Street Car… or Clown Car?

Overcrowded rush hour streetcars provoke complaints from union

ryan street streetcar
Louisiana Digital Library

Overcrowded streetcars are not a new problem. In December 1918, frustration was growing in New Orleans over the overcrowding of its streetcars. Workers, and presumably riders, complained that there were simply not enough streetcars running for the number of riders during rush hour.

On December 4, 1918, the Times-Picayune published a story with the headline, “Demands More Cars During Peak Hours.” In it, streetcar men’s union secretary Gus Bienvenue is quoted saying, “If the New Orleans Railway and Light Company would operate extra cars between 4 and 7 o’clock in the evening, it would relieve much of the congestion of traffic during the peak hours.”

demands more cars during peak hours-page-001
The Times-Picayune, December 4, 2018

Bienvenue goes on to say that the company only operates a few extra cars for one hour a day, from 6 to 7 P.M. He suggests that what they really need to keep up with demand is significantly more cars operating for three hours in the morning and three hours in the evening, at the times when people are going to and from work.

The growing demand for transportation reflected the growing population of the city, as New Orleans grew from 339,075 people in 1910 to 387,219 in 1920. With this change, New Orleans faced a problem common to expanding urban areas, as its aging infrastructure could not keep up with the volume of people needing to use it.

The Railway and Light Company was at least taking some measures to increase its service during this time period, as evidenced by the addition of the South Claiborne Line in 1915 and the famous Desire Line in 1920. However, this expanded coverage was evidently not enough, as the union petitioned for more cars to run for six hours a day.

In addition to easing congestion, Bienvenue says that the increased hours would create new jobs. This optimistic note is followed, however, with complaints from  about how the process of boarding the streetcar is slowed by the new six-cent fare, which is harder to make change for. This is yet another factor that slows the movement of the streetcars, keeping people from getting where they need to be on time.

Today, anybody who regularly uses public transportation in New Orleans, like just about anywhere, will most likely be eager to complain about its slowness and inefficiency. As we can see from this historical excerpt from the Times-Picayune, such problems are nothing new, as the inadequacy of the streetcar service in 1918 was such that the streetcar men’s union asked the company they worked for to hire more workers to run more cars during the busy morning and evening commutes.

st charles streetcar
Library of Congress

Works Cited:

“Demands More Cars During Peak Hours.” Times-Picayune, December 4, 1918.

Hennick, Louis C., and Elbridge Harper Charlton. The Streetcars of New Orleans. Gretna, LA: Jackson Square Press, 2005.

“Streetcar, St. Charles Avenue, New Orleans, Louisiana.” Library of Congress. Accessed December 3, 2018.

“Ryan Street Streetcar.” Louisiana Digital Library. Accessed December 3, 2018.

“Population of New Orleans, LA.” Population.us. Accessed December 3, 2018.

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