One humid morning on August 29, 2005, the people of New Orleans were literally overwhelmed by Hurricane Katrina, which also struck the Gulf Coast of the U.S. Experts estimate that Katrina caused more than $100 billion in damages. As a city that is completely surrounded by water, New Orleans was at particular risk. Although half of New Orleans actually lies above sea level, its average elevation is about six feet below sea level. When Katrina arrived, it flooded many of the city’s unstable levees and drainage canals, washing away many municipal and citizen properties. We speak with Executive Director of public transportation advocacy group Ride New Orleans, Alex Posorske, about the situation 13 years later, and how they’re working with the municipality to improve quality of life for residents of New Orleans.
Katrina demonstrated how much stronger and organized civil movements were in responding to disasters in comparison with governmental bodies – especially the federal government itself. With around 34,000 people rescued in New Orleans alone, many ordinary citizens commandeered boats, offered food and shelter, and did whatever else they could to help their neighbors. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), on the other hand, took days to establish operations in New Orleans, and even then did not seem to have a sound plan of action, according to HISTORY.com.
As early as 9 AM in late August 2005, low-lying places in New Orleans like St. Bernard Parish and the Ninth Ward were under so much water that people had to scramble to attics and rooftops for safety. Eventually, nearly 80 percent of the city was covered in water, to varying degrees. As a result of a lack of readiness for natural disasters, New Orleans’ transport system suffered severe deep losses. “On top of everything else infrastructure-wise in the city, transit took an original body blow there;” Posorske tells progrss. “They lost over two thirds of their rolling stock, buses, their streetcars… they weren’t evacuated [so] they were flooded and gone.”
When it comes to turning their campaign into a reality, Ride New Orleans has a three-tiered strategy that defines their efforts with the municipality to make transportation easier and more accessible to all. They look at it through a policy angle, and they do a lot of research and data analysis to drive the conversation to help people understand how the situation is and, in turn, understand how to improve it via an annual report they roll out titled: “The State of Transit – New Orleans.”
In the last couple of years, Ride New Orleans has been looking at how well the transit system can provide access to jobs in a reasonable amount of time. The researchers found that the average New Orleanian who has a car reaches 86 percent of the region’s jobs in 30 minutes or less. If that same New Orleanian relied exclusively on transit, he/she could only reach 11 percent of the available jobs out there in 30 minutes or less. “If you don’t have a car [in New Orleans], it’s a real disadvantage,” Posorske says.
Ride New Orleans also looks at its campaign through a grassroots angle, organizing rallies and protest stands calling for better transit that is not “designed for danger,” as one of the protest signs reads. Every third Saturday of every month, Ride New Orleans sits down with concerned riders to discuss their problems and how they want to see them fixed. They also discuss actual steps with stakeholders and the municipality to make omni-scale improvements.
“We have had a lot of communication and work with the folks at the mayor’s office in the last year or two over important issues;” says Posorske. “Like changing regulations to make it easier to put bus stops out [in places where there aren’t any], to work towards a better long term plan for the system to talk about better ways to spend money, make the system more efficient.”
New Orleans is divided by the Mississippi River, and New Orleanians have an inactive ferry service – another facet of the city’s transit. Early last year, the city administration pushed through a new ferry terminal. But the design neglected the needs of New Orleans’ riders: it neither offered cover from the elements, nor a bridge for people to cross to the nearby railway track, which has six or seven trains running every day.
They raised their concerns to the city administration but officials insisted on going forward with the project. “This is going to demonstrably mean a step backwards for riders in terms of comfort and convenience,” Ride New Orleans argues, even as they continue to protest the absence of facilities to both protect and make life easier for the community.
“What if you’re trying to scurry to catch a connection on the other side of the ferry terminal and after you get off the boat, a ferry comes through and you miss the bus, and you sit there for another 30 minutes [to catch the next one]?” elaborates Posorske.
After much campaigning and rallying to pressure the city administration, officials finally gave in to uphold riders’ concerns and work on the Canal Street ferry terminal, with changes expected to finally take place in September.
Two of the cities that Ride New Orleans has looked to for inspiration and collaboration are Nashville and Chicago. “Nashville put together a long term strategic plan similar to the one that we [at Ride New Orleans] put through last year,” Posorske says. “The first week of May is a referendum in Nashville region on whether they want to significantly increase their investments to preempt the transit system vision in that plan, and that is something we are watching very closely and [we are] learning a lot from the planners at Nashville.”
Posorske explains that, when he was visiting Chicago last November, he watched some 20 people board a bus at a time; contrary to his experience in his hometown, it didn’t take them much time to pay the fare and board. “The CTA in Chicago has been doing a very interesting program with an off-board fare collection in one particular busy route in the Belmont Blue Line station,” he says.
Ride New Orleans dreams of pilot programs around better treatment for transit, such as temporarily dedicated lanes and off-board fare collections. According to the group, New Orleanians need projects that could durably speed up the reliability, reduce the travel times of riders, and increase connectivity without the commitment of a multi-billion-dollar investment for new buses, new vehicles, and new transit lines.