During a recent dinner talk, we had the opportunity to sit down and hear from the incoming CEO of the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority, Alex Wiggins, a man with a great deal of knowledge and experience in the field of public transportation. Expecting a standard lecture on the history of public transportation in New Orleans, I was pleasantly surprised when he opened up the floor for a discussion about our personal experiences using the transportation system in the city. He began by asking about our perception of safety, punctuality, and overall satisfaction during our time in New Orleans. While most students reported feeling safe, many complained of inconsistent arrival times and inaccurate GPS location tracking of street cars and buses. The ensuing conversation about why this might be and the number of unique challenges that the city of New Orleans faces was fascinating and enlightening, and made me think hard about issues I hadn’t really considered much before.
I was shocked to learn just how severely Katrina still affected New Orleans with regards to public transit. The total number of buses present in the city is still only a third of what is was before the storm. Furthermore, following the storm all the buses in the city were purchased at once instead of in a typical staggered schedule, meaning at some point within the next few years all the buses operating in the city will need to be replaced simultaneously, a task that will prove to be immensely expensive. An additional challenge New Orleans faces is the ongoing battle to preserve the historical integrity of entities like the St. Charles Streetcar, the oldest continuously operating street car in the country, and the need to adapt to an increasingly technologically advanced world (and add air conditioning, for that matter). Ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft make it difficult for public transit, which often still costs money, to compete with a personal driver coming to pick you up almost instantly to take you wherever you go. Less money being put into public transportation means a worse service, which in turn means fewer riders and then less money again in a positive feedback loop of long wait times and unending commutes.
While many cities face similar issues and there are no easy solutions to any of them, I feel confident that New Orleans, a city which has endured so much, will find a way to improve life for users of public transit. A new CEO means new and positive changes, and I really enjoyed being able to have a personal discussion with him about the new directions the city will be moving in. Growing up in the suburbs, it took me a while to realize the value of public transportation. Having lived in New Orleans for just over 3 weeks, I already realize the extent to which it is completely invaluable. I look forward to seeing how the city adapts to new times and financial challenges while maintaining the traditional charm and feel that I have grown to love.