Ann Warren waits at the makeshift bus stop on Canal and Marais streets, her cheeks growing rosy in the heat, her clover-green shirt turning pine-green with sweat. Warren, 52, used to catch the St. Bernard-Paris Avenue or St. Bernard-St. Anthony bus outside Walgreens at the corner of Basin Street and Tulane Avenue, but her bus is one of 15 — nearly half the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) fleet — that have been rerouted to a makeshift bus stop on Canal Street while the streetcar line is expanded on Loyola Avenue, a project expected to last the rest of the year.
Warren doesn't drive and uses public transportation for everything: grocery shopping, picking up prescriptions, going to church and riding to work. Her only problem with the RTA is a lack of transparency.
"When they rerouted all of this from across from the [New Orleans] Main Library to over this way, that was an inconvenience," Warren says. "Now I'm hearing from bus drivers that they're going to make this a permanent stop instead of putting it back like it used to be."
The RTA, which underwent a severe contraction following Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods, is finally growing again — or at least coming into the 21st century. Like the population of New Orleans itself, the bus system is smaller than it was before the 2005 disaster. Patrice Bell Mercadel, director of communications and marketing for the RTA, was unable to provide Gambit with pre-Katrina route information, but according to an Aug. 24, 2005 archive of the RTA's route listings page, the agency had 89 routes prior to Katrina. Now there are only 34. Some of the 2005 routes were express, rapid or school-specific, others merged and a few ran in areas that no longer have the population to warrant a bus line.
Mercadel is proud of how the agency restored service after the floods and now is working to make public transportation in New Orleans comparable to reliable systems in other cities.
"In the last few years we have seen everything happen from the launch of new buses to us launching the new website that is really user-friendly, consumer-dedicated and ... providing tools to New Orleans," Mercadel says. Those tools include a trip planner on the RTA website, a real-time bus-arrival beta test, automated Interactive Voice Response (IVR) capability on the system's Rideline (248-3900), and a partnership with Google to include the RTA's data in the Google Transit app. This has been in place since late March or early April of this year, Mercadel says. The partnership should make it easier for tourists to get around the city, she says. It also provides more user-friendly information, including nearby stops and attractions.
Most of these updates haven't trickled down to the average rider like Warren, who says the RTA should communicate better with its customers. "They need to keep their main customers more informed of when they make changes (in routes) because they don't find out anything until they get on the bus," she says. "They could have televised that — that they were going to change the route — instead of people standing up at certain bus stops ... an hour or two. To me, it's mainly an inconvenience for the elderly ... and [the RTA doesn't] take into consideration the fact that they rerouted everything and didn't tell the public squat."
Jackie LeBan, a former Shell Oil accounting assistant, is one of those senior riders. "The only thing I like about the bus is that it gets me there on time," LeBan says. "But I hate waiting. I ride the bus to go to the doctor and to go to the casinos." She doesn't use the Internet or have a cellphone, so LeBan can't take advantage of the RTA's latest tools. She says she relies on written rider alerts and signs.
Warren's familiar bus stop outside Walgreens has only been there since the summer of 2005 — the same time construction began on condominiums at 1201 Canal St., says Terry Smith, an RTA bus driver. Smith says feedback from riders is key to keeping public bus service useful.
"Sometimes the more affluent community has access to attend meetings and offer their opinions on bus stops, which leaves the actual riders at a disadvantage," says Smith, who has driven the St. Bernard Avenue line for nine years. "After they put up those condos, they moved the bus stop from in front of Krauss (Department Store) on Basin and Canal (streets) to further down on Elk (Place), which makes transferring to the Canal streetcar difficult for St. Bernard and Morrison Express riders.
"Right now, the way the detour is set up during the Loyola [streetcar] construction, there's no shade, nowhere to sit ,and people are going to pass out in the heat." Workers since have erected two shelters on Canal and Marais streets, but they accommodate only a few of the riders who are waiting.
"Plan your trips in advance. Always plan your trips — it's a different RTA," Mercadel says. "Prior to seven years ago, this agency had hundreds of buses and you did not need to know the schedule. Today we work with more limited resources and we are a much more efficient agency.
"The service is there; you can go anywhere you need to go on this system within this city. Anywhere you need to go, we can get you there, but you need to plan your travel. This is not much different than it is in any major city."
"We always appreciate hearing from riders on things we do well and things that we can do better," says Ryan D. Brown, director of Jefferson Transit (JET), the public bus system in Jefferson Parish. "It's really helpful when riders let us know where they want additional services, which could lead to something like the newly reinstated Westbank Sunday Loop, or even if they just need a bench or a shelter somewhere."
Before Katrina, JET serviced 22 routes. Today it operates 12 routes, with only its Belle Chasse, Marrero, Oakdale, Gretna/Peters Road and five peak-hour routes yet to return. JET sets a high standard in providing rider-requested improvements, administering surveys on the buses to get feedback from customers who don't fill out surveys online. Brown says it was riders who suggested installing bike racks on the front of JET buses, "leading to a doubling in the number of our bike-bus patrons."
In addition to being the first in the greater New Orleans area to provide bike racks, JET was also the first to use biofuel and provide fare boxes that give change cards. One of the latest accomplishments at JET is the addition of 18 new buses designed to resemble charter carriers, with marquees for featuring information, elevated seating and low floors for easy access.
Getting riders comfortable with using trip planning and real-time tracking tools via phone or Internet is a common challenge for all local transportation agencies.
"Use the IVR ... and tell us what you think," Mercadel says. Riders call the system and speak or dial the stop identification number of the corner where they are waiting for a bus or streetcar. The system will respond with the next times transportation is scheduled to arrive. RTA riders currently can dial the Rideline for schedules, visit the website NORTA.com, use Google Transit or sign up to be a member of the Estimated Time of Arrival beta test, which uses the GPS on the bus to give riders an estimate of when a public transit vehicle is approaching.