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Public transit in New Orleans needs an overhaul. The solution could lie in the past

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Bus ridership is picking up again after a COVID drop, but it's still far below where it was three years ago and even lower than it was 30 years ago. Stephan Bisaha and Carly Berlin of the Gulf States Newsroom hopped on a bus in New Orleans. They wanted to better understand why travelers might be choosing other ways to get where they're going.

STEPHAN BISAHA, BYLINE: That was our bus?

CARLY BERLIN, BYLINE: That was the bus.

BISAHA: So we just missed our bus.

BERLIN: We just missed the bus. Shoot.

BISAHA: OK, before we get into how our bus ride challenge went, we should explain the goal.

BERLIN: Yeah. So a while back, I was talking to the former head of New Orleans' transit agency, Alex Wiggins. And he told me about how much better the city's bus system was when he was growing up here in the '70s.

ALEX WIGGINS: I just remember walking out to a bus stop, and no matter what, within 10 to 15 minutes, something's coming.

BERLIN: Like, he could get from his house all the way across town to this old amusement park in one hour using just buses and the ferry.

WIGGINS: I literally, as a kid, remember getting in trouble because we got home at, like, 11:30, 12 o'clock at night. But we all did it on public transit (laughter), so...

BISAHA: So we decided to recreate that bus route to compare Wiggins' childhood transit memories to the 2023 bus reality.

BERLIN: And one hour was the time to beat.

BISAHA: All right. Time to go.

BERLIN: All right.

BISAHA: Now, the first bus goes great.

BERLIN: But then...

Shoot. OK (laughter). Ferry's not running.

BISAHA: Oh, OK.

So we wait for a shuttle to take us across the Mississippi River instead.

BERLIN: Now, New Orleans has struggled to build back its transit system ever since Hurricane Katrina, which means service has gotten a lot worse for riders like Reeyana Bickham.

REEYANA BICKHAM: I've been on the bus since 7 - well, trying to get to work since 7. So...

BERLIN: Since 7 this morning?

BICKHAM: Since 7 this morning.

BERLIN: And it's not working.

BICKHAM: And I work, like, right across from here.

BERLIN: And it's 12:30 right now.

BICKHAM: Yeah. Yes.

BERLIN: Bickham usually commutes to the French Quarter, but with no ferry and no clear sign saying what bus to take instead, she got really turned around and missed half her workday.

BICKHAM: This has been my No. 1 form of transportation. And today it was just like - it let me down a little bit. It let me down just a little.

BERLIN: Yes.

BISAHA: As for us, we eventually made it to the other side of the river, hopped on a streetcar before taking our final bus.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

BERLIN: And on that loud last ride, some big New Orleans bus news actually dropped online. They shared their proposed route for this hot thing in transportation right now - Bus Rapid Transit.

BISAHA: Now, Bus Rapid Transit's really a fancy catchall name for things like priority bus lanes. Dozens of transit agencies across the country are either trying it or expanding it. The selling point is getting something closer to the speed of a rail system without having to pay for one.

Would this have sped up our route?

BERLIN: I think so. I think it's pretty fair to say.

But BRT doesn't solve a lot of the problems that haunt transit agencies today, like a shortage of bus drivers. More Americans own cars and work at home.

BISAHA: Yeah, but at least it would have made today's ride a lot faster.

BERLIN: Final time is (laughter) one hour, 57 minutes, 15 seconds.

(SOUNDBITE OF STOPWATCH BEEPING)

BISAHA: We were not even close to our one-hour goal.

Are we going to take the bus back?

BERLIN: I feel like I need to eat some lunch.

BISAHA: OK. Uber?

BERLIN: Yeah, maybe so.

BISAHA: Uber. OK, I'll put it on my phone.

A lot more expensive than the bus - 25 bucks.

BERLIN: Also a lot faster - just 22 minutes.

For NPR News, I'm Carly Berlin.

BISAHA: And I'm Stephan Bisaha in New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF AKEMI FOX SONG, "SO FINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carly Berlin
Stephan Bisaha