Bike For Our Lives Rally demands more safety for cyclists on New Orleans roads
During Carnival 2019, Nellie Catzen was one of several bikers who survived a crash that involved a drunk driver slamming into people pedaling down Esplanade Avenue after the Endymion parade. She choked back tears as she talked about the tragedy — and the two friends she lost that day — at a bike safety rally Saturday.
"There is not a single day that I am not with them on that corner. There is not a single day I am not devastated by their preventable deaths," Catzen said of her friends, 27-year-old Sharee Walls and 31-year-old David Hines, who died as a result of the drunk driving crash. Catzen said she frequently experiences flashbacks of holding Walls’ hand as she died.
The wreck, which led to the arrest of and 90-year sentencing for Tashonty Toney, has been a recent and major example for bike advocates to point to when protesting the city’s poor and unsafe infrastructure for cyclists. The flat terrain and close distance between neighborhoods make New Orleans desirable for cyclists, but its weathered streets and drivers make biking life-threatening.
The Ride For Our Lives protest, where hundreds gathered, began with a jazz funeral procession to honor the deaths of citizens that lost their lives while biking in the city.
Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety shows that New Orleans had almost four cyclist deaths per 100,000 residents from 2007 to 2016, making it one of the worst cities in the country for cyclist safety. In the past two years, 11 cyclists have died in Orleans Parish, according to LSU’s Center for Analysis and Research.
Another form of protest for lack of bicycle safety in the city is the Ghost Bikes made by Alex Fleming. Fleming creates the all-white painted bikes and places them at the spot of fatal accidents.
While the memorials help passersby realize the need for caution, Fleming says he is sick of making them, as each one represents a preventable death
“There is a world out there where pedestrians and drivers and cyclists coexist,” Fleming said. “People can’t drive here and there is no enforcement.”
He described the streets of New Orleans as the “Wild West” compared to other cities he’s biked in.
Fleming says that Ghost Bikes are often removed by the city or by unknown entities. The Parks Department told Fleming that Ghost Bikes need to have permission from the grieving family, a process with which Fleming disagreed.
“It's very insensitive to go to a grieving family and ask for a signature while they are worried about burying their kid,” said Fleming.
When a tag from the city's Parks Department was left on a Ghost Bike in remembrance of Fleming’s friend and neighbor Sher Stewart, who was killed while riding her bike at the intersection of Pauger Street and St. Claude Avenue, Fleming was irate. However, David Lee Simmons, the Safety Outreach Manager of RoadWorkNOLA, issued a statement days afterward apologizing for the tag, and said they were committed to work with Ghost Bikes and other cycling groups in the future.
The city stated in 2019 that it was aiming for 75 miles of protected bike lanes throughout the city, but protestors say the progress is slow-moving and leaves them vulnerable to vehicles. Now, the city boasts that they have installed over 100 miles of on and off-street bikeways, with more to come, but the protesters said the installed trails and lanes are an unconnected patchwork of paths, with danger lurking in between them.
"We don't block traffic. We are traffic," was chanted several times during speakers' testimonies and while bikers rode through the city.
Blake Owens, who operates a bike shop for the Youth Empowerment Project, said the unconnected bike paths in the city need to be connected to give commuters more safety.
"This isn't something that benefits just bikers,” Owens said. “This makes driving easier, this makes RTA easier, this makes it safer for people walking through their neighborhood.”
Zina Harris, who emceed the event, reminded the crowd that it is election time in the city and that candidates were listening.
"To our city leaders, we need infrastructure for streets so that we can promote and support businesses, so we can get to our jobs," said Harris.
Data from the 2019 Census showed that 16% of New Orleans residents don't have access to a car, almost double the national average. This leaves a large portion of the city's population seeking alternative transportation, which often means biking.
"Bike lanes are about a mode of transportation. Everybody doesn't have a car," said Councilmember Jared Brossett, who attended the protest. "We are out here to promote awareness and education, and to respect all modes of transportation."
The danger has not dimmed the popularity of biking in the city, however, which is evident not only by the miles-long stream of riders Saturday but also by the bike groups that stroll through the city. Owens, who also runs GetUpNRide, a Tuesday night social ride, said bicycling brings people together.
"If you're watching a football game with somebody, you don't know them, but y’all are cheering for the same team, by the end of the game, you know something about them — that's the same thing with bikes," Owens said.