Jan 112016
 
Owen Courrèges

Owen Courrèges

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.

  23 Responses to “Owen Courreges: What happened to online tracking for New Orleans public transit?”

  1. RTA should just post the on duty bus/streetcar drivers’ cell phone numbers at each stop so we can just call them and ask: “Where are you?”

  2. The tracking still works – I just used it.

  3. Thank you Owen for the article. I have much to say on the subject, but I will leave it at this: GTFS the data to Google/Bing and let them handle the rest. Do not re-invent the wheel for a mobile app. The guys at Google have already figured it out and their mobile app is awesome.

    But Owen, I have good news. It looks like NORTA has heard the calls of public transit riders. A new RFP has been introduced, and I do believe if they are able to get the system they are seeking, your prayers will be answered.

    http://www.norta.com/getattachment/2faa89c5-a72e-49d8-9758-88676b10872e/RFP-2015-010-Automatic-Vehicle-Location-Dispatching-System.pdf.aspx?ext=.pdf

    “Software or interface allowing automatic export of data into format used by Google Transit
    and Bing Transit mapping software and real time applications (GTFS-real-time and GTFS). ”

    BTW, if anyone at NORTA/Transdev is listening, I would love the opportunity to spearhead the integration of real-time data with Google/Bing. I am a public transit rider and software engineer with the skills and experience to make this happen.

  4. Well, sure. This is what happens when you hire a private company to manage a public service. Public transit should be managed by a public commission which answers to city council. As it is, there’s no way to pressure transit management to provide anywhere decent service to the public which owns the assets.

    • D. Turgeon,

      I don’t think it’s a matter of privatization per se, but rather poorly-managed privatization. Other cities have corporate-run transit that works reasonably well. The bottom line is that RTA needs to fire Transdev if this is the best job they can do.

      • There’s no reason to have a “corporate run” public asset. All it results in is less public accountability and public funds paying the profits of the private operator. These are publicly owned assets which should be publicly run.

        • D. Turgeon,

          I don’t think that’s universally true. Publicly-run utilities often have very little accountability and are also often poorly managed. Management contracts with private companies can be effective, at least in some cases, if there are proper benchmarks and oversight.

          Here, I don’t think either RTA or Transdev are really that concerned with providing good transit for the citizens of New Orleans, and both seem willing to tolerate abnormally high operating costs. Transdev certainly doesn’t seem to have vastly improved the situation, but I’m not sure going back to RTA management would be any better.

          • Well, nothing in human affairs is ever “universally true”, except death and taxes. Claim what you will but the concept of public management of public assets is the best foundation for both public accountability and effective public service. Private management just adds an unneeded layer of expense and bureaucracy to service delivery. The last 50 years has seen a continual privatization of public assets and services, yet who would claim we are any better off for it? Everywhere, costs escalate while service declines. Doesn’t sound much like progress to me.

  5. Margot,

    It didn’t work for me as I described, so I decided to check again just now.

    First, I went to a stop and I entered the streetcar stop ID closest to my house — N2878. That came back as “SORRY, STOP ID #N2827 IS INVALID.”

    I then thought that, perhaps, RTA had stupidly omitted the letter from the stop identification number (because if the letter isn’t a necessary identifier, it shouldn’t be on the sign, and at the very least the software should recognize the ID either way). Accordingly, I then entered in the number alone — 2828. That recognized the stop, but came back as “SERVICE UNAVAILABLE.”

    I thought this resolved the question; although the tracker recognized my stop, it clearly said that the service wasn’t working right now. Still, there was one other option — the pull-down menus to locate a specific stop without the stop ID number. Accordingly, I went through each of the three menus to select my stop.

    At that point, it finally came up with the tracking information.

    Long story short, if this qualifies the tracking as “working,” I say it’s still stupid and useless. There is no excuse for this level of incompetence.

    I should also note that at times in the past when I’d used tracking earlier, it would be way off at times — a bus or streetcar that was supposed to be a few minutes away didn’t arrive for 20 minutes. So even when it gives you the information (and it clearly doesn’t do so reliably) you can take it with a grain of salt.

    • “I should also note that at times in the past when I’d used tracking earlier, it would be way off at times — a bus or streetcar that was supposed to be a few minutes away didn’t arrive for 20 minutes. So even when it gives you the information (and it clearly doesn’t do so reliably) you can take it with a grain of salt.”

      You are correct sir. The information is inaccurate and unreliable. Believe me, I have studied this myself extensively. Owen, we should meet. Together maybe we can get something done. I actually have a relatively simple “fix” for the Google/Bing realtime reporting which would make these mobile apps usable.

      However I believe the infrastructure/logistics are still a problem. For example, if the public facing real-time api feed is up and running and all buses are reporting, the real-time reporting solution I am proposing will work. The problem is that the public real-time api feed is not always available (server down?) and I believe they also have issues with buses/streetcars that stop reporting (e.g. faulty devices) their locations.

  6. Jeo,

    Good catch. I’m glad that RTA is planning a major upgrade, but the meantime they surely have the means to keep the existing tracking/scheduling programs functioning properly. Just because they’re planning on revamping everything in the future doesn’t mean that people don’t need tracking and easy access to schedules right now.

    And as you note, this is not difficult work, either. They don’t need to reinvent the wheel. The technology is there, and they’ve just been slow to utilize it. Worse, they’ve created their own services that they don’t even maintain properly. I have very little faith in their abilities.

  7. Owen, Have you downloaded the “NOLA Transit” app? I’m looking at it right now and it is giving me real time position of buses. I’d rather than than “estimated times.” I can make a better estimate if I’m looking at the map myself.

    • Joel,

      I have the WDSU Transit App, but it works very inconsistently. The past few times I really needed it, it was down. Is there another app you’re talking about? I do prefer those apps that provide actual locations.

    • I also use the NOLA Transit app, and it works great. It shows real-time buses moving down the line on a map. It is available in the iTunes App store and costs $1.99, I believe….a one-time cost.

  8. Texting the stop ID works for me on both of the streetcar lines that I use.

    • Nolajoe,

      It’s worked recently? Then this is just a sign that it no longer works everywhere and isn’t being properly maintained, because it definitely hasn’t been working for me. It used to work, but no longer.

      • I last used it January 4th. It worked for both ends of a round trip on St Charles. I plan to use the Canal line this Thursday and will try it again.

  9. The RTA, just like most other city run and outsourced services in NOLA (Entergy, COX, S&WB, etc) all provide poor or no service because the Mayor’s office and City Council do not hold them to account. The bar is set so low in New Orleans that the citizens no longer expect basic functionality. Our local leaders know this and until we begin to demand better for ourselves through votes and public voice then nothing will ever get better.

    The most accurate tag line for NOLA should be: “The City of lowered expectations.”

    • Think you’re right, the service level we want as residents of nola will not be met until we demand them…and that’s where nola falters. People may love their city but mass organized efforts are the best way to show that love and actually get things done. The only organized efforts going on in nola atm are crawfish boils. We have to do better if we want better.

  10. The bottom line, is that the RTA is not reliable – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. And that is not good enough.

    I cannot rely on the streetcar or buses if I really have to be on time to a scheduled appointment. But, I have choices – my car, uber, taxi.

    There are many people who don’t have a choice – they must take public transportation to their job and rely on it show up on time or at least have fair warning that a bus is not on time.

    For those who don’t have a choice in transportation, how many riders are fired or reprimanded for not showing up to work because of RTA’s ineptitude?

  11. The primary goal (and should be only goal) of mass transit should be to get the masses to a destination AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. Fail in NOLA! Do everything and anything to decrease this number, NOW!

  12. Anyone have any insight on this? Two years later and it seems nothing has changed.

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