Late or missing buses and streetcars always top the list of rider complaints.
And no wonder! In RIDE’s 2020 State of Transit report, we showed that overall New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) “On Time Performance,” or OTP, was less than 72 percent for buses in 2019. That number was even worse for some neighborhoods, with New Orleans East and Algiers below 70 percent OTP.
But there may be hope on the horizon as the RTA recently launched a comprehensive effort to improve OTP across the system.
Riders should, of course, be skeptical until we see real results. But after talking with RTA staff over the last few months, RIDE can say we’re honestly impressed by the efforts led by the RTA’s operations and data teams.
To catch you up to speed we wanted to give you an overview of some of the specifics. Before we get started, it’s important to note two items:
- First, remember there’s always a specific definition of “on-time” in the transit world. In the RTA’s case, it means a transit vehicle leaving a designated “time point” no more than one minute early or five minutes late.
- Second, the RTA will be implementing most of the changes described below during the summer “pick” scheduled for June 20. A “pick” is one of several times during the year when the RTA and the transit operators’ union agree that transit schedules will be adjusted. The name “pick” comes because that’s when operators choose or “pick” their schedules for the next several months. Typically, these happen in the winter, early summer, and early fall. Generally, no schedule changes are permitted outside of these specific “picks.” It’s important to understand this in order to make sense of why most of the changes described below will take place starting June 20.
With those points made, let’s take a look at the four areas the RTA is working on to improve OTP!
1. Fixing the schedule
One of the most obvious problems with RTA OTP is that often times the schedules are – at best – aspirational. There are three areas where the RTA will be making adjustments for schedules that will be easier to follow:
- More consistent layover times: Layover time at the return point or end point of an individual bus line’s trip is important. If the trip ran into unexpected traffic or heavy passenger loads, the built-in layover time helps the driver recover any lost time and start the next trip on time. The problem is that many buses don’t have enough layover time. For instance, some drivers refer to the #57 Franklin as the “race horse” because it’s always running behind and drivers basically speed through each trip trying to catch up to the schedule. On June 20, the RTA will adjust schedules to give buses like the #57 Franklin more layover time to recover – with five minutes at the downtown transfer center and 10 minutes at the end of the line.
- Returning to a normal schedule: Since last May the RTA has been only running buses on a Saturday schedule. This was due to necessary service cutbacks due to COVID-19. But as more traffic has returned to weekday rush hours, the Saturday schedules have increasingly been hard to maintain. So simply returning to full service on June 20 will help improve things.
- Dynamic schedule adjustments: In the past, some schedules haven’t been adjusted at different points of the day in response to different traffic/passenger load conditions. The June 20 service changes will also include some minor adjustments to make it easier to stay on schedule at various points during the day for certain lines.
2. Better training for operators
RTA data shown at recent RTA board meetings makes clear what most riders already know – some operators are better at being on time than others. Riders shouldn’t have to rely on getting their usual driver to be on time to work though! With that in mind, the RTA will be implementing some more focused training to improve across the board performance:
- Training for different ways to pace the bus – for instance if a bus is running early, the driver might be instructed to slow down for a stop, even if no riders are waiting for the bus there.
- Development of an Internal dashboard: The RTA data team is building a dashboard that allows supervisors to see OTP performance of every RTA operator. So, if one driver has a consistent issue with OTP, supervisors can work specifically with that individual to determine ways to improve performance.
3. Streamlining “time points”
As noted above, OTP is measured by whether a transit vehicle leaves designated “time points” along a route within one minute early and five minutes late. But problems can arise if there are too many, too few, or poorly placed “time points.” In those cases, performance on a line can be throw off by operators trying too hard to make certain “time points” on time, making the rest of the line chronically early. Or drivers might often arrive early at a poorly placed “time point” (according to the schedule) and then be forced to wait – opening up the trip to more traffic unpredictability later in the route.
After a detailed look at all timepoints this spring, RTA staff streamlined timepoints and spaced them out to make issues like this much less likely. While this might not lead to instant improvements on a particular line, it likely will mean smoother operation over the long term – and improved ability for the RTA to identify particular trouble points for reliability along OTP and devise strategies to address them.
4. New buses!
60 percent of the RTA bus fleet is older than 10 years. In the transit world, that’s really old! To give you context, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) recommends that transit agencies don’t operate buses that are more than 10 years old or have more than 500,000 miles. When over half of your buses are past their useful life span, you see a lot more breakdowns than you should – something riders know all too well.
This is the unfortunate legacy of previous management under Transdev that can’t be immediately undone. But at least current RTA leadership is putting the agency on the right path. RTA now plans to replace 10-15 percent of the bus fleet every year. We’ve already seen 20+ new buses come into service in the last year or so. That means riders should slowly start to see a difference in the next few years.
Will this all actually work?
As we noted above, the proof will ultimately be in the pudding as to whether the RTA can make progress on the abysmal on time rates of the last decade. While we will be watching closely, we’re cautiously optimistic that the RTA’s new strategy will help turn the corner for riders. Let us know what you’re seeing out there in the weeks after the June 20 “pick”!