Last Tuesday, Terry Lemieux got to the bus stop at Elk Place and Tulane Avenue a few hours earlier than usual to dodge the rain. He usually catches the bus around 6 p.m., but the day's downpour, which included hail, edged him out early during a momentary lull in the ongoing bad weather.
"Is there a place to stand if it's raining?" I ask him. He points to a kind of netted overhang behind the bus stop's single bench and says, "No. That's it ... They should have more. You get soaking wet right here."
The network of bus stops that spreads from Elk Place to Canal Street and down to Lasalle Street is the heaviest trafficked public transit hub in the greater New Orleans metro area. It serves more than 20 regional bus routes and between 5,000 and 7,000 passengers every day, according to numbers provided by Ride New Orleans.
The significance of the hub, combined with the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA)'s growing ridership, has highlighted the lack of amenities like seating and shelter for the people who wait for the bus. That's why Ride New Orleans, a local advocacy group for transit rider equity, will host a day of action April 15 to call attention to the lack of seating, protection from the elements and appropriate signage at the stops.
Ride New Orleans plans to set up 200 temporary folding chairs at the CBD transit hub during rush hour on Tuesday. It also plans to release a report the organization has put together based on interviews with more than 200 transit riders called "Smart Transit for a Strong Economy: Why New Orleans Should Invest in a CBD Transit Hub."
Rachel Heiligman, executive director of Ride New Orleans, points out that no matter where riders come from or go, they likely will transfer at what her organization has dubbed the CBD transit hub.
"It's a critical but underserved point in our regional transit system," she said. "Whether you're starting your trip in New Orleans East or on the Westbank or out in Metairie or in a Lakefront neighborhood, chances are that your bus brings you to this point in the CBD."
But, she added, the hub lacks basic amenities. "We believe that this ad hoc arrangement is not only not fair to the transit-depending riders," she said, "but that it's also unappealing to visitors in the area and creates a challenging environment to business and property owners."
Ride New Orleans will post facts from the study on chairs and around the bus stops on April 15.
The study shows that riders confront a long wait at the CBD bus stops. Out of the more than 200 riders surveyed, about 46 percent say they wait, on average, between 10 and 30 minutes at the CBD transit hub. Almost a third of riders surveyed say they wait between 30 minutes and an hour with little protection from the elements, whether it's New Orleans' driving rain or summer heat.
Ride New Orleans is working with a host of partners, including Stand with Dignity and the amalgamated transit union, which includes bus drivers, to organize the day of action. The groups have reached out to numerous city officials, including members of the New Orleans City Council, Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the Downtown Development District.
The purpose of the day of action is not just to throw down some temporary chairs for people to use as they wait for the bus Tuesday.
"It's our hope that we can see some improvements made, provide additional seating, better signage and protection from the elements at the transit hub's bus stops," Heiligman said. "But we also hope that the action and the report really serve as a starting point for a coordinated dialogue between transit riders, community members, businesses and public officials that's focused on really long-term solutions for improving this critical point in our transit system."
Heiligman said she hopes the city recognizes the economic development opportunity afforded by the number of people passing through this one particular area of downtown.
"In the report we detail a few different case studies of cities that have invested in their transportation hubs in their downtowns," she says. "The examples that we give are in Detroit, Mich., Lafayette, La. and in Little Rock, Ark. They took three very different approaches, but it could be sort of creating a consolidated facility, off-street. Creating air-conditioned spaces, places to learn more about the transit system so you can plan your trip. It could be co-located with shops and retail opportunities. It could take a variety of different shapes and forms."
Those are all improvements that Rachel Guillory, who's used the RTA every day for four years to get to and from work, fully supports. "There are a couple of problems, " she said. "In terms of the biggest problem, it's just the lack of infrastructure I think." Guillory rides the bus from Mid-City to the CBD and back. "It's not the nicest place to spend your afternoon," she said.
Guillory waits up to 30 minutes for the bus, though she's been able to pare her wait time with a smartphone app that tells her when the next bus is coming. "I leave the office when I know something is coming," she explains. But wanting to pare down the wait time is one reason Guillory thinks the RTA and the city should think about the CBD transit hub in broader terms.
"That transit hub area really is the central community of all transit riders," Guillory said. "Whether they're bus or streetcar riders. They should think about how to really rework that whole area so that it's a welcoming, safe place to be. Nobody loves spending their time there. You stand there and you're like, 'Come on, bus, get me home, get me out of here.'"
Stefan Marks, the director of planning and scheduling for Veolia Transdev in service to the RTA, says the RTA is aware of the issues at the CBD transit hub and is looking at potential solutions. Ridership has increased by 20 percent since 2011, making the RTA one of the fastest-growing transit systems in the country. Marks sees the challenges at the CBD transit hub as an opportunity to "do things better.
"It's important to note," Marks said, "that with the number of riders that we have going downtown, it's reflective of the economic activity and the opportunities for people to be able to make trips."
But the RTA has few concrete plans, since any improvements ultimately depend on conversations with City Hall. Marks also points out that the RTA's ability to make change "is constrained by the needs of everybody, the needs of bus drivers, the needs of people who are driving through that area and our ability to work with the city to make changes to the street space."
As for whether it's even necessary to keep all of the bus routes converging at one central point, Marks says that's where, historically, the streetcar lines and bus routes have always met. "Historically, this has been the major location for bus and streetcar transfers for many years," he says. "And before the storm, the RTA carried approximately 34 or 35 million riders and had about twice as much service as it currently operates today. The stops were basically in the same locations.
"We recognize the limitations of our existing space and we've almost grown out of the space given the amount of riders that now use it," he adds. "The challenge is to find a space sufficient to allow enough buses and streetcars to allow people to safely and comfortably connect with different lines. One of the challenges of decentralizing it and making the stops further away is that people have further to walk."
Heiligman says, however, that there "is an opportunity to take a look and say, 'Does it even make sense to have all of these routes converge on one point?' Or does it make sense to begin to think about potentially redesigning parts of this system so that not everyone is coming through here?'"
"What we hope can happen," Marks said, "is that we can continue to work with the city to look at ways in which we can get to a point in which the riders, particularly our riders but also the adjacent property owners and the area itself can be an improved situation."
For now, Ride New Orleans is working on making the centralized bus transfer more comfortable for everyone. Marks declined to comment on the organization's day of action, though he added, "I certainly think the board is always looking for ways to enhance the comfort and convenience for our riders."
— Ride New Orleans will host its "day of action" Tuesday, April 15 between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. at the bus stops along Elk Place between Tulane Avenue and Canal Street.