Annie Flanagan for Al Jazeera America

New Orleanians see tourism bias in post-Katrina public transport

While 62 percent of transportation has been restored, locals say bus service has been left behind

NEW ORLEANS — “Now we have to play the waiting game,” Nicky Cao, 17, sighed as he leaned against the bus station and waited to see when the 94 Broad bus will pick him up and take him downtown to see his friends in a Mardi Gras parade.

Cao often finds himself waiting alone on the side of Chef Menteur Highway, a road that stretches out into the industrial emptiness of Eastern New Orleans. Cao, who is Vietnamese, lives in Village de L'Est, a small suburban enclave in East New Orleans known for its large Vietnamese community.

A bus passes the station. “No, that’s out of service. They play you when they do that,” Cao joked. “All the tourists that come here, you know the first thing that they go on is the streetcar, and they are like ‘Oh, public transportation must be good,’” Cao said, arching an eyebrow and twisting his lips into a cynical half-smile. “I am like, ‘No, just ‘cause the streetcar comes every five to 10 minute for you, does not mean [public transportation] is good.’”

Before Hurricane Katrina, there were several buses connecting Village de L’Est with the city, but now, a decade later, there is only this one.

“I know exactly why they fix the streetcar,” Cao said. “‘Cause they make the most money off of it. The tourists go there.” The sun begins to set, and the highway darkens slowly from east to west, as the bus arrives 30 minutes late. Cao is gender fluid; he said that on the bus he sticks out as “a minority within the minorities.” When he dresses femininely in bright heels and knee-length cotton skirts, Cao keeps music blaring in his headphones and tries not to make eye contact with anyone. After being robbed, harassed, and propositioned while waiting for and riding the bus, Cao now carries a pink, spiked, hard plastic knuckle so he can defend himself.

Erica Pendleton, 27, waits at a bus stop on Chef Menteur Highway in New Orleans East on Feb. 10, 2016.
Annie Flanagan for Al Jazeera America

Since Katrina, the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (NORTA) has worked to rebuild the city's transit system. At the 10-year anniversary in 2015, the company announced that 62 percent of pre-Katrina service had been restored. But transit advocates say that number is misleading, masking the fact that NORTA has been more focused on improving streetcar service, prioritizing tourists over locals.

Cao's neighborhood, Village de L'Est, is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city. According to numbers from The Data Center, in 2010 Village de L'Est was 43 percent black, 45 percent Asian, and 9 percent Hispanic, and that diversity is apparent at a meeting of the youth advocacy organization VAYLA.

“Just because of where we live, we have to talk about transportation all the time,” Minh Nguyen, the founder and executive director of VAYLA explained. “We don’t have access to jobs. Where are all the jobs? Downtown. We have very limited access to anything — hospitals, education.” There is one elementary and one middle school in Village de L'Est, but no high school.

In the past decade, New Orleans public schools have morphed into nearly 100 percent charter schools, with students and parents choosing which to attend. The switch also means that some students travel an hour or more to go to class.

Cao attends one of the last public schools, Eleanor McMain Secondary School, more than an hour from his house, plus the time spent waiting for the bus. Cao said that he and the other Asian students from the neighborhood often do not take part in after-school activities because of the lack of transportation.

Nicky Cao, 18, has an hour commute to school.
Annie Flanagan for Al Jazeera America

NORTA and Transdev, the private international company that manages NORTA, declined to comment for this story but pointed Al Jazeera to a booklet they released on the 10th anniversary of Katrina.

According to their statistics, over 97 percent of bus riders and — with the exception of the Riverfront Streetcar, which travels two miles along the Mississippi from the convention center to the French Quarter — over 80 percent of streetcar riders are residents of New Orleans.

NORTA also says that transit is back to 62 percent of what it was pre-Katrina but did not break down those numbers by streetcars or buses.

According to transit advocacy group RIDE New Orleans bus service in New Orleans is only around 35 percent of what it was pre-Katrina, while streetcar service has more than recovered since Katrina, at 103 percent of pre-storm service. Rachel Heiligman, who served as the executive director of the group until the end of 2015, says this push for more streetcars is not just happening in New Orleans, but across the country.

In the late-2000's, cities across the country received federal grants to improve their transportation network, and many cities invested in streetcars.

“I think there was a period of time, early in the Obama administration, when streetcars were a very sexy thing — they are transit,” Heiligman said. The problem is, according to Heiligman, streetcars seem to be more about revitalizing neighborhoods than actually providing transportation.

“Once the tracks are in or even discussed as coming in, you start to see economic development go rampant, business and real estate development,” Heiligman said. “And so streetcars, in some ways, are more about economic development than transit, in my opinion.”

In New Orleans, in 2013, the transit company finished construction on the new Loyola-UPT Streetcar line, at a price of $52 million — $45 million of which was provided by a federal grant.

The streetcar in downtown New Orleans.
Annie Flanagan for Al Jazeera America

But in fact, Heiligman argued, the new streetcar line actually made some bus riders' commutes longer and more expensive. Instead of taking one bus, some residents now have to transfer to the streetcar. According to RIDE New Orleans, between 2012 and 2014, ridership on one of the affected bus lines fell by 42 percent.

In hindsight, these streetcar projects are being questioned, according to Heiligman. “‘Was this really the best use of our money in terms of providing better transit options?’ The answer hands down, is going to be no.”

According to figures from RIDE New Orleans, in 2004 streetcars claimed 14 percent of NORTA's operating budget. As of 2013, the agency was spending 34 percent of the budget on streetcars.

Heiligman and others worry that plans for a $42 million dollar streetcar line currently under construction along North Rampart Street and St. Claude Avenue will be more investment in transit that doesn't serve locals.

While it is unclear what will happen, Heiligman notes that the bus that travels along North Rampart Street, from the Lower Ninth Ward into the Central Business District, is one of the most trafficked in the city.

“If they do what they did with the Loyola [UPT Streetcar], they will cut the bus service and force transfers,” Heiligman explained. “You’ve suddenly made one of your most productive bus routes in the city one of the most challenging, because it no longer takes people into the CBD [Central Business District], which is the major employment center.”

The RTA told Al Jazeera it could not comment about the impact of the North Rampart-St. Claude streetcar line, because “service design has not been finalized on N. Rampart nor presented through the board public hearing process so any comments would be premature.”

A man waits at a bus stop at New Orleans.
Annie Flanagan for Al Jazeera America

“I love the bus. I hate it, but I love it,” Cao joked, as the bus drives down Chef Menteur crossing under massive highway overpasses. Cao affectionately calls the bus “Rita” (instead of “the RTA”), making it sound more like a forgetful aunt than a transit system.

“Even though [the bus] takes a long time, I feel like it helps with my self-healing time, being able to look at the city,” Cao explained.

“When I first caught the bus, when I tell you, I used to look out the window and smile,” Cao said. “You can just look at stuff that you have never see, or you can watch the growth or the change in your community and it just hits you like, ‘Oh my god I can’t believe this.’”

The bus drops Cao off at the streetcar that will take him to watch the parade on Canal. The streetcar comes within four minutes.

“The streetcar don’t play, girl,” Cao said as he boarded the streetcar. “They make beaucoup money off these people. Trust me.”

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