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In the lobby of our dorm, tenderly, tauntingly, hangs this sign sporting the supposed transportation schedule for the streetcar, the bus, and various campus shuttles. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s blank. Blank, in the case of the bus and streetcar, or rather, nonexistent. What I mean is this: the public transportation in New Orleans is, to put it nicely, unreliable.

Now, I’m sure I sound like I’m complaining, a rant if you will, but the point is the public transportation here is completely unpredictable. And I have to admit, this is the first time in my life where I’ve had to rely solely on public transportation for accessing the city. Cabs are great, cabs are available, cabs are expensive. Each morning, I have to commute to the Southern Food and Beverage museum, arriving promptly at 8:00 am to start prepping for camp at 9:00 am. In order to make it, I have to catch the streetcar which ideally (IDEALLY) comes at 7:25 am. But not always, who knows what will happen. To be fair, the morning is generally more predictable than the afternoon, but still not efficient.


As DukeEngage students, we’re lucky to have supervisors who are kind and understanding as to the woes of transportation here in the city. If we’re 5 or 10 minutes late one day, it’s generally not a big deal. But we aren’t the only people relying on public transportation, and the stakes aren’t as high for us. I’m fairly exasperated by the streetcar and bus, but my job isn’t on the line because of it. However, for many people, this is their reality. Imagine working a service industry job where your shift started promptly at 9:00 am. You hope you can catch the right streetcar, you hope there aren’t too many pickups and drop-offs on the way in, and you hope desperately the streetcar doesn’t break down on the way. Now imagine being a single mother with two young children relying on a bus that comes once an hour, again factoring in plus or minus 10 minutes. If one child is testy or moving slowly, you miss that bus and you are an hour late. Miss it again and you get let go. Neither the streetcar nor the bus has a tracking system in place to tell if one will arrive soon. Basically, standing at that stop is a total shot in the dark.


At first, the wait for a streetcar or a bus, the unknown, was a little comical. However, I began to realize how frustrating and taxing it can be, particularly if my financial existence relied on it. My program supervisor is a consultant for the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) in charge of the bus schedule and streetcar. She says that people regularly come to the RTA commission meetings and tell stories about being fired because the bus was late. For NOLA, this is a real problem. If you rely on public transportation, your access to the city is limited, and you are relying on phantoms to get you where you need to go.


I’ve thought a lot about how to fix the problem, but there isn’t an easy solution. One first step is to add tracking to all of the busses and streetcars, which could then be viewed on an app of some kind. This could tell the public how close the bus is to arriving and might also make bus drivers stick closer to the schedule set out by RTA. As for the streetcar, tracking could also be added, but the true problem lies in the design of the system. The streetcar has to slow down or stop for cars crossing the track, which happens every 100 feet on average. However, the streetcar is also a historic landmark, so any modernization efforts already face an extremely steep uphill battle. Essentially, the streetcar is a novelty for tourists which would be nearly impossible to improve. The only real potential improvement would be to build a second line above the first, a second story, which did not have to yield to crossing cars. I thought about some sort of subway system underground, but this is impossible due to NOLA’s extremely high water table and position right along the Mississippi River.


Two new members have been appointed to RTA’s advising board. I hope desperately, for the people of New Orleans, not the tourists, that the transportation system receives renovations and improvements it needs.