Whenever I am asked for advice regarding a visit to New Orleans by anyone, the first thing I always say is do not under any circumstances rent a car.
Driving in New Orleans is, at best, a horror for those of us who actually live here and expect it to be nightmarish; those Not From Here who expect some semblance of normality in driving situations become emotionally and intellectually scarred, suffering from flashbacks, PTSD, and nightmares for the rest of their lives.
I am not joking.
Everyone thinks wherever they live has the worst drivers in the world, and having lived all over the country, I can attest to the fact that yes, indeed, there are shitty drivers everywhere who put everyone else’s lives at risk. (The other morning on my way to the office, as I was in the turn lane in a row of cars waiting to turn left onto Calliope for the I-10 on-ramps, a jackass whose time was more important than everyone else’s drove around the cars in the turn lane and turned left from the center lane of St. Charles when we had the protected turn light. “Asshole,” I said out loud, and then when I made the turn I just missed witnessing a massive accident at the I-10 on-ramp. Yup, the asshole apparently continued driving like an asshole and hit another car. The car he hit was slightly damaged, his car–with dealer plates still on–was probably totaled because the front end crumpled up like an accordion. Once I saw that both drivers were okay, I will confess to a smug that’s what you get for being an asshole driver.) I’ve driven in Houston, Miami, Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta, and Los Angeles. New Orleans drivers are in their own special class of bad driving.
One of the primary issues I encounter here is that most New Orleanians do not know the rules of making a left turn at any intersection that permits them. My theory of why this is the case has to do with our avenues and neutral grounds. Most of the major streets in New Orleans–Canal, St. Charles, Jackson, Napoleon, etc.–do not permit you to turn left off of them at intersections, unless there’s a turn lane and a protected turn light. So you usually have to pass the intersection, make a U-turn by turning left through the neutral ground, and then making a right turn when you get back to the intersection.
This becomes an issue at intersections that permit left turns but do not have a protected signal (like Oretha Castle Hailey at Martin Luther King) when there is more than one car turning left . You see, the way this is supposed to work is the cars coming from opposite directions should turn in front of each other, protecting each other from other oncoming cars. Most New Orleans drivers don’t seem to know this and try to turn left behind you, exposing you to oncoming traffic if you turn yourself. This drives me crazy.
It’s a wonder there aren’t more accidents here, really–and there’s no surprise that car insurance is a lot more expensive here than it is most other places–which is why there are so many cars here with Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida plates; people will go rent a post office box and register their car in that state to get cheaper insurance (and yes, for the record, this is insurance fraud). Parking is another issue in New Orleans. Most places don’t have parking lots in Orleans Parish and you have to know how to parallel park–and a lot of people visiting here aren’t used to parallel parking and aren’t very good at it. Our streets were also not built for cars but for horses and streetcars–so most aren’t very wide and cannot be widened; which is why there are so many one way streets in New Orleans. (The street I live on is one of the few side streets in the neighborhood that isn’t one way–but parking is allowed on both sides…so of course there’s not enough room for cars to pass each other, which leads to some aggravating stand-offs as neither driver will either back up or pull aside so the other can pass…)
And New Orleans geography doesn’t make sense, and God forbid you try to look at a map of the city. Apps do help some when it comes to that, but having used them to navigate around parts of the city I am not familiar with can be incredibly confusing because the directions may not make sense–but since the geography doesn’t make sense…how can directions? Streets follow the river, which doesn’t flow in a straight line. One block out of the Quarter, in the Faubourg Marigny, the river turns again and so do all the streets that run through the Quarter and into the Bywater, the lower 9th, and Holy Cross; which means the streets make an almost ninety degree turn. To connect the streets that now are running in a different direction, there are a couple of streets in the Marigny that only exist for a couple of blocks. What’s called the Marigny Triangle is his bizarre little area where Frenchmen Street begins at Esplanade on the river side of a pie-shaped block that holds the fire station. The lake side is Decatur Street, which makes that 90 degree turn to follow the river just past the fire station, crossing Frenchmen Street which continues in a straight line. (Trying to give directions to people on the phone to our old office on Frenchmen Street was always a nightmare.)
And you note how I said riverside/lakeside? Our directions are riverside, lakeside, uptown and downtown. Their meanings are self-evident, I should think; river side is the side closer to the river, while lakeside is the side closer to the lake. Uptown means up the river, downtown means down the river. North, south, east and west make no sense here; the sun rises over the West Bank, you have to go east to get to the north shore on I-10, South Peters is actually north of North Peters.
And the main streets that run away from the river? The closer you get to the river, the closer they are together. In my neighborhood, the streets go St. Charles, Prytania, Coliseum, Camp, and then Magazine. The further uptown you go, more streets fill in between them so that on Napoleon, Prytania and St. Charles are at least three blocks apart. Likewise, in my neighborhood if you drive towards the lake, Carrollton and Claiborne are parallel to each other…but in the Riverbend neighborhood uptown, they cross.
So, please; never rent a car in New Orleans. If you’re staying in the Quarter parking is at least $20 per day minimum, and the city is really small enough that Lyfts or cabs aren’t terribly expensive, and of course there’s always the streetcar.