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We Spend the Day with Paratransit and Learn It's So Much More Than A Ride

Paratransit driver Carol Thomas looks over her clipboard as she walks to The Lift, a small, white RTA bus that is designed for handicapped and disabled riders. Near the rear exit, there are large, open spaces with an array of belts and buckles for wheelchair-bound passengers to securely ride. To the front, there are cushioned row seats and a designated area for canes and walkers.  
Thomas scribbles some notes beside different names then mentions we are heading to Onzaga Street in the Seventh Ward.
               
“We’re picking up Mrs. Louise,” Thomas says as we board The Lift. “She’s very nice.”
               
Thomas didn’t start out driving Paratransit. She started her career with the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority as a fixed route driver in 2004. Then, Hurricane Katrina struck the next year devastating huge swathes of the city.
               
“I actually helped move the buses to safe ground so they wouldn’t get flooded. Of course, we didn’t know how bad the storm would be,” Thomas notes as she buckles herself into the driver seat.
               
Thomas and her family stayed in a hotel on Canal Street, the name of which escapes her. After downtown flooded, the hotel evicted its guests, forcing them to find their own shelter. Once leaving the city, Thomas and her family bought plane tickets to Florida where relatives welcomed them with open arms. She didn’t return to New Orleans until the following year.
               
“It took me about a year to just even get back to the city. I worked a few odd jobs before deciding I wanted to come back to the RTA,” she says as we drive around Treme to our destination on Onzaga. “This time, though, I wanted to work with Paratransit.”
               
Thomas says what inspired her to switch to driving The Lift was her experiences working with elderly patients in a nursing home.
               
“Elderly people have amazing stories, and when I pick them up, they know who I am, where I come from, what I’m interested in.”
               
We reach a small standalone Creole cottage on a quiet block. Mrs. Louise stands behind her screen door waving and collecting her things, a red sign anchored on above the threshold that reads, “No Smoking – Oxygen in Use”. Dressed in a purple sweater and blue hat, she mentions that it is untypically chilly for an early May morning. “It must be all that rain coming in,” Mrs. Louise quips.
               
When Thomas offers to buckle Mrs. Louise’s seatbelt, the older lady shoos her away politely. At 82 years old, she says, she still knows how to buckle herself into a seat.
                 
“I’ve been riding Paratransit for thirty years,” Mrs. Louise mentions. “When my husband and I started to use Paratransit, it was a cab service. The cabs would be so tiny, you could barely fit into them. I was so happy when they got the buses.”
               
As a native of New Orleans, Mrs. Louise used to ride the streetcar any chance she got. “As I got older, and especially after my husband passed, I didn’t have the strength to walk all the way to Canal. Now, the bus comes to my house, and I’ve never been happier.”
               
Another Paratransit driver, Belinda Harrison, echoes similar praises for Paratransit. Harrison, like Thomas, chose to work on The Lift because of a connection to the elderly.
               
“I’m a people person. I get along with everyone,” Harrison notes. “But, the older people are always great passengers.”
               
Harrison began working at the RTA thirty years prior. She has been with the Paratransit department since day one.
               
“You learn a lot about the people of the city.” Harrison states as we ride along the bumpy roads of Gert Town. She tells her passengers to hold on as she maneuvers the bus around giant potholes, one after the other. “There’s really no way around these areas of broken asphalt, so I have to be careful.”
               
Growing up in New Orleans, Harrison got to know the city well through riding down its tree-lined thoroughfares and skinny one-ways. However, “when you drive a bus, there are streets you never knew existed. Riding around the city is great experience, but driving is a whole other one. Driving has taught me things about the city I thought I’d never know, and driving The Lift has allowed me to meet so many people.” She mentions she switched to The Lift because it was more manageable, the smaller bus allowing for more conversation with riders: “I don’t have to yell over a group of people to speak to someone in the back of the bus.”
               
It’s through riders that Paratransit grew from small beginnings. The department found areas that needed improvement, continuously listening to riders and keeping up a strong line of communication between them and the Department of Operations.
               
“Paratransit at the RTA has gone through an evolution over the years,” Gary Jones, Operations Supervisor of Paratransit, says. “We’ve been here for about two decades. Before Katrina, we had about 120 vehicles dedicated just to Paratransit. Our fleet is slowly growing back.”
               
In 1990, the department was based on Desire Street and relied heavily on an independent cab service called Dial-A-Ride. It consisted of only two cabs. The service was widely popular, gaining the nickname “Dollar Ride” as both a misnomer and for the fact that the service cost one dollar.
               
“The cab service was really needed,” Shelita Collins, Station Manager of Operations says. “We had Paratransit riders waiting four and five hours for The Lift, so we started to think of ways to offer better service.”
               
Dial-A-Ride grew from two cabs to eight cabs within one year. About that time, more vehicles were added to accommodate more Paratransit riders. The department eventually started adding private sedan cars that allowed more comfort for the handicapped, disabled, and ill.
               
“It became a service some people really depended on. We had The Lifts, but we needed bigger buses That’s when we started incorporating buses called ‘bluebirds’ which helped us reach more people,” Silverine Ambeau, Administrative Supervisor of Paratransit – Reservations, mentions. “We just wanted more consistent services.”
               
Of course, after Katrina, Paratransit services were down to five cars to transport a city still reeling from a catastrophic hurricane. The Paratransit department temporarily moved to Baton Rouge after the storm which made managing the service difficult. “We made it work. Sometimes I look back and can’t believe it,” Jones reveals.
               
These days, though, the service continues to be the strongest transit option for the disabled and handicapped in the New Orleans community. The Paratransit utilizes a reservation system that expands the entire week. Riders can register with the Paratransit department to receive an RTA Paratransit Service Card which is used to make a reservation and as identification for The Lift. In addition to carrying riders anywhere in the city, The Lift also travels to Louis Armstrong International Airport in Kenner. It is our goal to make sure we can assist anyone who can or would like to use our regular fixed route services to be able to do so with comfort and ease. All of our fixed route buses and most streetcars are equipped to safely pick up passengers in wheelchairs or passengers who have other mobility challenges. The St. Charles Streetcar line is currently the only line not equipped to pick up ADA passengers due to its historic designation.    

The overall aim for Paratransit, though, is to assist those who cannot use the regular buses or streetcars.. Mrs. Louise laughs when she remembers the day, a few years back, when she tried to catch a streetcar for old time’s sake.
 
“Honestly, it moved faster than I remembered. I’m more comfortable on The Lift.”
 

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