By: Peter Duffy Bennett, Guest Contributor
There are seven new transit planners in New Orleans, armed with big ideas and a strong dose of reality.
This summer, I sat in on a graduate level course on transit operations and management taught by Stefan Marks, Director of Planning and Scheduling at the Regional Transit Authority. Our small group of students got a peek into what happens behind the scenes at 2817 Canal Street. We learned the basics behind how the routes and frequencies for buses and streetcars are determined, how to plan for delays, how to write a schedule, and what drivers need to keep the system running. By reading works by Jarrett Walker, Mark Aesch, and Robert Cevero, we learned about what other cities have done to improve their transit systems, or simply stay afloat in tough times.
After eight weeks, the students had a chance to try their hand at a real-world problem. Given the current transit system in New Orleans, what would they change? Here are the ideas they presented on a Thursday evening at the RTA headquarters.
Jon Dodson proposed a new transit center in New Orleans East. With a new Wal-Mart store being built at the site of the former Lakeland Hospital, there is an opportunity to connect several bus lines at the same location. He studied transit centers in other cities that have been built in suburban retail locations.
Bobby Evans examined the U-Pass, a program that would work with universities to provide each student with a transit pass. The benefits extend further than just the lucky students: guaranteed revenue for the RTA, increased ridership and service across the system, and cost savings on expensive parking lots.
John Green profiled the transit riders in the Lower Ninth Ward. Ridership has dropped with population, but is showing a resurgence. The Galvez line that serves the area has a lower subsidy than comparable services, and is now running every 40 minutes (compared to every 70 minutes two years ago). However, this is a far cry from the service before Katrina, with 7-minute headways and ridership higher than some light rail services elsewhere.
Lawrence Guimont also looked at a bus line that changed drastically due to Katrina – the Louisa. Although it runs parallel to the Franklin line, the two services play very different roles. He identified that the redevelopment of the Gentilly Woods shopping center could bring new riders, and encouraged making a connection to the Broad line.
Kevin Harrison proposed a restructuring of the buses traveling across the Crescent City Connection. Both RTA and JeT buses currently cross the bridge, sometimes at the exact same time, and terminate in the same location in the CBD. He rerouted these buses to the Wilty Terminal on the West Bank, and created a connector service across the bridge that would run every 7 minutes. By writing a schedule, he showed how this could actually save operating hours for both agencies.
Stephen Kroll created a new bus line along Carrollton Avenue. Currently, a rider must take four vehicles to travel from Riverbend to NOMA without walking, or use the infrequent Leonidas line. His service used one bus to run a route from Claiborne to the Museum and the Cemeteries. He recommended the RTA run the service on a one-year trial basis.
Jill Zimmerman reported on the public schools in New Orleans, and whether the RTA could provide bus service for their students. Despite accessibility benefits, she found many constraints and costs as open enrollment has led to students coming from neighborhoods across the city. In other cities, transit passes for schoolchildren have been successful, including in Nashville, where a student ID card is also a transit pass, lunch debit card, and public library card.
These graduate students are well aware of the tough decisions that would go into implementing any of these ideas. As a public service, transit must meet the needs of many different constituencies, leading to trade-offs that the RTA faces every day. But without the planners’ ideas, there would be no vision for transit in New Orleans. Each student successfully qualified their proposals with the tools they learned during the course, from schedule spreadsheets to Title VI compliance. Having met these standards, their ideas deserve to be given due consideration, and maybe even a chance at becoming a reality.