I recently made the very long journey back from staying in both one of New Orleans’ loveliest hotels and my favourite guesthouse to my home in Hackney. While struggling with the jet lag I acquired as a result, I’ve been thinking about public transport in both cities.
I was fortunate enough to get picked up from the airport after my flight home, so I didn’t have to sit for an hour on the Piccadilly Line as I did on the way out. This was especially good because, as well as my suitcase, laptop bag and handbag, I was struggling with a rather large box containing what I think is a very special New Orleans souvenir (which I hope to write more about in another post soon).
I could start complaining here about the tube, which Londoners just love to do but, you know what, unless you have a very large box, it’s not that bad. And a woman I got talking to once in one of my favourite bars in the French Quarter reminded me that London’s public transport is actually amazing.
No, the tube doesn’t run all night like the New York Subway. Yes, it’s a whole lot more expensive than the Métro in Paris. But guess what? It’s reliable, extensive and, a big tick in my book, pretty much safe all the time. And remember you’re riding through history – lots of it is well over a hundred years old, with the oldest lines generally also being the deepest ones. My grandfather used to tell me which these were, and I think the Piccadilly Line, my budget Heathrow Express, is one of them. And I haven’t even started on our world-famous red double-decker buses, our river ferries that I’ll always love for running all day and all evening for free to get people home after the July 2005 bombings, and our small collection of streetcars, or trams as we call them.
There are also plenty of special things about public transport in New Orleans. It’s certainly not as extensive as the system in London. But I’ll never forget how excited I was when I discovered that even buses in New Orleans come in Mardi Gras colours. I love clanging though the Garden District on the St. Charles Streetcar, stopping for silver dollar pancakes if I have time along the way, but I also love the different view of New Orleans you get from taking the Canal Street line through Mid-City, up to the New Orleans Museum of Art and City Park, or to the cemeteries nearby. And on my recent visit to the city, I took the ferry to Algiers for the first time, getting a different view again.
Speaking of new ways to travel, in recent years, Hackney has been treated to a new tube line or, more precisely, overground line, branded a cheerful orange, probably either to exude positivity or because it was the only colour London’s transport tsars had left in the box. The East London Line has made it a lot easier to get between parts of the city that were a pain to find a link between before, like Hackney and its south London hipster paradise twin Peckham, thus reshaping not only the city’s physical geography but also its cultural landscape. The “gingerline” community even has its own supper club, whose events are always held at a secret destination somewhere along its route.
Down in New Orleans, change is afoot as well, with a new streetcar line planned to run along North Rampart Street, the lakeside boundary of the French Quarter, then along St. Claude Avenue, the top edge of historic Creole neighbourhood the Marigny, and all the way to Elysian Fields Avenue, the street where Stella and Stanley are described as living in Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire.
A supperclub, a play – these remind us that public transport is not just a way to get around. Streetcars, buses, trains and ferries also have cultural – and hence political – significance. How this fact manifests itself in London and New Orleans could fill many books, but I think one of the key themes here, and in other big cities, is that access to transport means power.
New Orleans once had dozens of streetcar lines, including the Desire line made famous by Williams’ play. These, however, were mostly ripped up between the 30s and the 50s due to the rapid rise of the car to prominence in twentieth century American life. That left people without access to a car at the risk of physical isolation and political disenfranchisement, a problem which was made particularly evident after Hurricane Katrina, when a longterm lack of mobility among some communities was shown to be not just inconvenient, not just disadvantageous in terms of cultural capital, but also deadly.
In London, meanwhile, the East London Line was a welcome addition to a part of the city that had never been covered anywhere near as well by the tube network as other areas an equal distance away from the centre of town. And as in New Orleans, this historic lack of access to public transport has been part of a longstanding web of social disadvantage and poverty.
I wish there were a streetcar or tube line linking London and New Orleans. Until someone builds one, I guess I’m stuck with flying. But while I hate droning along in a big cold tin can over the North Atlantic, I’m grateful I have the means to make these journeys.