A meeting participant selects preferred "premium transit corridors."
At two public workshops held at New Orleans Public Library branches this week, New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) riders were alternately enthusiastic and skeptical about elements that could be incorporated into the Strategic Mobility Plan
set to roll out at the end of this year.
The workshops were part of a five-part series attended by over 100 people in New Orleans and Kenner, where participants took part in two exercises demonstrating the moving parts of a functional transit system. In one exercise, participants used pushpins to highlight routes among 13 potential "premium transit corridors" that could see expanded service. In another, they joined breakout groups to work to spend an imagined budget of $100 on different system enhancements, such as faster, more frequent service; retooled fare plans; modernized shelters at stops; park-and-ride areas and other options.
"Ideally, we'd have the best transit system in the world. Unfortunately, we only have so much money," Alex Miller, an urban planner with the Asakura Robinson team consulting on the Strategic Mobility Plan, explained.
During the budgeting exercise, participants at the Sept. 11 and Sept. 14 afternoon events were very supportive of some potential plan elements. In a breakout at each of those meetings, one of the biggest points of consensus was the need to increase the frequency of buses on existing or expanded routes to better service riders in different parts of the city.
"I might spend two or three hours on the bus, waiting for the bus, transferring the bus. It's a huge chunk of my day," Lynne Serpe, a 7th Ward resident and frequent RTA patron, said. "I need more frequent bus service so I can get where I need to go."
Some participants rejected other ideas, including one suggestion that RTA might partner with a ride-hailing service such as Uber or Lyft to cut down on inefficiencies and retool routes with low ridership. Several people noted that public transportation in New Orleans should account for the needs of people who may not have access to or want to use a smartphone, such as the elderly and people experiencing homelessness or poverty.
"Are we thinking about equity all the way around? ... Are we really serving those folks with an app?" University of New Orleans Planning and Urban Studies professor Michelle Thompson asked.
Conversations at the meetings shed light on some of the challenges RTA faces as it formulates its plan. The organization, which is managed by international transportation group Transdev, is tasked with modernizing public transportation in a city that is uniquely unequal
and has very particular constituencies who depend on the transit system. For example, the artist and 8th grade teacher Devin DeWulf pointed out that school-age children rely heavily on the bus system here, particularly since many New Orleans kids don't attend school in their own neighborhoods.
"I really want to ensure that residents are prioritized over tourists," he said. He was especially critical of the new Rampart Street streetcar line, which transit advocates have said
interferes with some local workers' bus commutes.
At these meetings, it also was apparent that RTA has a few issues with community goodwill. Some participants were critical of the structure of the meetings and doubtful that their feedback would be taken into account. "It seems like a lot of this is just for show, so you can tell the feds 'we had public involvement,'" Irvin Foret, a retired RTA driver and New Orleans East resident, said. (According to an RTA spokesperson, all feedback will be analyzed and incorporated into the plan beginning in early October.)
However, others were heartened by the discussions. Ride New Orleans senior organizer and policy analyst Matthew Hendrickson was encouraged by what he saw at the Sept. 14 event.
"It's holding the RTA accountable to the public. ... I'm really excited to have the opportunity to make sure that riders are represented," he said. "[With these exercises] it's really great for folks to understand the tradeoffs."
Miller, the consultant, said this series was probably the last discussion opportunity for riders during the creation of the plan. For people who didn't attend the meetings, there's a chance to take part in the budgeting exercise when a digital version of it goes online on RTA's website next week. But Miller said they'll pay special attention to feedback from different areas of the city collected at the sessions.
"If we get really different ideas from all the different neighborhoods, that's going to tell us something," she told Gambit