Making it a Lil' Easier to Navigate the 'Big Easy'

Posted on April 21, 2009 by Dick Alexander

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[IMAGE]NORTA.jpg[/IMAGE]New Orleans made world headlines in 2005 when it was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The storm inflicted unprecedented damage on homes and lives, destroyed infrastructure and impaired the city’s ability to provide services to its residents in a time of need. The hurricane destroyed nearly half of the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) fleet and seriously damaged many vehicles.

Hurricane Katrina remains the costliest and deadliest natural disaster in American history. While world attention has faded, recovery efforts continue in New Orleans. And, in January, the city reached a milestone with the launch of The Lil’ Easy, an innovative, cost-effective transit-on-demand service.

Meeting the challenge

To meet its daunting challenges, the RTA’s Board of Commissioners turned to Veolia Transportation, which provided a compelling vision for a well designed and integrated transit network that would catalyze and support renewal, and presented a path to achieve that vision.

In October 2008, the Board of Commissioners initiated a management contract with the company. In the first phase of the contract, Veolia Transportation is providing several senior managers to achieve key performance and operational milestones. The contract will transition into a delegated management model during 2009. Under this model, while continuing to report to the RTA Board of Commissioners, Veolia will perform the functions of the transit agency, including operations, service delivery, customer care, route/system design, technology, marketing, customer information, grants administration, finance, HR, community relations and more. While delegated-management models are widely used in Europe, this will be the first known use of it by a major city in the U.S.

One of the new management team’s first priorities was to realign service and capacity to reflect New Orleans’ post-Katrina population, starting with the Lower 9th Ward.

The Lower 9th Ward

“Of all the communities, Katrina hit the Lower 9th Ward the hardest, so it was fitting that the revitalization efforts start in that area,” says Justin Augustine, GM, New Orleans, for Veolia Transportation and long-time New Orleans resident.

Almost overnight, the population of the Lower 9th Ward declined 85 percent, from more than 18,000 to less than 2,000 residents. While the Lower 9th’s population changed, its need for transit did not. For most residents, buses remained a vital lifeline, enabling them to travel for groceries, appointments, school or work.

But the Lower 9th Ward’s plunging population compounded the RTA’s post-Katrina challenges: how could it maintain its two much-needed fixed-route services in a community that was highly dependent on public transportation but had lost the critical population required to support it?

Clearly, fixed-route transit was not an effective mobility solution for resettled Lower 9th Ward residents. Faced with long walks to the nearest stop, inconvenient transfers and lengthy commute times, many began abandoning transit. Large buses travelling the Lower 9th’s sparsely populated corridors were frequently empty, creating a negative image and financial strain for the transit agency.

When asked, transit users told RTA officials they needed transportation that was fast, frequent and close at hand. In response, Veolia Transportation provided an innovative solution, already in use in Europe, which works for areas that don’t have the population density to support a fixed route service. Originally designed as a “last mile” service to collect passengers along the fringes of conventional transit routes, the EasyBus model has also proven to be an ideal mobility solution for sparsely populated neighborhoods like the Lower 9th. By utilizing this concept, fixed routes in and around the Lower 9th could be rearranged and streamlined, with more transfer opportunities.

A dialogue was established with community leaders and residents to help explain, define, design and even name the new service. It was launched in January 2009 and branded as The Lil’ Easy.

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