hours a day.[35]

Alexandria was late to adopt the electric streetcar. The first streetcar route, the Levin Street Line, opened in the city in 1908 and was operated by the Alexandria Electric Railway Service Company. The second streetcar route was the Belt Line, operated by the Alexandria Electric Railways Co. Both routes were short-lived however, and ceased operations by 1926.[36]

Shreveport was another early adopter of the electric railway. Plans to electrify the existing horse-drawn streetcar network began in 1891 – and by 1893, Shreveport opened its first electric streetcar routes. In these early years, two main private companies operated in the city – the Shreveport Railway and Land Improvement Company and the Shreveport Belt Railway Company. However, by 1897, these two companies consolidated into a single firm. The greatest growth in the Shreveport streetcar network occurred from 1900 to 1902 where three new street railways were chartered (however, two of these charters did not survive to fruition). Growth of the streetcar network in Shreveport continued until 1925. However, after 1925, the Shreveport railway companies began to experience financial hardship due to stagnant fares not rising with inflation, the reduction in ridership, and the Great Depression of 1929. Due to these difficulties, many streetcar companies in Shreveport began to pull out of the industry, and by 1939, barely any streetcars remained in the city.[37]

Monroe opened its first electric streetcar route in 1906. This route was publicly owned and operated by Monroe Transit – and was only the second US city (after West Seattle, Washington) to do so. As such, the Monroe streetcar system can be considered one of the oldest examples of public transit in the United States. The Monroe streetcar operated until 1938 – after which it was dismantled. Although the Monroe streetcar ceased to operate, Monroe Transit shifted their transit model to operating busses – which they still do today.[38]

Policy in the 'Birthing Phase'Edit

Within New OrleansEdit

The introduction of the electric streetcar in New Orleans was a smooth transition as the majority of the routes remained unchanged from the already extensive horse-drawn streetcar network. Upgrades were required, primarily to install the overhead wiring, but this was far cheaper and easier to implement than if a completely new form of transportation system was to be introduced (such as, for example, the cable car). Therefore, in the ‘birthing phase’ of the electric streetcars implementation of the city, the new services were owned and operated by the existing major horse-drawn streetcar companies of the city. These companies found it financially viable to privately invest in the new technology.[39]

Therefore, the early years of the electric streetcar’s implementation was a very decentralised system with very little government intervention. In New Orleans, six competing companies each owned and operated various lines.[40] Canal Street, for example, had tracks for two competing streetcar companies (New Orleans & Carrollton Railroad Co. and Canal & Claiborne Railroad Company). However, this decentralised approach was problematic for commuters. As each company invested and operated into their own lines independently, there was no standardised streetcar transit system in New Orleans. The various company’s lines each had different fares, track sizes, rolling stock, and inconsistent timetables.[41] Due to these inconsistencies, there was a social deficiency of the early streetcar network for the New Orleans population – which eventually led to the City of New Orleans incorporating the various networks into a single public entity.[42]

Outside New OrleansEdit

Shreveport had the second largest streetcar network in the state. This network was operated similarly to New Orleans in the early-years of the technology – whereby two competing companies each owned and operated their own lines. These companies were the Shreveport City Railroad Company and the Shreveport Railway & Land Improvement Company. However, by 1905, these companies were consolidated into a single company - Shreveport Traction Company.[43]

The streetcar networks of Lake Charles, Alexandria, and Baton Rouge were all owned and operated by a single company each (Lake Charles Street Railway Company, Alexandria Electric Railways Company, and Home Electric Company respectively).

Monroe was unique in that its streetcar network was a public transportation system. Monroe’s sole electric streetcar route was owned and operated by Monroe Transit from 1906 until its dismantlement in 1938, which made it only the second US city to do so.[44] As such, Monroe’s streetcar network could be considered a form of public transportation – which was a unique form of transportation policy during the early 1900s.

Growth of the Streetcar in LouisianaEdit

The initial adoption of the electric streetcar in Louisiana was marked by a system of decentralisation whereby various private firms privately invested and operated their own services – with little public subsidies. However, as discussed in the previous section, this decentralised system brought with it many social deficiencies, such as an inconsistent route network, fares, timetable, and infrastructure (different track sizes and rolling stock). As such, the City of New Orleans sought to regulate the network in the early 1900s.[45] This period also experienced consolidation in the industry. The first of the mergers happened between the New Orleans and Carrollton Railroad Company and the Canal and Claiborne Streets Railroad Company in 1899. However, full consolidation of the city’s network did not occur until 1902 when the New Orleans Railways Company was chartered (later becoming the New Orleans Railway and Light Company).[46][47] Although this new company was still privately owned, it was a step in the right direction towards standardisation of the transit service for both the City of New Orleans and its residents. In addition to owning and operating the streetcar service in New Orleans, this company also owned and provided the city’s light and mail service. Under the ownership of the New Orleans Railway and Light Company, the streetcar continued to experience healthy growth in New Orleans until the early 1920s. New lines were opened, and by 1922, there was approximately 225 miles of track in New Orleans. Outside of New Orleans, lines were also opening in various cities and towns throughout Louisiana. The electric streetcar was also brought to Baton Rouge and Shreveport in 1893 (the same year in which New Orleans opened its first electric streetcar route), Lake Charles in 1894, Monroe in 1906, and Alexandria in 1908. Between their inception and the 1920s, these cities continued to steadily grow their networks.

Between 1894 and 1920, the total amount of streetcar track in the state rose from 75 miles to 325 miles. New Orleans accounted for approximately 70-80 percent of the streetcar network in Louisiana. New Orleans experienced the greatest growth in this new technology in the state, rising quickly from 61 miles in 1894 to an impressive 225 miles in 1922 (approximately a 73% increase in 28 years). The next largest streetcar network in the state belonged to Shreveport, where in 1920 there was approximately 33 miles of track. This too, was also a significant increase from when the first tracks were laid in 1893 of approximately 7 miles (approximately 79% increase in 27 years). Other networks in the state featured less significant growth - primarily as they were located in smaller cities with only a few lines each. Growth in these cities, such as Baton Rouge, Alexandria, and Monroe, was sparodic - only occuring when new lines were laid (if new lines were introduced at all).

Maturity and Decline of the Streetcar in LouisianaEdit


The heydays of the streetcar throughout the United States occurred during the 1920s – and Louisiana was no different. The peak for the streetcar in New Orleans occurred in 1926, when it recorded over 148 million passenger trips. In 1926, there were nine distinct lines operating in the city.[48]

The 1920s also saw policy changes occur regarding streetcar operation in New Orleans. On 8 August 1922, the New Orleans Public Service Incorporated (NOPSI) was formed. This new company was incorporated by the New Orleans City Government as a way to own and operate all of the city’s utilities and transit systems. As such, NOPSI acquired the city’s streetcar network by acquiring the New Orleans Railway and Light Company.[49] Although this new charter was still a private company, it was incorporated in a special partnership agreement with the City that included strict controls. This move consolidated the city’s utilities and transportation services into a single entity that was closely aligned with the council to ensure public interests were aligned. After almost three decades since its introduction, this moment was a milestone move that brought the city’s transportation networks closer to the public domain. However, it was not until 1979, when the Regional Transit Authority was established by the Louisiana State Legislature that the network finally became public transport.[50]


The maturity period of the streetcar was short-lived, however, throughout the United States as busses began to be introduced to replace streetcars. The first bus service was introduced in New Orleans in 1924. In the late 1920s and 1930s, the bus network continued to grow and even replaced many of the city’s streetcar lines. There is a widespread belief that General Motors were behind a conspiracy to replace the various streetcar services throughout the United States with bus networks, commonly referred to as the ‘General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy’ – however, this conspiracy has been debunked.[51] Throughout the 1930s, General Motors bought up much of the country’s bankrupt streetcar services and converted them into bus networks.

Although streetcars were heavily used in this period, they ran into some problems as populations grew and the subsequent networks grew. The rise of the automobile in the 1920s meant that streetcars had to share the right of way on the roads they operated. This reduced their efficiency and grid-lock began to become a phenomenon that many cities began to experience.[52] To add further insult to injury, many streetcar companies had contract requirements to repair and maintain the roads they operated – and as the roads underwent additional stress due to the increasing use of automobiles, the maintenance costs for the streetcar companies also rose. This compounded with stagnant fare prices caused many companies financial hardship – with most becoming bankrupt.[53]

The financial issues of the streetcar companies compounded with the new competition from other forms of transit (the automobile and the bus) caused the eventual decline of the streetcar system throughout the United States in the 1930s. Many streetcar lines were ripped up and replaced with bus routes, which were considered more efficient and more flexible (didn’t require much infrastructure).

Most of Louisiana’s streetcar systems were effectively removed or replaced by the late 1930s. The year in which cities besides New Orleans that once operated streetcars ceased operations are as follows:

  • Baton Rouge, which at one point had three streetcar lines, removed its final streetcar route in 1936.[54]
  • Lake Charles, which at one point had four streetcar lines, removed its final streetcar route in 1924.[55]
  • Alexandria was a late adopter of the electric streetcar, opening its first line in 1908. However, by 1926, the city no longer had any streetcar services operational.[56]
  • Shreveport had the largest streetcar network in the state after New Orleans, however, barely any of the streetcar lines existed by 1939.[57]
  • Monroe had a single streetcar route that opened in 1906 and operated for over three decades. However, this line was dismantled in 1938.[58]

Similar to the rest of the state (and the rest of the country for that matter), the New Orleans streetcar network also experienced a massive decline in the 1930s. However, New Orleans is fortunate compared to most other cities in that it still operates streetcars in the modern day – albeit far smaller than at its heyday. The St. Charles Avenue Streetcar line, which first opened in 1835, still operates today – which makes it the longest continuously operated streetcar system.[59] However, whilst New Orleans once had nine lines operating, today only four still exist (the St. Charles Streetcar, the Canal Streetcar, the Layola-UPT Streetcar, and the Riverfront Streetcar).[60] The streetcar somewhat survived in New Orleans due to its unique right-of-way which allowed it to avoid some of the issues that other streetcar systems faced with increasing automobile use. In the modern day, many conservation efforts push for the continuation of the streetcar service in New Orleans, as it provides the city with historical, cultural, and architectural importance.[61]


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  31. Hennick and Charlton (1975), p. 72.
  33. Hennick and Charlton (1975), p. 23
  37. Louis C. Hennick, "Street Railways of Louisiana", p.77
  38. "Monroe Transit". Archived from the original on 2014-12-22. Retrieved 2015-02-01
  43. McGraw-Hill Publishing Co., "McGraw Electric Railway List 1905"
  44. "Monroe Transit". Archived from the original on 2014-12-22. Retrieved 2015-02-01
  46. Hennick and Charlton (1975), pp. 45–46
  48. Josh Foreman & Ryan Starrett, "Hidden History of New Orleans", p.117
  57. Louis C. Hennick (1979), "Street Railways of Louisiana", p.77
  58. "Monroe Transit". Archived from the original on 2014-12-22. Retrieved 2015-02-01