It’s a complaint many bus riders in the region have long lodged: that there are too few public transit options connecting New Orleans residents with job-heavy Jefferson Parish.
That belief has been vindicated by research done in connection with an ongoing effort to plan travel in the New Orleans area over the next 20 years, work that has now reached the halfway mark.
The “strategic mobility” study being done by the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority, with the help of outside consultants, has few definite conclusions at this stage.
The agency and consultants are still examining the types and frequency of transit the region should have, for example, before they turn to how to deliver and pay for it.
But what has emerged so far is a picture of what areas are hurting for more efficient bus service. And even a cursory look shows that there is much to be desired for riders seeking to reach jobs in Elmwood, Metairie and Kenner.
“We know it’s not working well for those connections right now, and it certainly could be better,” said David Fields of Nelson\Nygaard, the firm the RTA hired to advise it on the long-term plan.
A Tuesday night presentation of the group’s preliminary findings also reported residents' desires to make connections more reliable in all parts of the city and to put more transit routes along heavily traveled streets, such as those where there are affordable grocery stores, according to a compilation of resident surveys the firm released.
The gathering at University Medical Center was one of two this week to update the public on the progress of the RTA’s “strategic mobility plan” and get further input before the document is completed this December.
Advocacy groups have long urged the agency to come up with a holistic vision for transportation, a call Mayor Mitch Landrieu has recently begun to echo and that his new appointees to the RTA board have worked to realize.
Nothing is set in stone, officials insist. But at a recent “State of the RTA” event, the mayor said he envisions, among other options, a plan where one bus ticket can get a rider anywhere in the region, despite parish boundaries, and where buses and streetcars come frequently enough to attract more riders in many areas.
Data gathered by Nelson\Nygaard from 2,000 area residents and employers, plus other sources, show a need for both steps.
The figures show that most jobs in a four-parish area — Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard and St. Tammany — are primarily concentrated in the Central Business District and along Veterans Boulevard in Metairie, with Uptown, Mid-City, Elmwood and Old Jefferson also having significant concentrations.
Low-wage jobs that involve late hours, such as restaurant and bar workers, make up a considerable share of overall jobs, particularly in Orleans Parish.
When taking car ownership rates, levels of income and disability status into account, data show a high demand for transit along Veterans, Canal Street, St. Charles Avenue, U.S. 90 on the West Bank and other areas.
But while Canal and St. Charles have enough buses and streetcars to meet the demand, the routes that connect New Orleans to Elmwood, Veterans, Kenner and even the West Bank are less well served, even though the RTA has generally increased its service in recent years.
“That is where we need to take a look,” Fields said.
As they talked to residents at bus stops and at informal gatherings, the consultants heard regular calls for more reliable service and expanded service along popular routes, he added.
Rose Brooks, who works at a laundry in Metairie and takes the 57-Franklin bus several times a week from her home in the 9th Ward, echoed those sentiments Wednesday.
The Franklin line is often late, she said. “In the mornings it’s the worst,” she said, adding that the line has often caused her to be late for work.
Meanwhile, Sonja Salvant, who lives across the street from Dillard University, said Tuesday that her bus should go all the way out Gentilly Boulevard to the Walmart on Chef Menteur Highway, instead of stopping at Elysian Fields and forcing her to get a transfer to go any farther.
“Don’t that make good sense?” she said. "People have to go to Walmart."
Michael Reed, a Metairie resident who catches a Jefferson Transit bus to attend classes at Delgado Community College, said the RTA should install electronic boards at each bus stop to let riders know when buses will arrive.
He said he doesn’t ride RTA buses once he gets dropped off at Canal Boulevard by a JET bus because he never knows when an RTA bus is coming and because “the transfers don’t work between Jefferson Parish and RTA."
The consultants also have been talking to residents about bicycle-sharing programs, ride-sharing services and other “microtransit” options that could be incorporated into the final plan, along with improved bus service.
Such “microtransit” would consist of small vehicles that would respond to individual calls for service in certain areas, just as ride-hailing services do. Those vehicles would presumably cost the RTA less to operate than buses.
Landrieu also called recently for an on-demand “neighborhood circulator” that would transport people to less populated areas, according to a copy of his remarks provided to The New Orleans Advocate in response to a public records request.
Either that option or a partnership with ride-hailing services themselves could be tailored to the city’s hospitality industry workers, who often need transportation late at night, Fields said.
“We are leaving everything on the table right now,” Fields said. “If it would work, we would look into it.”
Advocate Photo Editor Max Becherer contributed to this report.