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State of the Transit System 

Megan Braden-Perry on New Orleans public transportation: the good, the bad and the inconvenient

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click to enlarge RTA spokeswoman Patrice Mercadel says you can get anywhere in New Orleans on public transportation ­— you just have to plan. - PHOTO BY MEGAN BRADEN-PERRY
  • Photo by Megan Braden-Perry
  • RTA spokeswoman Patrice Mercadel says you can get anywhere in New Orleans on public transportation ­— you just have to plan.

  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."

click to enlarge Jackie LeBan, a frequent RTA rider, finds shade while awaiting a bus on Tulane Avenue. - PHOTO BY MEGAN BRADEN-PERRY

  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."

click to enlarge Riders line up to board a Canal streetcar at a Bourbon Street stop. - PHOTO BY MEGAN BRADEN-PERRY

  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.

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