Rider reactions: New Orleans bus route changes met with excitement, frustration, confusion
Public transportation in New Orleans just went through its first major redesign since Hurricane Katrina.
On Sunday, Sept. 25, bus routes across town saw big changes: many lines have been renamed and stops have shifted blocks over. Some lines now have shorter headways, longer hours or extended stops into neighboring parishes.
That means many transit riders have seen their regular commutes change — either minorly or dramatically. During the first few days of the rollout, riders expressed mixed feelings about the new routes: some were excited about better service, others were frustrated about new inconveniences, and many were confused about how to get around town with the new system in play.
“We’ve received positive feedback, and we’ve received feedback that’s not so positive,” said RTA CEO Alex Wiggins at a New Orleans Regional Transit Authority Board of Commissioners meeting on Sept. 27.
Last week on Tuesday afternoon, Minnie Anderson was waiting for her bus outside the Main Library, where all routes through downtown now transfer instead of at Duncan Plaza, the former transfer location. She had just finished an interview for a new job at Harrah’s Casino. She lives near Jefferson Highway, and she’s excited that the bus that runs there — the number 3, which recently replaced the 39 — goes all the way down Tulane Avenue to Elmwood now.
“It goes way to Walmart — I think that’s a good thing!” she said.
Other riders were aggravated: some said they needed to make additional transfers to get between work and home, or walk further to get to their stops.
Aki Dixon commutes between her home in the Ninth Ward and her job at City Hall, where she’s an office worker. In the past, she only needed to catch one bus to get from point A to point B, a journey that took a half-hour to 45 minutes already. Now, she has to catch two — and on the first day of her new commute, her bus didn’t show up at all.
“I don’t appreciate them,” she said of the route changes. “I would like my 80 to run how it was running before they changed everything.”
The overarching sentiment among riders, though, was confusion. Many scrambled to figure out which buses they needed to take now that many lines have new names, and where they needed to go to catch them, as many stops have shifted blocks away.
Giovanni Griffin is in 10th grade at Xavier University Preparatory School. On her ride home aboard the 11 Magazine bus on Tuesday afternoon, she said the route changes caught her — and all the other students she sees riding the bus home — off guard.
“They have a lot of kids that we see every day riding the bus with us. It affects them too,” she said.
Griffin just started riding the bus this school year, so she’s only used to taking the buses she knows: the 11 and and her transfer home to Gentilly. She hadn’t known about the route changes the first day they went into effect — and she almost got lost making it to her second bus.
“Now I have to figure out a whole different way of getting home,” she said.
From paper to pavement
The transit network overhaul is the result of a years-long planning project called New Links, which aimed to re-imagine how public transportation serves riders throughout Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes.
Beginning in 2018, more than 3,000 riders gave their input on priorities for the changes to the transit network, according to the RTA’s website. That included public meetings, rider surveys, tabling events and ride-alongs. Throughout that process, riders expressed a desire for faster and more frequent service, along with night and weekend route options, according to a final New Links report.
In addition to considering public input, the RTA prioritized adding more frequent service in areas with higher shares of low-income residents, residents of color, and residents without access to a car, according to a presentation given at the most recent RTA board meeting.
Under the new system, many more residents now have access to a bus or streetcar coming every 20 minutes or less, said Vivek Shah, the director of scheduling and service planning at the RTA. Now, 65% of households without a car have access to frequent transit, compared to just 35% under the former system. And, a much higher share of regional jobs are now within a half mile of high-frequency routes — nearly double the amount compared to the prior system, Shah said.
But translating the changes from paper to pavement has come with its kinks, said Courtney Jackson, executive director of RIDE, a transit rider advocacy group.
The RTA began notifying riders about the upcoming changes in August. Jackson would have liked to see that communication start weeks earlier, in order to smooth the transition to the redesigned network. Cities like Boston and Houston had much longer communication windows ahead of transit redesigns there, she said.
While the RTA had some dedicated canvassers posted up at stops, much of the outreach about the new routes was done online or via the RTA’s new app, Le Pass. Some riders have complained the app has glitches and lacks critical GPS features that would allow them to track the real-time arrival of buses — a feature the RTA’s former app had.
RTA officials said at the Tuesday Board Meeting that they’re working to address the issue.
Jackson said she didn’t see paper maps of the new routes until a week before they went into effect. Those pitfalls have left some riders baffled and skeptical of the route changes, Jackson said.
“The RTA missed the mark to make this more of a successful rollout,” she said.
Still, RIDE is excited about the route changes overall, particularly because of transit planners’ focus on equity throughout the design process. Jackson said RIDE wants to hear from transit riders as they adjust to the new system over the next few months, in order to bring their feedback to decision makers.
And RTA officials said they want to hear input from riders, too.
“If we identify a flaw that is a serious degradation of transit service, we will certainly address that – and we may address that sooner rather than later,” Wiggins said.