How can New Orleans ensure equitable access to public transportation?

A new study suggests stronger zoning ordinances, high-capacity transit corridors and accessible hubs, green infrastructure and more pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods along new transit routes. 

The Transit Oriented Communities study, conducted by the New Orleans City Planning Commission and the Regional Transit Authority after a request from the Mayor’s Office three years ago, will be presented to the public Tuesday (Oct. 10) at a planning commission meeting. 

The study follows a redesign of RTA bus routes last year meant to make trips quicker on average for riders. It offers suggestions for bridging the transportation gaps between the city’s communities by planning neighborhoods around busy transit routes.

It also recommends modifying zoning regulations to help increase housing density and incentivizing affordable housing developments near transit, investing in green infrastructure and enhancing safety in transportation networks, among other improvements. These “transit-oriented communities” would see denser housing and more businesses near public transit lines, along with green spaces and architecture that make these neighborhoods more commuter-friendly.

Robert Rivers, the planning commission’s executive director, said the study aims to make New Orleans a better and more equitable place for everyone.

Rivers mentioned that the study also considered the impacts of gentrification and displacement, focusing on aligning the report’s policy proposals with the well-being and interests of the current communities. “It’s about serving the communities that live around those transit stops,” he said.

The study is a collaborative effort between the government agencies to help connect neighborhoods that currently lack access to public transportation and also to fix systemic issues with land entitlement, density and zoning, Rivers said. Implementing the suggested strategies will increase ridership, potentially providing more financial support for the metro area’s public transit system and reducing the need to increase fares to cover maintenance needs, he added.

Rivers said that the commission will incorporate findings from the study into future master land use plans, which will help shape the city’s development. The current master plan was implemented in 2010 and has a 20-year shelf life.

Senior City Planner Marin Stephens said approaching public transportation and development in the city with this framework is all about making life easier for New Orleanians.

“It’s looking at ways of placemaking in a holistic way that really makes improvements for quality of life,” she said. “And at a scale that is so you don’t have to take a bus for 40 minutes to get where you need to go. That all of these amenities can be within either a walk, a close transit stop or a bike ride, which reduces our impact also on the environment and the need to own a personal vehicle to accomplish the tasks that you want to do.” 

The study found that almost 90% of jobs in Orleans Parish are accessible by car within 30 minutes, while only 12% of jobs are accessible by transit. On average, white residents in New Orleans can access 14% of city jobs within 30 minutes by transit, while Black residents can access 10%, the study notes. 

Roughly 18% of New Orleans households also lack access to a vehicle, according to data from the 2022 American Community Survey.

Some recommendations, such as improving flood mitigation by developing better drainage around intersections and combating extreme weather by investing in pedestrian-focused infrastructure like tree canopies and awnings, would improve the city’s resilience against climate change, Stephens added.

Rivers said that the study also provides guidelines for new amenities around transit hubs in underserved neighborhoods, which he said would make it easier for people to return and rebuild their lives after climate disasters. 

“The ability to come back and the ability to start rebuilding your life is facilitated by having these more efficient land use and transit-focused [communities],” he said. “We need to remind ourselves that resilience is not just how we evacuate during a storm. It’s how we build a community that is less susceptible to kind of long-term disconnection after the storm goes away.”

Joanna Farley, a transportation planner at the RTA, said these recommendations would be “a huge affordability gain” for families, especially those struggling with poverty.

“If we have neighborhoods that are oriented and organized around transit service, it means that people can access that service more easily, that people can truly rely on transit to get them from where they’re living to wherever they need to go,” she said. “We know that’s really meaningful for households because owning a car can be upwards of $800 a month in costs. But if you’re relying on transit, then that’s $45 a month.”

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Minh (Nate) Ha is a recent magna cum laude graduate from American University with a Bachelor's degree in journalism. Originally from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Ha has spent the past four years in Washington,...