New Orleans Transit Never Recovered After Katrina

New Orleans' population has rebounded since the devastating 2005 hurricane, but public transportation is still a mess—especially for the poor.

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Sean Gardner/Reuters

Getting around New Orleans ain't what it used to be. This sounds like the complaint of any grizzled old-timer, but it is a cold, hard fact according to a new study on transit in the Crescent City since Hurricane Katrina.

Today, New Orleans residents enjoy just 36 percent of the transit service they had before Hurricane Katrina. The authors of the report, Ride New Orleans, compared bus and streetcar service in 2005 with service in 2012 and discovered "severe declines" in convenience and reliability. Worse, this decline has disproportionately affected the poorer residents and people of color who rely on public transit most.

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Transit service in New Orleans is down by every measure. For example, weekly trip volume ("the number of trips made on all transit routes in a typical week") declined by an astonishing 64 percent from 2005 to 2012. Measuring by "vehicle revenue miles" and "vehicle revenue hours"—basically, the distance and time traveled by New Orleans buses and streetcars—transit service is just a fraction of what it was before Hurricane Katrina. 

The most damning difference may be the decline in frequency. A decade ago, about one-third of New Orleans transit routes enjoyed waits of 15 minutes or less and none had waits of longer than one hour. (An hour! Surely you can walk anywhere in New Orleans within an hour.)  

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In 2012, only 9 percent of routes saw wait times of 15 minutes or fewer, while 18 percent of routes had hour-plus waits. A staggering 59 percent of New Orleans bus and streetcar routes only arrived every 30 to 60 minutes. All of these measures were taken during peak commuting hours.

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The report shows that bus service provided by the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority has taken the biggest hit. The number of streetcars that RTA operates didn't change terribly after the storm (it registered a 9 percent decrease in service). But while RTA operated 301 buses in 2004, it only fully operated 79 buses in 2012—a 74 percent decline. Many routes were simply never restored, including all of the "school tripper" shuttle routes to and from public schools as well as a number of express routes.

With demand for transit service still high, it will come as no surprise that New Orleans buses and streetcars are packed. In a kind light, this means each trip is technically more efficient, but it's certainly not by design. By this accounting, New Orleans transit has essentially failed its way back to its 2004 efficiency levels. 

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Where service in New Orleans has improved, it has overwhelmingly benefited predominantly white and well-off neighborhoods. Or rather, a neighborhood: Only West End has seen an increase in total trip volume between 2005 and 2012. In every single neighborhood but tony West End, total public transit trip volume in New Orleans has plummeted.  

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The areas that need transit the most have none. The areas where population has rebounded the most have little. Where there has been an effort to boost service, it has been an adjustment away from minority neighborhoods. From the report: "After controlling for population change, there remains a significant negative correlation between a neighborhood's percentage of nonwhite residents and the percentage change in weekly transit volume between 2005 and 2012." Accordingly, there is a "significant positive correlation" between household income by neighborhood and weekly transit volume. 

Could the news get any worse? Of course. Last year, Ride New Orleans reports, a five-year forecast showed that revenues can't cover RTA's baseline: "[Th]e projected deficit is anticipated to be between $16 million and $20 million every year." A combination of high operating costs, low fares, and diminished support from local taxes has plinkoed the agency's revenues. Which means that higher fares or even worse service could be in the offing.

Is there any good news? Ride New Orleans concludes that better integration with the regional Jefferson Transit service could improve RTA's outlook. Budget transparency could help to explain why RTA operating costs are so much higher than service for similar cities. And, as with transit systems everywhere, the focus on streetcar construction comes with a cost. Instead of building new streetcar lines—like the 1.6 mile Loyola Avenue/Union Passenger Terminal loop, which opened in 2013—the city could restore bus service more broadly and for far less money.

The equality issue may be harder to resolve. Leaders in the City That Care Forgot will need to look closely at the decisions that have led to worse service for the people who need public transit most.

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously a senior editor at Architect magazine, and a contributing writer to Washington City Paper and The Washington Post.