"Just going by the numbers, we've got at least 75 percent of my community is still displaced, and they're looking at the numbers as opposed to looking at the need. There's a greater need... people on the North side is having a difficult time getting back and forth because they don't have no vehicles, and they've got to walk so far to get to a bus line." This is what Ward "Mack" McLendon had to say to The Louisiana Weekly when asked about public transportation in the Lower Ninth Ward. Decimated by flooding, a large number of current residents don't own cars and rely on public transportation.
A common criticism of New Orleans public transit is that it was better before the flood. Stefan Marks, Director of Planning and Scheduling for the Regional Transportation Authority, acknowledges that the current wait time now for most lines is 20 to 40 minutes while before Katrina that figure was 10 minutes. That said, however, Marks also highlights that the transit system, like the city as a whole, is bouncing back. "Last week we had highest level ridership since Katrina. We averaged 53,000 boardings per day," Marks told The Louisiana Weekly. The Regional Transit Commission, however, said that while use is climbing, overall ridership is still down almost two-thirds from where it was prior to the flood.
A report prepared for the Regional Transit Authority's board this month shows that 2010 ridership grew substantially across the system over 2009 levels. Streetcar riders increased 22 percent and buses jumped over 15 percent, illustrating the demand for public transit. As gas prices soar again, ridership may increase further, raising questions about the investments being made in the system and how transit planning can spur economic development.
"In terms of what the potential is versus what is actually taking place, I just think that there is a large gap between those two things. Probably the greatest of any city in the country." These remarks come from Jeff Schwartz, Executive Director of Broad Community Connections.
Schwartz told The Louisiana Weekly that he felt the transit system was moving in the right direction, but, "the city has a long way to go in terms of getting to a place where transit is a force for equity and accessibility." He did show hope, however, by noting that for the first time in many years, New Orleans won a very competitive federal grant worth $45 million to build the Loyola line. And, with the new St. Claude streetcar, "[t]he city committed money to a local project that wasn't about tourists and was about neighborhoods that will benefit from that investment."
Schwartz, an urban planner, said that planning transit systems is a way to proactively stimulate development. He pointed to the streetcar line along the Loyola corridor, which, when originally planned, was surrounded by empty lots. That landscape, however, is now sprouting new growth, which the streetcar will support.
One factor that could contribute to the kind of proactive planning that Schwartz describes would be a master plan for transit in the Parish. Although transit is currently included in comprehensive city plans, there is no self-standing plan for public transit. Focusing attention on the issue in this way could be a way to identify sources of funding as well as priority projects.
In spite of this shortcoming, one project being undertaken to increase transit access is the St. Claude streetcar line, which the Regional Transit Authority announced in January. The line will run from Canal to Press Street, with a spur along Elysian Fields that will connect with the Riverfront line. Critics point out, however, that the Bywater/Marigny area is gentrifying, and question whether a streetcar line that only reaches to Press Street will make much difference to residents of the Lower Ninth Ward.
Professor John Renne of the University of New Orleans Urban Planning program outlined some other changes that could make the transit system more vital. St. Charles streetcar riders know that the line is often slow or that it experiences long gaps between cars. Renne argues that some of the intersections where motorists are allowed to cross in front of the streetcars should be eliminated in order to cut down the possibility of streetcar-automobile accidents, which shut down the entire line when they occur. Another way to increase ridership and make students' lives easier, Renne told The Louisiana Weekly, would be to have the RTA issue semester-based passes for students, thus potentially expanding one constituency.
One threat facing the system is the loss of an exemption. Jeff Roesel, Director of Planning for the Regional Planning Commission, said that the agency could "take a pretty significant hit on our capital dollars" since the Federal Transit Authority allowed an exemption to expire that had allowed the area to waive its local matching funds requirement since Katrina. The Regional Planning Commission is critical to Orleans Parish transit because it coordinates funding and transit plans across local, state and federal levels.
While the transit service available is not what it was prior to the flood, Stefan Marks, Director of Planning and Scheduling for the Regional Transportation Authority, pointed out that New Orleans now has the newest fleet of buses in the United States. Asked about accessibility in communities like the Lower 9th Ward and New Orleans East, Marks explained how the RTA had extended the "Haynes line...from New Orleans East to Delgado Community College, which doubled ridership." He said that this was an example of "things we can do to make it easier for people to cross the city."
Zoe Sullivan is a contributing writer to The Louisiana Weekly.
Photo of bio-diesel bus courtesy of vxia on flickr.com. Bus maps courtesy of NORTA.
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