New Orleans Light Rail Brings Renewed Quality of Life

Oct 10, 2011, 8:05 PM, Posted by

The community, social, economic and health benefits of light rail transportation systems was a topic of discussion at this year’s American Public Transportation Association annual meeting. NewPublicHealth caught up with John Renne, Ph.D., director of the Transportation Institute in the School of Urban and Regional Studies at the University of New Orleans to discuss New Orleans’ burgeoning streetcar system and the potential for public transportation to improve quality of life. A potential expansion could bring the system to Baton Rouge, but its current growth has already served the city well, says Renne, bringing in customers for local establishments—and preserving jobs (another important factor health and quality of life) for the people employed there.

Renne says just the beginnings of investment in a light rail system can help bring investment dollars to an area, which is key for quality of life across a broad spectrum. In New Orleans, for example, the expansion of the Loyola Avenue street car generated over a $1 billion in new mixed-use development—including public housing. Expanded public transportation access can also lead residents to walk more and become more physically active overall.

As part of the goal of creating a sustainable transportation system, the city council passed a “Complete Streets” resolution in August 2011. Instituting a complete streets policy ensures that transportation planners and engineers consistently design and operate the entire roadway with all users in mind, says Renne, which includes bicyclists, public transportation vehicles and riders, and pedestrians of all ages and abilities. Residents are hopeful for passage later this month of a full Complete Streets ordinance.

“These community projects should be viewed holistically and not just as the expansion of the line,” says Renne. As you plan, he adds, key questions include, does the line integrate well with the traffic pattern that exists, and do the station stops address community needs. “Think about that integration early and often,” says Renne.

Renne’s current research is combing through reams of Census data with an eye toward showing travel patterns and trends that would help make the case for community expansions including light rail and complete street projects. “It’s an important effort, “says Renne. “Before they commit, policy makers want to see the data.”

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.