A op-ed from Matt Hendrickson, policy director at local transit advocacy organization, RIDE New Orleans

New Orleans needs to fill the gaps in its transit system

Tuesday 21 7:23am
By Matt Hendrickson, guest columnist

New Orleans streets are designed for danger. Our roads are designed to accommodate as many cars as possible, often to the exclusion of any and everything else. Not unrelated, New Orleans ranked close to the worst in the nation for walking and bicycling safety.

This is especially problematic for people taking transit – the primary mode of travel for tens of thousands of our fellow New Orleanians. There is a real lack of safe and effective ways to get you to and from your bus or streetcar stop.

The New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) has determined that 94 percent of their bus stops are not ADA compliant because of broken or incomplete sidewalks, lack of wheelchair ramps, or not enough space in their stop’s waiting areas. Making matters worse, fewer than 300 of the more than 2,000 RTA bus and streetcar stops have shelters to protect riders from the elements.

Meanwhile, because we don’t prioritize transit on our city streets, the bus or streetcar is often late and hard to rely on – leading to lengthy commutes, late employees and missed appointments.

Fortunately, we have two important opportunities this year to comprehensively make this better.

First, the city is planning to update its Complete Streets policy. Complete Streets are streets designed to provide safe, convenient and comfortable access for people no matter what mode of travel they are using. A strong Complete Streets policy can reverse dangerous road design by emphasizing protection for the most vulnerable, starting with people walking – which all people who take transit have to do at some point – and people riding their bikes.

A well-implemented Complete Streets policy will set goals and track progress, so we all know important information such as where crashes are occurring, what kinds and how many walking, biking and transit projects are happening, and where they’re located.

At the same time, the RTA, JeT and St. Bernard Urban Rapid Transit have started a process called New Links that intends to transform our regional transit network. The end result could change where transit lines go in order to better and more reliably connect people to jobs, school, the doctor’s office and many other places. This is an opportunity to redesign our transit system, and there couldn’t be a better time to simultaneously redesign our streets.

New Links seeks to address the very real challenges transit riders face on a daily basis. Today, the average New Orleanian can only reach 12 percent of the region’s jobs within 30 minutes or less – a huge difference to a resident who has access to a car and can reach 89 percent of the region’s jobs in the same timeframe. That lack of access is exacerbated by the fact that 20 percent of New Orleans households do not have access to an automobile – a number twice the national average. Needless to say, this harshly impacts low-income, communities of color and those that need a transportation lifeline the most. This disparity is unacceptable, and riders deserve more.

Combined, these two efforts can not only make our streets safer for everyone and improve transit so that lower-income people have a more reliable alternative, but they can provide appealing alternatives to sitting in traffic and paying too much for parking for people who currently have no other choice but to drive.

However, prioritizing Complete Streets takes dedication — not just by dedicating road space but also political will from our elected officials. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell has started strong on this front. She created a new Office of Transportation that can facilitate road design and planning with the RTA and other city agencies and released a transportation vision — the Moving New Orleans plan – that looks to improve safety and accessibility for all road users.

With this momentum, the time is now to complete our streets through an updated Complete Streets policy and redesigned transit network, that comprehensively connects to all our bicycle and walking networks.

We have an enormous opportunity to provide more equitable access and mobility options for all New Orleanians and the region. Let’s take advantage of that opportunity.

Matt Hendrickson is the policy director at local transit advocacy organization, RIDE New Orleans.