In October 2005, just weeks after Hurricane Katrina assaulted New Orleans, public transit service resumed on the famed St. Charles streetcar line—except with good old buses replacing the trolleys, which would remain out of service for two more years. But since that time, the city has largely abandoned the buses that were there for it in the early post-recovery days, not to mention the disadvantaged riders who rely on them, to the great detriment of mobility and job access across the region.
That’s the scathing upshot of a new review of post-Katrina public transit from the advocacy group Ride New Orleans. Doubling down on a July 2014 report that deemed city transit “inefficient,” “inequitable,” and “unsustainable,” Ride New Orleans says less than half of all service has returned since the storm—but that only 35 percent of bus service has been restored while streetcar service is back to pre-Katrina levels.
Despite that imbalance, transit leaders are still entertaining notions of a massive, billion-dollar streetcar expansion, even as they overlook suggestions on how to enhance the bus system, Rachel Heiligman, executive director of Ride New Orleans, tells CityLab. The group calls on transit leaders to discard the ad hoc, streetcar-heavy service upgrades that have defined post-Katrina transit and craft a coordinated, balanced mobility vision for the city.
“The point we want to lift up is that, by zeroing in on streetcar expansion without considering the potential for other types of capital investment to provide improvements throughout the system, we’re really selling ourselves short,” says Heiligman.
Putting streetcars before buses
A decade after Katrina, every New Orleans neighborhood save one has seen a decline in transit service—with the hardest-hit areas having a fraction of their buses and trolleys back to normal, according to the new report. That’s an unacceptable state of affairs for a city where nearly one-fifth of all households lack access to a car. But the indictment of post-Katrina service centers on the local Regional Transit Authority’s prioritization of streetcars over buses.
The numbers compiled by the Ride New Orleans analysis of local and national transit data tell much of the story:
- With a new Loyola-Union Passenger Terminal streetcar in operation, the RTA now offers more weekly streetcar trips than it did in 2005—a 103 percent return to streetcar service. Yet only 35 percent of weekly bus trips are back.
- Streetcar revenue hours (a measure of service availability) are at 239 percent of their pre-Katrina levels, while only 48 percent of bus revenue hours have been recovered.
- Before Katrina, the RTA operated six bus revenue hours for every single streetcar hour (chart below). Now that split is nearly even.
- The average New Orleans streetcar arrives every 17 minutes during rush hour. That’s not a great service in the abstract, but it’s worlds ahead of bus service, which comes once every 38 minutes on average.
- Circa 2004, the RTA spent about 14 percent of its operating budget on streetcar service. As of 2013, that figure had reached 34 percent.
Heiligman appreciates that streetcars represent “a defining part of our transit system and of our city fabric,” and that trolleys attracted some much-needed economic development in the post-storm years. But the lure of federal funding to expand streetcar systems compromised the city’s ability to “achieve a high quality transit service,” according to the new report. Local budgets couldn’t operate the new lines at high service standards, and local officials did a poor job integrating the new system with the old one.
Case in point: the Loyola streetcar line that opened, thanks in large part to federal funding, in January 2013. The RTA changed three bus routes in response: instead of being able to reach their old destinations on a single bus, many existing riders now had to transfer to the streetcar. That made for a commute both less convenient and more costly; ridership on one of these lines fell 42 percent between 2012 and 2014, according to the Ride New Orleans report.
“When it comes to the aspects of integrating these new routes within our existing bus system, at the end of the day what it serves to do is make mobility more difficult and more expensive for existing users of the system,” says Heiligman. “We should absolutely call these projects into question and make sure we’re designing them in such a way that if we are going to force that transfer, at least it’s a transfer to a highly efficient system.”
What’s more “shocking” to Heiligman is that the RTA website prominently features a massive streetcar expansion plan despite “really any publicly vetted conversation about whether or not this is the appropriate growth plan.” Meanwhile the agency seems to be ignoring a recent analysis—commissioned by its own board—that recommended reconfiguring the bus system and decreasing wait times to make the service more efficient and reliable.
Signs of hope amid the problems
The push for streetcars over buses isn’t the only problem facing transit in New Orleans. Service frequency (how often a vehicle arrives) is also way down from pre-Katrina levels. Before Katrina, 17 bus and streetcar routes ran every 15 minutes or less during rush hour—considered the minimum for reliable transit service that doesn’t require riders to consult a schedule. As of 2015, only two routes reached that service level.
Money is obviously a big part of the problem. The RTA’s annual operating budget fell to $88 million in 2013, a shadow of the $143 million reported in 2004, in large part because the poor service isn’t generating as much fare revenue. And yet it has higher operating expenses per revenue mile than many comparable cities, including Miami, Minneapolis, and St. Louis. In other words, New Orleans not only has less money to run quality transit service, it pays more for the service it does run.
Heiligman places much of the blame on the failure of RTA officials to actually use the system they oversee—a problem that plagues systems across the U.S. but that seems especially acute in New Orleans. (Heiligman says the only RTA board member who regularly uses the system relies on paratransit, not typical bus or streetcar service.) Transparency is also an issue, she says, since RTA contracts out city transit service to a private management outfit called TransDev.
All that said, the Ride New Orleans report remains optimistic. It calls attention to several points of progress:
- Between 2012 and January 2015, the share of pre-Katrina weekly transit trips recovered by the RTA jumped from 36 percent to 45 percent.
- Two pre-Katrina routes were recently restored, and some existing routes have been extended and improved.
- Legislation passed in 2014 requires RTA board members to receive professional training (though just a modest six hours).
- The 2014 renewal of TransDev’s contract included performance standards and mandatory long-term capital plans.
- A newly approved city zoning ordinance seems to encourage the type of dense development where transit tends to thrive.
Ride New Orleans also offers some recommendations with its critique. The group hopes to see transit leaders “prioritize quality transit over nostalgia”—pushing for better service over particular modes like streetcars. It hopes officials strongly consider the type of full-scale, no-cost bus reconfigurations that Houston and Omaha recently embraced. And it would like to see the city adopt a number of best practices that have become more common among top-quality U.S. transit systems: all-door boarding, mobile ticketing, real-time information, transit signal priority, and dedicated lanes.
Above all, Heiligman wants to see a better dialogue between officials and the public. “One of the things I’ve been most impressed by is how much New Orleanians are engaged in planning efforts and trying to set a new direction for the city to grow in,” she says. “We truly believe that if the forum was created, that folks are ready for this conversation. There just hasn’t been an outlet for it.”