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More bus shelters, free youth fares: Public transit report calls for changes to RTA

An RTA bus outside of the Main Library.
Carly Berlin
An RTA bus outside of the Main Library.

Public transportation in New Orleans has undergone some big changes in 2022, including reconfigured bus routes, reduced fares and a new app.

But there’s still a long road ahead to improving how residents move around via transit, according to an annual report from advocacy group RIDE New Orleans that combines data analysis and testimonies from transit riders.

This year’s State of Transit highlights new strides made by the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority, like the RTA’s rollout of its first network redesign since Hurricane Katrina, its study of a rapid bus line that could connect New Orleans East and the west bank, and the promise of a dedicated downtown transfer building.

Courtney Jackson, RIDE’s executive director, said the group is cautiously optimistic about where transit in New Orleans is heading – but that many fundamental problems remain, like inequitable access to jobs for transit riders and poor communication with residents about changes underway.

“Everyday we’re hitting on the basic stuff – the whole rider dignity piece. Because New Orleans deserves a great transit system,” Jackson said.

RIDE’s report calls on the RTA to address ongoing pitfalls, like a lack of bus shelters, and barriers facing youth.

Getting to jobs without a car

New Orleans residents who don’t have a car and rely on public transportation can only reach 7% of the metro area’s jobs in half an hour at midday, according to RIDE’s analysis. But nearly all of the region’s jobs — 96% — are reachable within half an hour by car.

That stark gap remains even after the implementation of RTA’s network redesign, which sought to provide better access to jobs for transit riders.

Those disparities persist by race and by neighborhood.

RIDE found that the average white New Orleans resident can reach 41% of the metro area’s jobs in under an hour via transit during the middle of the day, while the average Black resident can reach only 34% of jobs during that same window. And residents of New Orleans East, Algiers, and the Lower Ninth Ward face longer commute times than the average New Orleans resident.

Bus shelters: few and far between

Many New Orleans bus stops lack shelters where riders can sit while they wait for the bus and seek cover from the sun or the rain. For 19-year-old August Green, RIDE’s youth community organizer and storyteller, that sometimes means showing up to work dripping wet.

“You try to be presentable for certain jobs, and then you can’t because of the way you just get to that job,” Green said.

The RTA’s 2018 Strategic Mobility Plan sets a goal of setting up benches or shelters at 90% of stops with 15 or more daily boardings by 2027. According to RIDE, that means the RTA would have to build about 300 additional shelters in the next five years, nearly doubling the current number.

But without a robust bus shelter inventory and detailed guidelines for deciding where new shelters should go, RIDE is skeptical the RTA can meet that goal. In addition to increasing the resources dedicated to building shelters and staffing positions to manage them, RIDE has called on the agency to create a public-facing data portal of shelter locations and establish clear procedures for riders to report issues or request a new shelter.

At a launch event for RIDE’s report on Nov. 3, youth leaders sat on a panel with public transit officials. Green asked RTA CEO Alex Wiggins about the agency’s plans for increasing the number of shelters at bus stops.

Wiggins said the RTA is preparing to install about 20 shelters across the city in the coming months. He also said the RTA is planning to begin the design phase for a new downtown transit center building at the Canal and Basin intersection in the coming year.

“We will never get to the point where we have a shelter at every single bus stop,” Wiggins said. “But I can say that given our extreme weather environment, I think that we can do a much better job.”

At both an RTA board meeting on Nov. 15 and a city council budget hearing the same day, RTA officials said bus shelters are a top priority in the agency’s 2023 budget.

Free fares for youth

RIDE is also calling on New Orleans to follow in the footsteps of cities in California and Washington that have made fares free for young riders.

The group argues that eliminating fees for riders under the age of 18 would bring numerous benefits, from improving access to schools and jobs to allowing young people to gain a greater sense of time management and self-sufficiency.

While the RTA reduced fares for youth and seniors in July 2021 — monthly passes for youth riders are now $18, down from $55 — RIDE wants to see city government and other organizations step in to help cover the cost of youth fares.

“We have to be super clear — we don’t want the RTA to pay out of pocket for this. We want them to keep all that money for operations,” Jackson said.

Giovanni Griffin, left, and Kameko Scott aboard the 11 Magazine bus on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022.
Carly Berlin
Giovanni Griffin, left, and Kameko Scott aboard the 11 Magazine bus on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022.

Green said that free fares would be revolutionary for him and his peers, who often need to dig into low wages to afford to get to work.

“It’s a limitation on our ability to achieve success,” he said.

At RIDE’s Nov. 3 event, Wiggins said lower fares — if not completely free — could be a consideration in the future. A representative from the Mayor’s Office said the city is aligned with this vision.

“There’s work that we have to do to figure out how to fund that,” Wiggins said. “But I would love — if I leave any legacy here in New Orleans when my time is finally up — to actually make transit more affordable for young people.”

Carly Berlin is the New Orleans Reporter for WWNO and WRKF. She focuses on housing, transportation, and city government. Previously, she was the Gulf Coast Correspondent for Southerly, where her work focused on disaster recovery across south Louisiana during two record-breaking hurricane seasons. Much of that reporting centered on the aftermath of Hurricanes Laura and Delta in Lake Charles, and was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center.

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