The State of Transit in New Orleans

Posted by Casius Pealer on August 24, 2015

As many visitors and locals know well, New Orleans boasts the oldest continuously operating street railway in the world. The St. Charles Avenue streetcar was started in 1835 and in 1973 was listed on the National Register of Historic Landmarks. As a result of its landmark status, all the streetcars on St. Charles Avenue look and are operated just as they were in 1920.

Today of course, the key benchmark for all of New Orleans is 2005. Our explicit goal is to move beyond that date, but 2005 marks a common reference point for the city as a whole--including its public transit system and its iconic streetcars.

This past week, a local transit advocacy group called Ride New Orleans (RideNOLA), released a comprehensive report titled, “The State of Transit in New Orleans: Ten Years After Katrina.” As public transit is increasingly explicitly linked to affordable housing and social equity, this report provides data points and recommendations that may be useful for other communities addressing these issues in a comprehensive way. At the very least, these transit issues are an important element of the more comprehensive work and commentary on New Orleans that will be published this week in particular.

RideNOLA’s mission is to enhance the quality of life in the New Orleans region by promoting safe, convenient, and affordable transportation options. The work of RideNOLA is especially important in a city where 18.5 percent of households lack access to a vehicle—a percentage over twice the national average of 9 percent. Although they are committed to a variety of multi-modal transit options, the RideNOLA advocacy and research has focused largely on the bus and streetcar service provided through the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA). 

Physical and Operational Infrastructure

A number of key data points on transit in New Orleans from the RideNOLA report:

  • New Orleans population is approximately 80 percent of the population in 2005, although just 45 percent of transit service has returned.
  • The transit services returned have emphasized streetcar service over bus service, with streetcars providing 103 percent of the total weekly transit trips offered in 2005, and buses offering just 35 percent of the 2005 trips.
  • The frequency of trips is also down significantly from 2005, when 17 bus and streetcar routes offered peak service every 15 minutes; in 2015, just 2 routes offer such frequent service.

These data points are not intended to criticize the RTA, but rather to help focus attention more broadly on the need to appropriately fund and expand transit operating in New Orleans. According to the RideNOLA report, “After Katrina, the NORTA Board had to recover and replace the agency’s entire fleet of vehicles, rebuild its headquarters and navigate complicated negotiations with federal agencies, all while rapidly deploying remaining assets to areas where population was returning—a constantly changing variable.”

In addition to these unprecedented logistical challenges, the RTA has seen greatly reduced operating budgets. In 2013, for example, operating funds available to the RTA were down $55 million from the $143 million reported in 2004 (adjusted for inflation).  According to the RideNOLA report, approximately $25 million of this loss was due to a loss of fare revenues from reduced ridership, and another $17 million from reduced local sales tax funds dedicated to RTA.

As noted above, New Orleans has a high percentage of households that lack access to a vehicle, but the city also has a high percentage of people who walk or bike to work. According to the 2013 American Community Survey data, slightly more people in New Orleans bike or walk to work (7.2 percent), versus those who rely on public transportation (6.9 percent). Whether these data reflect either a symptom or a cause of limited transit access, the willingness of New Orleans residents to take advantage of alternate transit modes represents an opportunity, while the uneven distribution of these choices across the city remains a significant challenge.

Organizational Infrastructure

RideNOLA has produced a series of reports and resources supporting transit riders and policyin New Orleans, including a Transit Advocate’s Guide, links to key transit apps, and contact information for multiple transit agencies and route maps in the region. The organization has also advocated for organizational changes such as a Transit Rider’s Bill of Rights, a Transit Riders’ Advisory Committee, and open source access to transit data. Partly as a result of RideNOLA’s advocacy, the RTA created a Transit Riders’ Advisory Committee in 2014, and the 22-person committee had its first meeting in July of this year.

Another key addition to the RTA’s organizational infrastructure is the development of a comprehensive transit master plan. This is a key document and planning process that RideNOLA has been advocating for and has called out in their 2015 report as a top priority item. As it happens, the RTA Board is scheduled to discuss and hopefully approve a solicitation for the development of a Strategic Master Plan at their regular August meeting on Tuesday, August 25. This planning process and document can be coordinated with the City’s update of its own Master Plan, and will eventually help articulate a shared vision and a means of measuring progress as New Orleans looks forward.

Hurricane Katrina damaged a great deal of physical infrastructure in New Orleans, but it also exposed a great deal of social and organizational infrastructure that simply never existed. Public transit in New Orleans was certainly a major part of that missing and damaged infrastructure. The RTA and its partners are continuing to rebuild and expand the physical infrastructure, as they also create new social and organizational structures. Community advocacy groups such as RideNOLA are an important part of that infrastructure too, and their existence is a tangible post-2005 improvement to the transit landscape here in New Orleans.

(Photo: cortesy of RideNOLA)

About the author more »

Casius Pealer is director of Tulane University’s Master of Sustainable Real Estate Development (MSRED) program and a professor of practice in the School of Architecture. In addition to these academic roles, Casius is of counsel in the New Orleans office of Coats | Rose, a Houston-based law firm, where he concentrates in the areas of affordable housing, real estate finance, and energy and water efficiency. He also maintains a separate consulting practice, Oystertree Consulting, supporting public agencies and developers using green building as an additional tool to achieve long-term affordable housing solutions. He can be reached at casius@oystertree.org.

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