Is there a New Orleanian — or a visitor — who has never had the opportunity to take a ride on the beautiful, historic St. Charles Avenue streetcars? Yes, as it turns out: people in wheelchairs. When the classic green Perley Thomas streetcars were designed in 1923, access for the disabled wasn't even considered. But, despite their historic significance and a community-wide commitment to preserve them, the iconic streetcars have changed with the times — most notably when signs segregating black from white passengers came down. In the 1970s, the streetcars got their first automated fare boxes. Sadly, nearly 100 years after the first green streetcars were introduced to New Orleans, one thing has not changed: they remain inaccessible to those in wheelchairs.
It's time for that to change, too.
Many people mistakenly believed (as we did when we began this week's cover story) that the streetcars couldn't be modified because they are listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). The city's website even states that the NRHP designation prohibits the cars from being modified. However, an NRHP spokesman tells Gambit that's not necessarily true. The Cabildo, which has an even more stringently protected status as a National Historic Landmark, has added an elevator without losing its federal designation. And even if inclusion on the NRHP did prohibit alterations, that's no excuse for excluding the disabled. San Francisco's federally landmarked cable cars also have no wheelchair access, but Frisco offers fully accessible MUNI lines within a block of nearly every cable car stop. New Orleans offers no such regular alternative.
Some don't understand how a major urban transportation line can legally make no provision for the disabled. The truth is the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) requires no such accommodation. The ADA applies only to new vehicles. Nevertheless, it stipulates public transportation providers must provide paratransit (disability-equipped) minivans or buses where they operate fixed-route bus or rail systems "unless it would result in an undue burden." New Orleans has some paratransit vehicles, but they require prior administrative approval and advance reservations. For those dependent on a streetcar line without wheelchair access, an impromptu trip to the grocery store or spontaneous afternoon out becomes impossible.
A better solution would be a system giving wheelchair users the same access as everyone else. That's not as easy as retrofitting a few green streetcars. NHRP concerns aside, RTA officials note that the wheelchair ramps don't have enough room to unfold at every stop, and the old streetcars' interiors (unlike the newer red cars) aren't spacious enough to accommodate wheelchairs.
Still, there are creative solutions that could retain the green streetcars' historic status without straining the city budget. Running the occasional red car on the St. Charles Avenue line is one possible solution that was raised during the last mayoral election. If issues with the ramps make that impractical, the city should consider regularly supplementing streetcar service on St. Charles (already the city's busiest line) with buses. Even commuters who don't use wheelchairs might appreciate an express bus on the crowded, stop-and-start St. Charles line, and an express bus could make exceptions to stop at other intersections if requested by a wheelchair rider.
The RTA has made important strides under the Landrieu Administration, despite the narrowed scope of the city's public transit system since Hurricane Katrina. Buses run on time more frequently, the city has a useful transit website for the first time, and there's modern color-coded signage at stops all over the city. The City Council also has demonstrated a commitment to fairness by eliminating the odious, discriminatory wheelchair fees in the new "taxi passengers' bill of rights" that will be coming before the council. Ensuring equal access for residents and visitors with limited mobility is more than a worthy goal. It should be a legacy for an administration that insists every New Orleanian matters.
In the end, it's not really up to the bureaucrats or government officials to bring New Orleans into the 21st century when it comes to transportation parity. It's up to the citizens. New Orleanians would never accept a City Hall or other public building without access for all. We shouldn't accept public transportation with less than the same.