Transit for the poor? What a curious thought.
Although in theory a primary purpose of transit is to provide necessary transportation for those too poor to afford a reliable vehicle, the reality is that the poor are generally the ones who are shortchanged.
Take the case of Los Angeles: In 1992, after years of receiving the bum’s rush at meetings of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), activist Eric Mann founded the Bus Rider’s Union to represent the oft-neglected users of public transit, users who were predominantly poor minorities.
In 1996, with representation from the NAACP, the union filed a civil rights suit against the MTA. The lawsuit alleged that the MTA was spending increasing amounts of its scarce resources on light rail projects for the whiter, more-affluent, suburbs, while cutting bus service in poorer neighborhoods.
The MTA quickly folded and entered into a consent decree that promised significant improvements to bus service and set achievable benchmarks.
New Orleans isn’t doing much better than Los Angeles was in 1996. Just this past week, Corinne Ramey of Slate penned an article titled “America’s Unfair Rules of the Road” which highlighted the appalling degree to which cities discriminate against the poor in transportation planning. Ramey cited New Orleans as a prime example of the phenomenon.
“[L]ongtime New Orleans residents say that some buses serving low-income and minority neighborhoods haven’t been seen since before the storm, and others have wait times so long that the buses are practically useless,” Ramey wrote. “[A] full seven years after the storm, the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority had restored 77 percent of trips to the streetcar lines, but only 29 percent of its bus routes.”
For its part, RTA has since engaged in some expansions of bus service. However, its largest effort seems to surround the Rampart Streetcar Line, for which ground was broken a little over a month ago. The projected cost? $71 million — and expect that number to increase significantly.
The Rampart Streetcar will largely serve tourists and more affluent riders in the inner-core. The line will only go to Elysian Fields, and thus will avoid going to poorer, more underserved neighborhoods.
Hence, the Rampart Streetcar is yet another symptom of the favoritism the city shows to affluent riders over the working poor. Instead of dedicating all available resources to restoring adequate bus service, we’re investing in yet another tourist trolley. One wonders if our transit planners aren’t simply puppets with the hands of well-heeled developers shoved up their keisters.
Others have noticed this. In January, Peter Horjus, writing for The Lens, opined that “I live just blocks from the Elysian Fields terminus, and I can see no benefits to public transportation in my area from this costly new infrastructure.”
Horjus noted that three bus lines already run all or part of the Rampart Streetcar route. Although RTA has bizarrely declined to state how it plans on dealing with these bus lines after the streetcar line is completed, Horjus did manage to get an RTA employee to concede that some changes and cuts in bus service were likely.
Based on his discussion, Horjus ultimately concluded that “service in these areas would be the same or worse than it is now.”
“Bottom line: This streetcar is not for downriver residents; it’s for tourists,” Horjus continued. “It’s a 1.6-mile ‘tourist trolley,’ not a commuter line, and it duplicates bus lines in an area already well served (at least by RTA standards.)”
One would hope that there would be a wellspring of community opposition to this blatant dedication of scarce funds to a dubious streetcar line for the benefit of tourists and developers, but alas, there is not.
Ride New Orleans, the local nonprofit that advocates for transit improvements, supports the Rampart streetcar expansion. Its website specifically advocates for “affordable, transit-oriented development around key transit corridors, such as Loyola and St Claude Avenues.” In other words, Ride New Orleans is on the side of developers who want to use taxpayer-funded streetcar projects as a means to promote inner-city residential redevelopment, something we normally term “gentrification.”
This is regrettable, because unlike the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union, Ride New Orleans wants to play both sides. It wants to support expensive rail projects and the development schemes that go with them while simultaneously being the voice of neglected bus riders. Alas, its support for bus riders rings hollow because we ultimately can’t do everything at once and it’s pretty clear which priorities are slipping by the wayside.
Buses are cheap, and low-income riders are low-hanging fruit. It shouldn’t be difficult to bolster existing bus lines and add others to better serve parts of the city that are less well-off. Indeed, it’s one of the easiest things RTA could be doing. Instead, it’s tearing up Rampart for a streetcar expansion project that is, at best, of dubious utility.
Regardless of whether bus riders finally organize to challenge this disparate, unfair treatment, we need to start fundamentally rethinking exactly what we want transit to accomplish. Presently, it doesn’t appear to be anything noble.
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.