A vote could tear down Algiers bike lanes, leaving bicyclists worried about future road safety
At the corner of MacArthur Boulevard and Holiday Drive, clear markers show where car drivers, bike riders and pedestrians should go to get safely across the typically busy Algiers intersection. Green paint guides people on bikes toward protected bike lanes, where plastic bollards and concrete dividers keep them physically separated from the cars whizzing past.
Naomi Jones and Adam Lownik both live within a few blocks of here, and they ride these bike lanes often to get to the grocery stores, restaurants and library nearby.
“Having this here is just such a value add to this neighborhood,” said Lownik, a teacher at Harriet Tubman Charter School, a few miles away.
Before the protected bike lanes were built here in 2021, he wouldn’t have felt safe riding this stretch of road with his two young kids in tow, and for good reason: well over 100 crashes happened at MacArthur and Holiday in the five years between 2014 and 2018, according to data cited by the City of New Orleans. And Jones never rode here before the protected lanes were put in, even though this road was her most direct way to get to work on the East Bank.
But now, the city may take these bike lanes apart. On Thursday, Sept. 15, the City Council will vote on an ordinance that would order the removal of the protected elements out of the protected bike lanes in two areas of Algiers — on MacArthur between General De Gaulle Drive and Woodland Drive, and on Newton Street between Elmira Avenue and Behrman Avenue — leaving just a stripe of paint separating people riding bikes from people driving cars.
The upcoming vote is the culmination of a months-long push by some Algiers residents who oppose the street changes, and have support from their Council member, Freddie King, who introduced the ordinance. These residents generally say they don’t object to bike lanes in concept, but they allege that the elimination of driving lanes on some major thoroughfares in Algiers has snarled traffic and taken away coveted street parking spots.
But those who want to see the protected lanes stay — including the Mayor’s office — stress that they’re a critical, and potentially life-saving, safety feature. They worry that the removal of just over 2 miles of protected bike lanes in Algiers could set a bad precedent across the city.
A different posture toward bike lanes
Three years ago, the City Council held a different posture toward protected bike lanes. In March 2019, the Council unanimously passed a resolution calling on Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration to “expedite” efforts to improve bike safety across the city. That push came just days after a horrific crash during Mardi Gras, when a drunk driver plowed into a group of bicyclists in an unprotected lane on Esplanade Avenue after the Krewe of Endymion parade, killing two people and injuring six more.
That year, the city started working on New Orleans’ first ever master plan for bikeways, said Jennifer Ruley, the mobility and safety division manager for the Department of Public Works. In late 2020, the city started breaking ground on a new set of better-connected, protected lanes under the banner of Moving New Orleans Bikes.
Algiers was targeted as the first area for the new build out, partly because it’s often neglected.
“It’s usually overlooked because of the river as not being connected, but there are quite a few people who ride into the East Bank from Algiers,” Ruley said.
While some of the bike lanes were getting built in mid-2021, a group of residents organized as Our Streets Our Choice in opposition to them. They began voicing criticism about the MacArthur and Newton bike lanes in particular, calling the use of bollards the “most intrusive, visually unappealing design available” in blog posts and said they were “caught by surprise” by the changes overall.
“We want a seat at the table. We want the residents’ voices to be heard,” said Our Streets Our Choice member Amanda Stenson at a recent community meeting about the bike lanes.
But there had been opportunities for input before the bike lanes were built. In August of 2019, the city held a series of public meetings in Algiers to get feedback from residents about the initial designs, and nonprofit groups like Bike Easy led door-to-door canvassing in the area.
There was a long gap between that community engagement and when construction on the bike lanes started, Ruley said, which meant people could’ve been caught off guard. But her team took residents’ concerns seriously: a few months after the bike lanes on MacArthur and Newton were first put in, the city altered them, removing bollards along a few blocks to allow for more parking and easier turns for larger vehicles.
Even so, when Council member King came into office early this year, he introduced a resolution to “to establish a more robust review policy for current and future bike lanes” in Algiers.
All about safety
At recent public meetings on the bike lanes, a debate over safety has emerged.
Some Algiers residents who oppose the bike lanes — including Aaron Mischler, the president of the New Orleans Fire Fighters Association, who lives on MacArthur — suggested that as designed, they impede emergency response vehicles.
A spokesperson for the New Orleans Fire Department told WWNO that the department is aware of the lanes but considers them a “nonissue.” A representative from New Orleans EMS said he was not aware of any instances of delay caused by the bike lanes.
Those who ride the bike lanes say they didn’t feel safe riding on these roads before the protected bike lanes were added, because of how often drivers in cars nearly hit them.
It’s too early to say definitively how the new bike lanes have made a difference in Algiers, safety-wise — the city hasn’t yet had a full year to look at data on crashes and injuries since the modifications were made to the bike lanes, Ruley said.
But studies of protected bike lanes from across the country and the world consistently show that they improve safety for everybody using a road, said Tara Tolford, a research associate at the University of New Orleans Transportation Institute. One study published in 2019 looked at a dozen U.S. cities and found that cities with “protected and separated” bike lanes had 44% fewer deaths — for all road users — compared to cities without them.
“It’s not just about improving safety for bicyclists — it actually does improve safety for people who are walking, for people who are driving, by reducing the number of crashes that involve injuries for everybody,” Tolford said.
Even if the impacts of the new bike lanes aren’t clear yet, the streets of Algiers have been deadly in the past. Between 2014 and 2020, 12 drivers, eight pedestrians and two bicyclists were killed in crashes in Algiers, according to the latest data available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Both bicyclists were killed on General De Gaulle Drive, at the intersection where Westbend Parkway becomes Garden Oaks Drive. In 2021, at the same intersection, a 62-year-old man on a bike was killed in a hit and run, NOLA.com reported.
That deadly intersection is slated to get protected bike lanes, too. When asked if that process has been delayed because of ongoing opposition to protected bike lanes in Algiers, Ruley said the project hasn’t broken ground yet because of further community engagement efforts, and because that section of De Gaulle is a state road, which requires a more involved permitting process.
The future of the bike network
But there’s growing concern among bike advocates that if the backlash against bike lanes continues, future lanes may not get constructed.
The Moving New Orleans Bike plan envisioned a 75-mile network built out over the span of two years, starting in 2020. So far, 20 miles have been completed; seven miles are currently in construction, and the rest are in various stages of planning and development, according to Ruley.
Allene La Spina, acting executive director of Bike Easy, said the upcoming vote could be a step in the wrong direction.
“We still want the rest of the network to be built,” she said.
Council member King emphasized that his ordinance is focused only on these two bike lanes because they are the ones his constituents have consistently brought up issues with. King’s law office is on the 1800 block of Newton, along the protected bike lane route.
But at a City Council committee meeting on Aug. 29, other Council members expressed concerns with protected bike lane projects across the city, particularly those on Gentilly Boulevard and Martin Luther King Boulevard.
“It’s not that people are against having bike lanes — it’s about where exactly the bike lanes have been put,” said Council member At-Large Helena Moreno.
Ruley said bike lane locations were chosen carefully, taking into account where essential services are – and where people lack access to cars.
The area where the MacArthur bike lane runs has a relatively high rate of car ownership — and a higher share of White residents than many surrounding neighborhoods. But in some predominantly Black areas nearby, around a quarter of households don’t have access to a car, according to demographic information as of 2020 from the Data Center.
Ruley said she’s concerned that the Council’s vote could open the floor for elected officials to pick apart road designs made by certified professionals – created with the intent to keep all users of a road safer.
“You, as an elected official, are also taking a risk for if someone gets injured, or killed, because you insisted that a design change happen,” she said.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated for clarification.