I came down on a train from Chicago at the end of August last year. I was afraid I didn't know what I had gotten myself into, what with the heat and no job or acquaintances. But I quickly made friends and soon landed a job -- and the heat made me feel luxurious and happy. I was staying near Audubon Street and Claiborne Avenue in Broadmoor, a neighborhood few people have heard of unless you happen to live there. With neither bicycle nor car, I walked the sweltering half hour to the St. Charles Avenue streetcar, through the Tulane and Loyola campuses. It was a good time to daydream and a good way to stare speechlessly at the grand old architecture and the towering magnolia and sycamore trees.
I had visited New Orleans once with my brother and fell madly in love with the creaking green trains that run down the middle of Uptown's most majestic avenue. Once having moved here, however, I soon realized that if I was in a hurry or wanted a seat to myself, the streetcar was not the best method of transportation. The cars are beautiful but not air-conditioned. It also became apparent that there were more tourists crowded on board than locals and students. But at least one can catch an occasional flower-scented breeze for $1.25 or $1.50 with a transfer.
After a couple weeks of sweaty hour-long commutes each way, I decided to move to Magazine Street near Jefferson Avenue. After the streetcar, the Magazine bus felt like a godsend. It, like all streetcars and most buses, costs $1.25. It is also air-conditioned and I usually had a seat, even during rush hour. I could read or write and listen to music, all while drinking my morning coffee.
Soon after, I began working in Mid-City and had to transfer to the recently reinstalled shiny red Canal Street streetcar, also equipped with air-conditioning, but with the same hard wooden benches streetcars are infamous for worldwide. While the Magazine bus speeds along, threatening to take out oblivious pedestrians and scraggly tree branches, the Canal streetcar stops unnecessarily every two blocks and never goes over 30 miles per hour.
There are a few qualities and behaviors seemingly characteristic only to the public transit drivers in New Orleans. Depending on your temperament or destination, these characteristics can either be infuriating or endearing. The first one I noticed appeared as I was on my way to a job interview. I had given myself plenty of time for travel, or so I thought. That was until the Canal streetcar driver saw an old buddy of his and decided to go chitchat for several minutes. Granted, it was two in the afternoon and no one else seemed to mind. But I couldn't believe this was acceptable, and apparently the Regional Transit Authority frowns on such behavior. I finally had to go and tell him I was approaching lateness and he gladly got us on our way.
I also soon noticed that streetcar drivers tend to know the sister or brother-in-law of every longtime resident. They will have long conversations attempting to catch up on matters such as how old the baby is now or what Carl's up to. Even when I enter the car or bus, drivers initially offer a warm greeting. After a few trips on the same route, they began asking after my life too. And the passengers, specifically the older ladies, graciously invite me into their conversations and small talk. I also adore it when passengers and RTA operators alike yell at drivers to stop talking on their cell phones. We all then become public transit comrades. I highly recommend studying humans in motion.
Now I know a lot of people whose experiences have been less than pleasant. They complain about the how slow our whole public transportation system is and they say the drivers are rude to tourists and don't watch the road as closely as they should. They also worry about safety and complain that the buses and streetcars don't run often enough and stop running too early. (Visit www.regionaltransit.org for schedules.) All of this is also true. I've seen equal amounts of both cases. No matter where people live, however, they love to complain about the public transportation, just as they complain about the weather. New Orleans could certainly improve its system, but for now we have what we have. I quickly adopted this laissez-faire attitude. That is, until I got my bike.
I bought my shiny cobalt blue cruiser for $30 from a guy named Cornbread. All it needed was new tires, which is much more affordable than a new transmission. By this time I had settled permanently in the Marigny. I could have taken public transportation to work, but I didn't feel like spending $55 dollars for a monthly pass. So my riding began in earnest.
I should preface this with some bike safety tips and advice, which I unfortunately do not follow myself, despite having been hit by a semi-truck while running across the street in Chicago to catch my commuter train and later hit by a car riding my bike down Esplanade Avenue. When riding a bike, always wear a helmet. Sure, it's hot and your hair will get mashed and sweaty, but it's your head and you should want to protect it. Another good investment is buying some reflectors for the back and front of your bike, so when you ride at night (another thing one probably shouldn't do on the narrow, busy and often dangerous streets of New Orleans), drivers who may or may not be intoxicated can see you.
There is quite a rivalry between bikers and drivers here. If you both drive and bike, you're more likely to be both conscious of and sympathetic to bike riders, but most drivers are not so considerate. They've also forgotten what to do at stop signs and red lights. (Perhaps they've forgotten that bike riders are not made of metal, but of elbows and kneecaps.) But bike riders also have a responsibility to follow the rules of the road, to not ride on sidewalks and to not ride against traffic on our many one-way streets.
If you're careful, don't mind sweating and like exercise and the outdoors, riding a bicycle is one of the best modes of transportation. My commute doesn't cost me anything. I don't have to wait around for a bus. I get a scenic tour and a nice breeze and also the occasional summer rainfall. I can beat most buses and make it from my house in the Marigny to Canal Street in a little over seven minutes, easily passing by all the cars and burro carriages laden with tourists. I even ride all the way Uptown by bike in the evenings and on weekends. My bike, which I named Scissors after the sound it makes, gets me everywhere I want to go.
Many people swear by their cars and even I occasionally rely on the cars of friends to take me to Houma or Bogalusa for day trips. I can't ride to Target, Whole Foods or the Latter Library for lack of cargo space and physical strength. But then again, I don't have to worry about parking in the Quarter.
The safest, although not the most economical, transportation option, especially when going out at night, is taking a cab. When I first arrived in New Orleans, my new friends told me about their preferred United Cab Company. They told me to save their number in my cell phone: 522-9771. I now give the same number to all newcomers and tourists who ask me about cabs. That doesn't mean the drivers knew how to get from downtown to Broadmoor, but they would, after a respectable amount of time and without much persistence from me, turn off their meters after we'd circled the area a few times.
New Orleans is bigger than it seems. The neighborhoods sprawl far beyond the areas most tourists see. Figuring out the best way to navigate the city depends on where you live, study or work, your economics, your level of comfort, and how fast you need to get to where you're going. But we have many options on how to get from point A to point B. In the end, I tend to just throw my hands in the air and mutter lovingly about my adopted town, "It's New Orleans," and feel lucky to live here.