We’ve long come to expect bizarrely poor public transit in New Orleans. Nothing runs on time, streetcars are useless following a modest fender-bender, and virtually half of bus service still hasn’t been restored after Katrina.
Meanwhile, tourist lines soak up the lion’s share of capital dollars while residents who live paycheck-to-paycheck wonder whether they’ll actually be able to get to work the next day. In short, transit is a basket case.
In the midst of all of this inefficient blundering, one would at least expect that RTA could get one thing right – using technology.
After all, if Uber can use a cell phone application to track the locations of dozens of private vehicles available for hire, surely RTA can easily employ similar technology to tell me where the hell my bus is, or at least let me know when it’s actually supposed to get there according to some deliriously-optimistic schedule.
That’s not too much to ask, is it?
In theory, no. Indeed, RTA boasts at least three ways of using your cell phone to tell when a bus or streetcar is going to arrive:
1) By checking RTA’s real-time tracker with the locations of buses and estimated arrival times;
2) By texting your stop identification number to the phone number of an automated service listed on the sign; or,
3) By using your cell phone to check the bus schedule on RTA’s website, www.norta.com, which automatically redirects to its streamlined mobile format.
With all of these redundancies, one would think that it would be easy to determine how long the wait is, if only theoretically. None of these options actually work anymore.
I experienced this first-hand this past Saturday evening trying to catch a bus at the corner of Magazine and Jackson. First, I texted the stop ID to the number on the sign. I wasn’t expecting it to work, because I’d tried it a few times over the past six months and it had become painfully evident that the service was no longer offered.
Next, I tried the RTA tracker. It didn’t even recognize that my stop ID existed. I followed that up with WDSU’s free transit tracking application, but it didn’t show any transit vehicles. Again, it wasn’t the first time that both of these had been on the fritz.
Apparently, RTA scrapped the whole notion of tracking transit vehicles months ago and just didn’t bother to tell anyone.
Finally, I just decided to check the bus schedule on RTA’s mobile website. It provided me with a form to enter the approximate time together with the bus line and stop number. However, when I entered the time (which was in the evening) it spit back out times from the morning. Ostensibly, some errant programmer made it to where the form only recognized times from the “A.M.”
That’s right, if you enter in a time in the “P.M.” on RTA’s mobile website, you only receive times from the “A.M.”
The only way around the glitch is to force your phone to access the full website and access the full schedules from there, which is massively inconvenient. In the end, this is how I finally found out that my bus was scheduled to arrive in… 45 minutes. The buses do not run with any reasonable frequency in the evenings on weekends, of course, and apparently I had just missed the previous bus.
Thus, in the end, I took an Uber. It cost nearly five times as much as bus fare, but it arrived in two minutes and the app tracking my driver’s location actually worked.
Now, you might be inclined to excuse RTA’s poor performance by arguing that they’re not adequately funded. However, the facts don’t bear this out. RTA is subsidized through a one-cent sales tax and one-way fares are $1.25, which is the same as our neighbor to the west, Houston.
And Transdev, which is contracted by RTA to run transit in New Orleans, estimated that it would finish 2015 with a surplus. Nevertheless, it is still asking for an increase in fares.
Even if that weren’t the case, it becomes even more essential to provide accurate tracking information and reliable schedules when the frequency of service is poor due to budgetary restraints. If missing one bus means waiting a half-hour or more for the next one, it’s pretty important to know when each bus is actually going to arrive. Providing that information should not come at a hefty cost.
Transdev and RTA are dropping the ball. The quality of transit in New Orleans is embarrassing, and a fare increase isn’t going to fix the problem. If even the most simple technology is beyond Transdev and RTA, perhaps they don’t need a minor tune up so much as a major overhaul.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.