Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Posts Tagged ‘New Orleans

Book Review: “Words Whispered in Water”

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Just over a week ago I got an email from a PR flack that was headed “An activists’ deep dive into the destruction of Katrina, the culprits behind it, and what we can learn from it.” What really bugged me about the email was that it was malformatted. I couldn’t actually read it on my screen as the text didn’t fit – and I had to scroll sideways just to find out the most basic information. However, I was both intrigued and somewhat connected since I have actually been to New Orleans, twice. And, of course, in 2005 everybody had heard about Katrina. And the very curious way that the federal government seemed to have adopted to their responsibility. Not as as bad as the way they have – and are – treating Puerto Rico. But bad enough. I must admit in 2005 I was facing my own issues so my attention to Katrina and its aftermath faded – and during our visits I do not recall seeing or hearing much about it or the aftermath.

I have also had to work with engineers in my career, and have had cause to observe the way that engineering companies and individuals have to work in the intricate overlapping worlds of the consultants and the government agencies that employ them. The penalties for those who do not obey the largely unwritten rules and conventions that govern this relationship mean that those who offend can be cast into the outer darkness and be denied future employment, often on no more than a whim of an official or a rumor – the least reliable sources.

The decisions that were made by the American Army Corps of Engineers, charged with building the flood defences of New Orleans were quite remarkably difficult to determine – deliberately so – and there was extensive collusion between the very people who we rely on to look after all of us to try and create a narrative that shifted attention away to the local government officials. They were branded as inept or even corrupt when that was not the case, but the mainstream media and in particular the leading local newspaper, The Times-Picayune preferred to ignore what should have been fairly obvious. The Corps were responsible for building the levees. When the levees broke it was due to fundamental flaws in design. But the corps did not want to admit that and looked for a scapegoats who would have a hard time explaining that it was the Corps and not the local Levee Board. As the author herself puts it, when a building collapses you look at the architects and the builder not the janitor. But a story had been created to shift the blame to – of all people – environmental activists and local politicians.

Sandy Rosenthal was directly impacted by the disaster and she didn’t buy the story that the Corps, and the media, were peddling. Apart from anything else there are these permanent plaques on the levees, put up by the Corps, recording their appreciation of the work done by those charged with maintenance of the levees and the associated equipment over many years. But she was initially on her own. She created a website Levees.org with the aid of her son and WordPress – the people who provide the same service for this blog. The more she uncovered, the more questions she asked, the more she gathered supporters. But also the trolls who bedevil online activities of all sorts. And, it turns out, the PR company hired by the Corps – and some employees of the Corps itself – joined in by pretending to be concerned local private citizens – textbook astroturfing. There were also the inevitable opportunists who never let any crisis go to waste and who were busy grinding out their own preferred solutions – which would pay them generously.

We now know why the levees broke. And, thanks to the cover of the pressure for answers when everything in New Orleans was in chaos from people who did not have enough time or resources, an eventual revelation of the decisions and why they were so badly wrong. The book itself is 300 pages but a very quick read. There are 503 endnotes for those who want to dig deeper. Sadly there is no index. And for people who do not have detailed knowledge of the complex geography and local nomenclature maps would have been very welcome but there are none. Even so I heartily recommend it.

And if you think that somehow this is just a problem for a distant community with little in common with yours, understand that more than half the population live in places that depend on levees. And we all live on a planet where the climate is becoming much more hostile, and hurricanes much more common and far stronger than before.

PS  The word levee means “an embankment built to prevent the overflow of a river”. In other posts in this blog about risk of flooding I have used the term dike “an embankment for controlling or holding back the waters of the sea or a river”

 

Written by Stephen Rees

September 24, 2020 at 8:13 pm

New Orleans Streetcars

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Back from a week in New Orleans (there was a wedding in the middle of that) where riding streetcars became a central theme. People were asking me if I was going to rent a car, but that seemed to me to be pointless. The French Quarter, where we were staying has very narrow streets and a distinct lack of parking. We intended to rely on NORTA (buses and streetcars) and walking. There were bikes, but my partner did not bring her phone with her, and there is no way to rent two bikes on one phone. As a matter of principle I will not install the Uber or Lyft app on my phone – though we did share my son’s Lyft for one ride. We did use taxis – but that would have to be another post.

Riverfront car at Jackson Square

You may have heard about the Hard Rock Hotel collapse four months ago. That occurred on a site at Rampart and Canal streets.

The Hard Rock Hotel

Entire blocks on all sides have been closed to traffic as a precaution – but there is still no work underway to remove the damaged building. Canal and Rampart streets are both streetcar routes. The Canal Street routes have a bus bridge. The Rampart Street route has simply been cancelled.

Rampart St at Ursulines streetcar station

We knew none of this when we arrived. We relied on the Transit App on my iPhone. That showed – and still does by the way – regular streetcar service on Rampart – with arrival times and the “real time” symbol – so not just the schedule. We sat at a streetcar station at Ursulines waiting for trams that never came. On RTA truck whipped past us and driver yelled something unintelligible – probably “there’s no service” but it didn’t sound like those words. There was no signage anywhere on the station showing the stop was closed. Though the street has bus services, no bus stops had been placed at the same intersections to allow intending streetcar users to board a bus instead of the tram.

Now it is true that there is information on norta.com – though you do have to dig around a bit to find it.

There is also a major hiatus on the Riverfront line as construction is under way at the foot of Canal Street. So the Riverfront cars now turn up Canal instead of proceeding south along the river. The new terminus is convenient for the St Charles streetcar which is unaffected by either blockade.

I took up the issue of misleading information with the Transit App people. This is their reply.

“Although we do work with transportation agencies to display prediction times, service alerts – such as notifications about the streetcars not running – are updated by the agencies directly.

We’re a third-party app based in Montreal, Canada, so we’re not involved in the operation of the agencies. I’d suggest getting in touch with the RTA about this. You can reach the RTA here: https://www.norta.com/About/Customer-Service

So basically the RTA just relies on its own website and does not update the information on the Transit App, nor does it do any street postering. Some buses did have service change cards – but again not on display, just for the driver to give to passengers who asked questions.

Much of the New Orleans system has exclusive reserved rights of way for the streetcars: the St Charles route south of Lee Circle and most of the Canal Street route. But not the branch along South Carrollton to the City Park. There is a median but the streetcars are in traffic in the centre lanes. This of course results in streetcars being held up behind left turning traffic. I saw no evidence of any on-street priority for transit.

Along St Charles St the streetcar is actually better for sightseeing as the car proceeds at a leisurely pace and the tour busses whizz past in the traffic lanes. If you want to look at the charming old houses in the Garden District the hop-on hop-off bus service cannot be recommended. By the way, if you are concerned about trying to board a St Charles car at Canal, at least half of the load there gets off halfway to do the guided walk through the Garden District and most of the rest at Audubon Park.

St Charles streetcar at Canal St

There are also a number of streets that have wide medians that I suspect may once have been streetcar lines. Of course wikipedia is the place to go to find out about that.

I have also heard a lot about how streetcars are only for tourists but that is a gross misunderstanding. Where the streetcars run, and their general reliability, means everybody uses them. In fact the schedules for the streetcars seem to much more frequent than many bus routes. It is reliability and frequency that attracts ridership no matter what the vehicle.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 31, 2020 at 2:34 pm

Posted in Light Rail, tourism, transit

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