Op-Ed: Why public transit matters

By Stephen Crim, Transport for NOLA

We all say we need more retail and business development in New Orleans, but one particular city requirement actually makes it more expensive for developers – and more expensive for all of us.

City regulations dictate how many parking spaces are necessary for new projects, and providing those spaces drives up the costs for developers.

If they choose to build, they pass the costs onto the owner through higher rents or sales prices. The owner then passes those costs on you to and me in the form of higher prices.

Free parking isn’t ever free.

Because we drive, we need to park cars at home, at work, and at all the places in between. On average, we need three parking spaces for each adult.

But cars are just one way to get us where we’re trying to go. Do we take full advantage of public transit – such as streetcars, ferries and buses – or  bicycling and walking?

Our transit advocacy organization, Transport for NOLA, is promoting New Orleans’ first Transit Week, starting today. Try taking transit to work or recreation at least once during this week. Visit our website at www.transportfornola.org/transitweek for schedules, maps, and information on how to take transit.  Let us know how it went and how it can be better.

If more of us use transit:

  • * Our commutes from eastern New Orleans, Jefferson Parish and the North Shore will be more enjoyable (time to read the paper), more productive (work on that report), and safer.
  • * Busy areas such as the French Quarter, Magazine Street and downtown will be more enjoyable with the reduction in car congestion. Business owners also will have more people walking by and more opportunities to make a sale.
  • * Our transit trips will become even more convenient. The RTA will be able to have more buses and streetcars out for longer periods of time and with more frequency. They can expand bus and streetcar service into new areas.
  • * We will spur economic development. Private commercial development and investment will increase because developers will have less parking to build and finance. Services, goods, and housing could be cheaper if the value of a $200 to $400 per year parking space were not hidden in their costs.

Most of us do believe in having transportation options. We want everyone to use transportation that improves our quality of life for the long-term. As individuals, we prefer transportation options that are less expensive and more convenient. But because most of us do not consider the full cost to ourselves and our community of owning and driving a car, nearly everyone who has the choice drives a car to get around.

We get that nagging feeling sometimes that we really should be getting some exercise for that four-block trip to the store, or that taking a car to and from work every day seems wasteful; we know that if we take a new energy-efficient bus with people making the same, shared commute, can save our precious oil resources and help reduce our dependence on foreign oil and oil conflict.

But let’s be honest. We all think taking transit can be too slow. And it’s unpredictable. And sometimes it can even feel unsafe. But re-examine your transportation choices. Some transit trips can be almost as fast, on time, and yes, safer than driving (if you’re younger than 34, vehicle accidents are the No. 1 cause of death). And more people using transit causes a chain reaction of other social, economic, and environmental benefits for us all.

Transit doesn’t make sense for everyone. We have been using cars for more than 80 years now, and as a result, many of us live and work in communities that were designed exclusively for cars. There are places where roads are wide and houses are separated for stores. And there are lots and lots of parking lots. Of course it doesn’t make sense to take transit where things are so far apart.

But how many times have you avoided going someplace because parking is so difficult? Those are probably the places that were originally built for taking transit. Look to see if there is a bus or streetcar for you to get to these busy places, and you will find it actually saves you parking hassles, fees, and tickets.

New Orleanians are far better off than we realize. Much of this 292-year-old city was designed for life without cars. The higher density of housing, the corner stores and small shops mixed within our neighborhoods and the major employment centers make riding transit more viable than in many places. If we ride and invest in transit now, we can ensure our city moves in the right direction to weather the transportation and resource challenges of the future.

One day, you may wake up and realize your household only needs one car. And that could add up to lot of money each month. You could also realize you know more about your community and enjoy a better quality of life.

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  • Maria Lopez

    Sigh. I would love to use more public transportation but the buses and streetcars have NO reliable schedule. I have to have LOTS of time. And I don’t have that on my way to work.

  • Car drivers would also benefit from mass transit investment, as it would get some people off the road, either by choice or as a public safety matter.

  • jeffrey

    I’m interested in knowing if the new master plan takes into account the waste and expense generated by mandatory parking space. And if it doesn’t, do the intermittent bike lanes appearing on some stretches of of some streets cancel out such an oversight?

  • There are definitely unexplored upsides to public transit. For example, you can relax and text or tweet without fear of collisions or red light camera tickets. Also, you can take full advantage of lunchtime martini specials at nice restaurants.

  • I recently moved to New Orleans from Boston. Everything about New Orleans is better but I miss being able to take a train everywhere. Transit stops become centers of business and culture. An extensive, convenient, timely system would open up the rest of the city, knit it more tightly together, and expand the give and take that thrives here. Expensive? Yes, but the social benefits outweigh the monetary costs. There’s a great proposed light rail map at http://www.transportfornola.org. I’m not sure if the population density justifies every line, but a fellow can dream.

  • Thanks for the transportfornola link. Yeah, it’s probably just a dream, but it’s also a damn good idea…

  • Courrèges

    I’m not averse to public transit, I just firmly believe that it needs to be cost-effective. Building rail lines tends to be too expensive when you don’t have an extremely high population density. Furthermore, it is usually cost-prohibitive to move rail lines to suit changing development patterns, so if a line doesn’t work out, the city is stuck with it.

    Accordingly, for a city line New Orleans, the best solution is probably always going to be buses. There may be some cost-effective rail improvements (especially because we use streetcars, which are much cheaper than modern light rail), but building a giant rail network simply isn’t in the cards.