Is the problem with Baton Rouge’s buses a matter of race relations? We think it’s a matter of inadequate service.
It’s not a perception but a reality that the Capital Area Transit System isn’t providing the level of service that will attract middle-class riders.
CATS’ manager, Bob Mirabito, dived into political waters far deeper than he probably intended when he made racially charged comments in an interview with “Podcast225.” “I would love to have a workforce that matches the demographics of Baton Rouge because I think there are some people out there who may not ride CATS buses because they don’t like the color of an operator’s skin. … That’s a shame,” he said in the interview.
A predictable furor ensued, but if Mirabito’s comments are politically sensitive, they reflect a larger issue that CATS is for poor people, often African-American but not always.
We’d suggest that today CATS’ problems are more a matter of class than race, but they are rooted in service, or the lack of it.
The “headway” is the transit term for the time between buses at stops. CATS’ headway is still far longer than the 15 minutes or so that would convince “riders of choice” that the bus will get there if they walk to a stop.
CATS’ routes are better under Mirabito, reorganized and funded with a new property tax in Baton Rouge and Baker city limits; black precincts strongly backed the tax, but a significant percentage of white people opposed it. That racial divide is real enough, but the challenges for CATS did not end with an infusion of new funding. CATS’ old buses are prone to frequent breakdowns. Many of them leak, not a positive trait in a subtropical climate.
The cost of new buses is high, and familiarity with transit’s benefits are low. Mirabito deserves credit for improvements, but political judgment is not among his skill sets.
Mirabito has pursued new riders with gimmicks — early and late buses between downtown and the Garden District, for example — but the core routes on major streets don’t travel with the frequency that will attract riders.
That’s not about the color of the driver or the color of the passengers. It’s about the usefulness of the buses, and we’re just not there yet.