Environmental talk: The accessibility to resources via the public transit system

Part I: The issue

Transportation is synonymous with access to resources, as it “mediates the ability of individuals to physically interface with resources and amenities in their community.” Public transportation aims to provide services to community members, granting access to resources regardless of their ability to afford personal vehicles. However, an inadequate public transportation system can lead to dependent riders, exacerbating the wealth gap.

The public transit system

The feedback loop created by an inadequate and inconvenient public transportation system hinders dependent riders from maximizing their economic potential. Due to limited working hours and infrequent public transportation services, individuals struggle to access resources that could enhance their quality of life, such as second and third-shift jobs, night classes, and even grocery stores. The reliance on subpar public transportation has broader implications for families and children. For instance, consider the routine of a Greenville mother and daughter who depend on Greenlink as their primary transportation. Their daily journey involves leaving home, walking to the bus stop, taking a bus to the terminal, switching buses, and traveling across town to the little girl’s school. After dropping off her daughter, the mother waits for an hour for the next bus to make the return trip. In the afternoon, the cycle repeats. The mother’s most valuable resource, her time, is wasted on buses and waiting for connections. This time could be better utilized at her job, grocery store, or in other ways to generate benefits for her family. The hours lost on buses limit her earning power in the workplace.

A similar story unfolds in New Orleans, where Judy Stevens leaves her house at 5:30 a.m. every morning, spending more than two hours commuting to her job. Living in the eastern reaches of the city, she has to take three buses across two transit systems to reach her workplace west of town. The tight connection between her first and second buses is her major concern during the commute. If her regular driver isn’t on duty, everything goes awry. “We’re like, he needs to let us know when he’s going on vacation,” she says. Riders face delayed buses, long wait times, and unsheltered bus stops.

Opting for a car would significantly expedite the commute. According to the 2019 annual report of the transportation advocacy group RIDE New Orleans, the average New Orleans resident can reach 89 percent of area jobs with a standard half-hour commute by car. However, by public transit, 12 percent of the region’s jobs are accessible within that time frame. Car ownership is deemed too costly for individuals like Stevens, especially in Louisiana. Including insurance, fuel, maintenance, and repairs, the typical motorist in Louisiana can expect to spend about $4,123 per year on vehicle ownership, the highest annual cost among states. The national average is only $2,807. The cost and inconvenience of maintaining and insuring a car make it “unacceptable” for people like Stevens. Approximately one in five New Orleanians lack access to a reliable vehicle, which is twice the national average.

Public transportation is crucial for commuting in New Orleans, yet it fails to provide convenience for those who need it most: individuals in poorer neighborhoods, those without cars, and those relying on transit for geographic and social mobility. Rachel Heiligman, the executive director of RIDE New Orleans, notes, “We took a close look at the city’s transit service on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood level and were shocked to find that neighborhoods that need transit the most, with low-income populations, communities of color, and where access to vehicles is not a given have seen the least amount of transit restored.”

Severe weather, especially hurricanes, exacerbates the challenges of the public transportation system. During Hurricane Katrina, more than half of the city’s 382 buses were lost in the flooding, and four of the RTA’s five facilities were destroyed. Edmund D. Fountain in POLITICO observes, “the city’s fabled streetcars serve areas popular with tourists, but residents trying to get to jobs often have to rely on the city’s diminished fleet of buses.” The severe damages from hurricanes highlight the urgency of fixing the public transportation system that residents rely on to access work and other resources. The impact of hurricanes further impedes residents living in poor communities from leading their lives.


Part II: The solution

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LA Metro) has introduced the NexGen Bus Plan, a comprehensive initiative aimed at enhancing the public transportation system in Los Angeles. This reimagined bus system focuses on providing fast, frequent, reliable, and accessible service to meet the needs of today’s riders. The NexGen Bus Plan seeks to double the number of regular Metro bus lines, ensuring that more than 80% of current bus riders experience a frequency of 10 minutes or better. The plan also addresses the improvement and expansion of midday, evening, and weekend services, striving to provide an all-day, 7-day-a-week service. Additionally, the plan aims to enhance the public transit system, guaranteeing that 99% of current riders are within a ¼-mile walk to a bus stop, creating a more comfortable and safer waiting environment. By increasing the frequency of buses, passengers can spend less time waiting for their next bus, minimizing the impact if they miss one, as the next bus will arrive shortly. The expansion of bus operating hours will similarly contribute to improved accessibility. The inclusion of more zones around the city will allow a greater number of riders to access bus services and job opportunities without enduring lengthy commutes.

According to Rick Jager, the new schedule is designed to ensure that 83% of current riders are served by a line offering buses at least every 10 minutes, a significant increase from the current 49%. Metro plans to achieve this by expanding the number of lines with this level of service from the current 16 lines up to 29 on weekdays and from two to 14 on weekends. Additionally, the plan aims to more than double the number of residents who can access frequent-service lines within walking distance, increasing from 900,000 to almost 2.2 million. This ambitious initiative represents a significant step toward improving the efficiency and accessibility of public transportation in Los Angeles.


A bus top

The NextGen Bus Plan proposes substantial changes to the bus network that serves hundreds of thousands of daily riders, aiming to enhance LA transit by saving time and expanding access to public transportation. However, one notable limitation of this plan lies in its communication strategy directed towards riders. In June 2021, the implementation of a new network marked  the largest change to the bus system in 25 years. Unfortunately, riders faced challenges in accessing information about the new network, experiencing confusion due to limited communication from the agency and the absence of maps at bus stops. Despite the inherent difficulty of promoting such widespread changes, LA Metro addressed this issue by adopting proactive measures. These included distributing information about service changes to affected bus stops two weeks prior, updating signage at bus stops by the implementation date, utilizing social and print media for broadcast alerts, and conducting in-person outreach at key bus stops. Consequently, when the new network commenced in December 2021, a majority of riders were informed about the upcoming changes, leading to a significant reduction in complaint rates.

Another noteworthy limitation tied to the expansion of the bus network is the ongoing labor shortage. The NextGen Bus Plan faced challenges due to a “perfect storm” involving the national labor shortage, higher attrition than hiring, and employees contracting COVID-19. This convergence of factors resulted in the cancellation of rides due to a lack of operators, elevating bus service cancellations to approximately 10%-15% from the pre-pandemic cancellation average of approximately 1%-2%. The shortage of bus operators poses a tangible obstacle to the seamless execution of the NextGen Bus Plan.


Part III: Implementation

Proposing a bus program similar to Los Angeles’ NextGen Bus in New Orleans is crucial, especially considering the severe damage caused by Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Ida to the city’s public transit system. According to a RIDE New Orleans report, streetcar trips in 2012 were only at 77 percent of pre-storm levels while only 29 percent of bus services had been restored. Unlike Los Angeles, New Orleans has experienced a consistent 20 percent annual increase in ridership since Katrina, underscoring the substantial demand for public transportation. Although ridership remains below pre-Katrina levels, this gradual rebound aligns with national trends, showcasing the city’s need for improved public transit. Rachel Heiligman, Ride New Orleans executive director, emphasized the necessity of a regional planning process for long-term financial sustainability and service improvements, similar to the NextGen model.

A bus on the street

Securing funding for such a plan poses a challenge for New Orleans. While the city received $130 million in federal recovery funds after Katrina, FEMA’s calculation only covered the dollar value of lost buses, not the actual number. The aging buses were depreciated over an extended period, leaving a funding gap, as the “$44 million it got from FEMA replaced only 75 of the 202 buses that were lost. Furthermore, federal transit programs solely cover investments, not operations, requiring the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) to find additional funding for drivers and vehicle operations.

The decision by surrounding parishes, mostly wealthier and whiter, to opt out of the RTA creates complications for commuters like Judy Stevens, who must navigate not only different buses but entirely separate bus networks. Instead of allowing parishes to individually decide RTA participation, the RTA should conduct surveys and plan comprehensively to address New Orleans’ commuting challenges. Introducing more bus lines to meet the high demand in parishes, along with increased bus frequency, can simplify connections and reduce waiting times. Shortening connection times and providing frequent trips every five to ten minutes would benefit residents citywide, offering improved access to resources and a sustainable public transit system.



This piece was edited by Rafael De Alba as part of Professor Kelley Crawford’s Digital Civic Engagement course at Tulane University. 



Work Cited:

Cohen, Ariella. How This Visionary New Orleans Planner Is Reimagining … – Nextcity.org. 16 June 2014, https://nextcity.org/urbanist-news/how-this-visionary-new-orleans-planner-is-reimagining-community-development.  

Grise, Emily, et al. “Planning a High-Frequency Transfer-Based Bus Network: How Do We Get There?” Journal of Transport and Land Use, https://www.jtlu.org/index.php/jtlu/article/view/1742.  

Munguia, Hayley. “L.A. Metro Could Increase Bus Service Frequency in Some Parts of the County by Year’s End.” Daily News, Daily News, 23 Jan. 2020, https://www.dailynews.com/2020/01/14/l-a-metro-could-increase-bus-service-frequency-in-some-parts-of-the-county-by-years-end/.  

“NextGen Bus Plan.” LA Metro, 29 Oct. 2021, https://www.metro.net/about/plans/nextgen-bus-plan/#:~:text=The%20NextGen%20Bus%20Plan%20was,10%20minute%20or%20better%20frequency.

Rusnak, Sean. “How an Insufficient Public Transportation System Decelerates Economic Mobility.” Institute for Child Success, 20 May 2020, https://www.instituteforchildsuccess.org/insufficient-public-transportation-decelerates-economic-mobility/#:~:text=From%20the%20onset%20of%20their,and%20is%20linked%20to%20obesity.  

Snyder, Tanya. “What Went Wrong with New Orleans Transit?” The Agenda, 20 Nov. 2018, https://www.politico.com/agenda/story/2018/11/20/new-orleans-public-transportation-000796/.  


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