There are many factors that contribute to a city’s mobility score.
Logically, one might assume that cities with a higher overall poverty rate rely more strongly on public transit, such as buses or trains. Likewise, a greater population density seems indicative of expansive public transportation options.
The reality, however, is much more complex. In this comparison of two mid-size U.S. cities, public transportation options in big cities don’t always reflect the needs of its citizens, leading to a pronounced deficit where mobility is concerned. And that’s a problem.
This pair of cities wasn’t chosen arbitrarily; I recently moved to Boise after spending several years in New Orleans, and I frequently utilize buses to get around. So here’s my take on how public transportation in New Orleans and Boise stack up.
NOLA vs. Boise: the mobility numbers game
On the surface, New Orleans and Boise are extremely different, in regards to climate, demographics, and general atmosphere. But there are also similarities: the two cities are the most populous in their states, and are also the historically “blue” enclaves in “red” states.
They’re also in the bottom of the pack in terms of state minimum wage laws: Louisiana, in fact, is one of five states that has chosen not to adopt a state minimum wage. Idaho defaults to the federal minimum, which currently sits at a paltry $7.25 per hour. Also, both Boise and New Orleans have an overall poverty rate that’s higher than the national average of 12.7 percent.
The two cities have another commonality: their residents like to move. Boise, for instance, is bordered by hundreds of acres of forests, and its remarkable Greenbelt connects much of the city, boasting 25 miles of trails for cyclists and pedestrians. And the people of New Orleans regularly take to the streets, walking, dancing, and making music in the city’s frequent second-lines and parades.
It’s important to understand the unique demographics and transportation needs of the population when assessing a city’s mobility. The following World Population figures are current as of 2018.
City growth and sustainable planning
After Hurricane Katrina displaced a significant number of its residents, it took several years for New Orleans to bounce back. And from 2010 to 2017, the city experienced steady population growth at a rate of 7.2 percent. In the same timeframe, Boise experienced a population explosion, adding new residents at more than twice the rate of New Orleans.
But its transportation options are not indicative of Boise’s population numbers, especially in the wake of speedy growth. While in New Orleans, some buses run on a 24-hour basis, Boise’s ValleyRide is completely shut down on Sunday and after 6 p.m. on Saturday. This greatly impacts the city’s low-income residents.
The city’s negligible bus service may also ultimately reduce the popularity of Boise among young professionals, and both ValleyRide and local city planners alike shouldn’t discount the importance of accessible, affordable public transportation.
According to research from Ohio University, 56 percent of millennials look for a “walkable community” when choosing where to live and work. About the same amount believe that owning a car is out of their financial reach. Further, a whopping 81 percent place high value on convenient access to transportation.
Young professionals without a vehicle are likely to skip over Boise during a job search solely on the basis of mobility, or the lack thereof.
The verdict: lackluster overall (but NOLA is a tiny bit better)
According to the Idaho Business Review, Boise officials are well aware of the downfalls of ValleyRide. “We are the largest city with the least public transit,” ValleyRide executive director Kelly Badesheim declared in 2017.
This inherent lack of mobility in the Boise metro area equates to a significant loss of freedom, one that seems less tangible in New Orleans, where public transportation options are much more widespread.
It’s interesting to note that both the RTA and Valley Ride operate 30 bus routes. There are also five streetcar routes in the RTA’s arsenal, but those streetcars are notoriously slow and unreliable, more catered to tourists than residents.
The majority of bus and streetcar routes in New Orleans, however, run seven days a week. Conversely, only four of Boise’s 30 routes run on Saturday, and, as previously noted, there is no public transportation available in the metro area on Sunday.
Despite the RTA slightly edging out ValleyRide, there’s still plenty of room for improvement in New Orleans. The reliability of buses and streetcars in New Orleans leave something to be desired, especially for those living in the neighborhoods of New Orleans East and Algiers.
The Algiers ferry is a prime example of how RTA perhaps ignores the needs of residents in favor of tourism revenue. Until February 2014, the Algiers ferry transported passengers from the base of Canal Street across the Mississippi River to Algiers Point at no charge. The ferry was indispensable to many residents with hospitality jobs, reducing their 20- to 60-minute bus commute from the West Bank to a 10-minute ferry ride.
When the RTA implemented a fare of $2 each way, the ferry’s ridership decreased by a whopping 55 percent. As for how many low-income workers were negatively impacted by the fare, no data exists.
Income imbalance and mobility are intrinsically linked; access to quality transportation is paramount to the livelihood of low-income people. Without reliable transportation, essential tasks like commuting to work or even going to the grocery store become a hardship.
Large cultural centers such as Boise and New Orleans should work to become part of the mobility solution rather than adding to the list of socioeconomic problems plaguing low-income residents. While little can be done at a local level regarding wage inequality, a focus on providing reasonable access to affordable transit is an achievable goal for city planners, developers, and transportation officials.