For five years, Keli Rylance was a reliable bus rider. She caught the 91 Cemeteries line near her house in New Orleans’ Seventh Ward, took it down to the Central Business District, waited five or 10 minutes and caught the “Freret Jet” uptown to Tulane’s campus, where she works. The whole thing took about 45 minutes and when you factored in parking and traffic, it seemed better than driving. Plus, she had a whole group of commuters who did it with her.
“There’s a community of bus riders that would ride from the 91 to the [Freret Jet] and we could stop and pick up our groceries on the way to work or the way home,” she remembers.
But in 2012, when the city completed construction on the tracks of the new Loyola streetcar line, they re-routed the buses; the Freret Jet and the new streetcar would have been redundant. At first, Rylance tried to adjust. She gave the new process a grace period, but it just didn’t seem practical anymore.
“Sometimes I would be sitting there as long as 45 minutes waiting for a streetcar to come,” she says.
Rylance tried skirting the streetcar altogether and altering her route to catch another bus. But walking still took too long. She started driving to work.
Not everyone has the luxury to choose whether or not to take public transportation. Since the Loyola line went in, the city has expanded the streetcar downriver along Rampart Street, where it runs along the border of the French Quarter. In early August, transportation advocacy group Ride New Orleans released its annual “State of Transit” report, which charges that the $75 million streetcar project decreased access to jobs for New Orleanians.
The reason, says Ride New Orleans Director Alex Posorske, is most likely due to another bus re-routing like the one that deterred Rylance from taking transit. For riders who don’t have the option to drive, that means increased commute times or even job loss due to inaccessibility.
Ride New Orleans and many transportation advocates have long criticized the streetcar for being an economic development engine masquerading as a public transportation tool, designed to spur real estate development, enliven the businesses corridors and draw tourists along its track.
And in a city with a robust public transit system, perhaps such an instrument would be more widely accepted as a wise investment. But with a limited pot of transportation funding and a bus fleet half the size it was before Hurricane Katrina, Posorske finds the order of operations troubling.
“We should prioritize access to jobs,” he says. “That hasn’t been a priority in our transit goals.”
The report also found that less than 14 percent of the region’s workforce can reach New Orleans’ Central Business District within 30 minutes or less using transit. Just 11 percent of jobs anywhere in the region can be reached in 30 minutes or less using transit. The report found reliability and frequency to be issues too: Before Katrina, New Orleans had 19 routes with buses coming at least every 10 minutes. Now there are only five high-frequency routes in the city. The results of a survey conducted with Harrah’s casino workers found that among those who use transit, one-third reported being late for work at least once in the past month.
As urban cores become more expensive and many low-income residents relocate to the suburbs, jobs become harder to access. According to the U.S. Census, in 2004, 67 percent of New Orleans-area residents in low-wage jobs worked in Orleans Parish. By 2015, that number had dropped 9 percent. At the same time, many of the region’s large job centers are also on the outskirts of town. The share of low-wage jobs in the suburb of Metairie increased 14 percent during the same period. Unfortunately, the suburban jobs and the suburban workers aren’t always in the same areas.
“We tend to think about the health of metro areas as big old job markets and big old employer pools,” says Adie Tomer, a fellow who focuses on infrastructure at the Brookings Institution. “But that’s a geographically agnostic way to look at it.”
Posorske says his group has pushed for the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) to provide a dedicated line to the growing Ochsner Hospital Campus in Jefferson Parish, and is hopeful that will happen in the next year or so. He’s also hoping the RTA will make transferring from one parish’s transit system to another easier and less expensive part of its forthcoming strategic plan. When it comes to that plan, according to the New Orleans Advocate, “officials involved in that work have said that one of their goals is to help residents connect to jobs in the region.”
From Ride New Orleans' State of Transit 2017
“The transit system stops at the parish line,” says Posorske, who attributes that to “a lot of history and parochialism between the neighboring parishes.”
The option for a more cohesive system existed once: In 1979, Louisiana state legislation created the Regional Transit Authority for Orleans and neighboring parishes, but parishes were required to opt in to the system. At first, only Orleans Parish did. After that, the city of Kenner did too, but the other parishes wouldn’t participate, leaving them to create their own discrete systems, offering low connectivity to one another and very little cooperation in terms of route synergy and fare sharing.
“Right now, there’s a lot of passing the buck,” says Posorske, of regional transit.
While Tomer thinks connecting workers to jobs via transit throughout the region is indeed essential, he says the solution might not look like a new bus route. He says cities often overlook land use as a key way to make transit more efficient. He points to clustering buildings in commercial and residential areas — even in suburbs — as opposed to sprawling subdivisions or strip malls. If jobs and people are clumped together, they’re more likely to attract transit lines, Tomer argues.
“The more dense land uses you have that are concentrated in specific nodes,” he says, “the higher access tends to be.”
Tomer suggests that merging transit goals with plans for inclusionary zoning (the city of New Orleans is currently considering mandated inclusionary zoning) and other affordable housing strategies is a more comprehensive way to think about accessibility. It’s not just about creating lines that reach low-skilled workers, it can also be about making it possible for low-skilled workers to live where there is already density, job access and transit options.
While a holistic approach may well work best in the long run, Ride New Orleans has identified some short-term fixes for the RTA where a little bit goes a long way. And last year, after hearing from riders and community groups, the RTA reversed its 2012 changes that altered Keli Rylance’s commute and went back to the old routes. According to Ride New Orleans’ calculations, this reroute offered 5,494 riders easy access to jobs — for almost no additional cost.
Posorske says that they’ve looked to neighboring cities in the South for inspiration. While cities like Houston have completely redesigned their bus system to reflect a more sprawling metropolis, places like Nashville are incrementally implementing an ambitious — and expensive — 20-year transit plan. They’re starting out by increasing frequency on highly trafficked lines late at night and early in the morning. Soon, they hope to go to voters for more support.
Nina Feldman is an independent journalist focused on audio production. She worked as a regular contributor to NPR member station WWNO in New Orleans and as editor at American Routes. Her work has also appeared on Marketplace, Morning Edition and PRI's The World.