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.
JET is in the final stages of collaborating with Google Transit to provide seamless trip planning between Orleans and Jefferson parishes — a service local riders have long requested. Brown couldn't give a specific date when that program would be available but said, "One day we'd like to see transit regionalized."
Nigel Washington, 28, is an avid Internet and smartphone user who often rides the Morrison Express and Hayne buses. Washington says he is satisfied with the RTA's rider tools and Google Transit but believes it's important to have a system to communicate to riders who don't use the Internet. Washington used to drive his mother's car, but now lives in eastern New Orleans and uses the bus system to get around.
"The bus is straight except for trying to catch it at a certain time," he says. Washington takes the bus mostly to look for employment in the service industry, he says, but also enjoys riding for fun using the RTA's $3 all-day Jazzy Pass. (The RTA is the only local agency to provide a one-day pass.)
Rider tools provided by transit agencies aren't always as useful as those created by third-party developers. Those developers, however, need open data to create the tools. Brown says he is interested in opening data and will entertain suggestions from riders and their advocates.
"We feel good about it," he says. "We're also looking at modernizing the system so that at some point in time you'll be able to use your iPhone and see where the bus is coming."
According to Rachel Heiligman, executive director of the nonprofit transit advocacy group Transport for NOLA, opening General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) data, which schedules and tracks where the whereabouts of vehicles, has been suggested frequently on Neighborland, so Transport for NOLA partnered with the website to ask the RTA, which wanted to give that data only to Google, to lift the curtain on its information. The groups gathered 304 signatures on an online petition and surveyed riders at transit stops. In January they asked the RTA to release data, and the RTA responded in March with map and schedule data only, not real-time GPS data.
"If transit agencies open up their data, third parties can create more useful tools for transit riders than the agencies can actually produce themselves," Heiligman says. "For example, the RTA spent a lot of money and time putting that trip planner together, and a lot of people were disappointed because it's clunky, difficult to use and doesn't have a really good mobile version for riders with smartphones.
"Just by [the RTA releasing its] General Transit Feed Specification, the map and schedule data, we now have integration with Google Maps ... but you've also got third-party developers and programmers who are helping to provide several additional rider-centric apps."
Third-party smartphone apps from open-data agencies such as Portland's TriMet and the Massachussets Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) can alert riders to stops near certain locations, allow them to save to their devices the bus stops they regularly use, provide trip rerouting if a bus is late, send transit directions by text message, provide Braille and voice-activated trip planning, and even alert napping riders that they're approaching their stops.
"It's as simple as putting the data out there," Heiligman says. "The agencies won't have to do any work because the tech developers in the city will do that for them.
"And it's not just about tools. We can begin to analyze performance and do more academic studies and recommend operational improvements if this data curtain is raised."
A recent RTA improvement was the addition of a new bus line, the number 13 St. Charles bus shuttle — which has the potential to make all of the St. Charles Avenue streetcar route wheelchair accessible. While the red Canal Street streetcars can accommodate wheelchairs, the green St. Charles streetcars cannot. The city operates an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-compliant paratransit system for wheelchair users, but riders must be approved in advance and some don't meet the RTA's eligibility guidelines. Questions on the eligibility form focus on whether a rider suffers confusion, anxiety, is at risk of falling, has vision or hearing deficiencies or requires a personal care attendant. According to the RTA website, "If you have a disability but your disability does not prevent you from using standard buses and streetcars, the RTA is likely to turn down your request for paratransit eligibility."
Mercadel says the St. Charles bus shuttle was added to the fleet only to provide supplemental service to varying locations along the route while streetcar crossties on the tracks are replaced. The bus service most likely will be discontinued when the maintenance project is completed.
"The agency runs ADA paratransit service throughout the system," Mercadel says. "We have parallel fixed-route service to the St. Charles Avenue line and we are following all of the guidelines that were given by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). The St. Charles Avenue streetcar is the only piece of equipment in our stable of vehicles that is not compliant, but we are compliant with the requirements of the federal government due to the parallel service and the ADA service. ... It's an ongoing process for us."
Heiligman doesn't accept that explanation, saying it's due to a lack of "willpower" within the transit authority. She dismisses concerns about the historic accuracy of the streetcars (an argument against adding wheelchair lifts on the historic cars) by noting they have been updated with modern fare boxes, lighting and advertising. "[RTA says] that because they've got the Magazine Street bus and Freret Street bus and Leonidas bus running parallel to [the St. Charles line], they don't need to make the streetcars accessible," she says. "But [the parallel bus lines are] not close enough. They're six or eight blocks away, which is not a convenient walk and is certainly not a convenient or safe trip in a wheelchair, especially with our sidewalks the way they are."
Both RTA and JET officials say they want feedback from riders — complaints, praise and suggestions. When making a complaint regarding RTA service, Mercadel stresses the importance of providing the route name, bus number, direction and time of the incident. The RTA will examine the audio and video footage from the bus and GPS information to analyze riders' claims, respond to each person and keep the information on file to track common complaints.
The process at JET also is very rider-centric. "When it comes to disciplining drivers," Brown says, "I will call in a rider ... to make sure the complaint is heard. We bring all the information to a meeting and we will hear them out. We make sure we treat our riders with respect, because our riders come first."
Washington, the bus rider who lives in eastern New Orleans, says his only complaint about local public transportation is the shortened and sometimes nonexistent weekend service, especially in his new neighborhood. "On a Sunday the buses take like an hour, so you gotta catch it at the right time," he says. "If you don't catch it at that hour, then you gotta wait a whole other hour. And the Hayne bus needs to come on the line on the weekends and stop later than 7 p.m."
"Folks are generally happy with the geographic transit coverage of the city, with most pre-Katrina routes having been reinstated," Heiligman says, "It's the frequency that becomes a major issue. When you're waiting 45 minutes to an hour for the bus — longer on the weekends — it makes it really difficult to rely on (public) transit."
• Megan Braden-Perry is a regular transit rider and the author of "Public Transit Tuesdays," which appears weekly on Gambit's blog (www.bestofneworleans.com). Each week, she takes an in-depth look at a different local bus route. Her stories are archived at www.bestofneworleans.com/publictransittuesdays.