Traffic deaths are on the rise in New Orleans. Are officials doing enough to prevent them?
Larry Monroe used his bike to get just about everywhere he needed to go in New Orleans.
He was the kind of relative who made himself available when his family needed him, said Ranatta Harris, his sister-in-law. He’d make the long trek to Harris’ home in Algiers from his in New Orleans East. When he’d show up, he would make everyone laugh.
“I don’t care what darkness was in the room. When he entered, it lit you up,” Harris said.
Monroe was biking along the Interstate 10 Service Road to his aunt’s house in the early hours of June 5, 2022, when a driver struck and killed him.
Now, a white memorial “ghost bike” marks the spot where he died. It’s chained up feet from the highway, where cars race past, and is adorned with a white Teddy Bear hugging a plush heart. Harris hopes it serves as a reminder for drivers to slow down.
But she also wonders how the design of the service road could be changed to better protect people: if there had been a bike lane there, like the ones in her Algiers neighborhood – or even a sidewalk and better street lights – maybe Monroe would’ve made it. She said it pains her to see that little has changed in the year since his death.
“If you want to take that route, it’s a gamble with your life,” Harris said.
Monroe’s story is far from unique: New Orleans leads the country in bicyclist deaths per capita among major cities. But the carnage isn’t limited to people on bikes. Last month, a pedestrian was killed during a hit-and-run on Canal Street downtown. A bicyclist was killed on Claiborne Avenue in the Tremé in late May. And in City Park on June 3, a school bus driver hit and killed a teenager walking nearby, who would’ve been starting their senior year of high school this fall.
City officials have sounded the alarm that more people are dying on New Orleans roads. The rise in fatalities and severe injuries for pedestrians, bicyclists and car drivers is part of a wider trend that cities across the country have seen accelerate over the last several years. To address the problem, New Orleans will begin working on a new road safety plan later this year, with a grant from a federal program aimed at preventing roadway deaths.
Local safe streets advocates see the new funding as a potential opportunity to make lasting change and save lives. But some say the city’s track record for making streets safer over the last decade has been slow and piecemeal, leaving people exposed to danger.
The trend, and what’s driving it
In early May, the City of New Orleans unveiled a new Transportation Safety Dashboard to draw public attention to the rise in traffic crashes. The data show a 32% increase in the number of people killed on New Orleans roads between 2020 and 2021, the latest year for which data are available. Pedestrian deaths alone nearly doubled, from 11 to 21.
The number of traffic fatalities in 2021 – 71 – is the highest in nearly 20 years. Though data for 2022 are still preliminary, they show the trend continuing, with 71 fatalities last year, almost half of which were pedestrians.
The dashboard draws on crash reports that law enforcement agencies provide to the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, whose crash records database goes back to 2005. Because the information draws on police reports, there could be holes – not all crashes get reported, said Tara Tolford, a researcher and urban planner at the University of New Orleans Transportation Institute.
There are a host of forces behind the upward trend in deaths, both locally and nationally, Tolford said. An increase in distracted driving is one factor, as is the increasing size of vehicles on the road. When a pedestrian or bicyclist gets hit by an SUV versus a smaller car, they’re more likely to get pulled under it, rather than roll over it. That has resulted in an increased share of people dying in crashes, she said.
Driving behavior during the pandemic played a role, too. During the early days of lockdown, the number of crashes dropped as fewer people drove, Tolford said. But with wide open roads, more people started driving faster or even impaired. New Orleans has long had a higher-than-average rate of people driving intoxicated, she said.
“As people have gotten back on the road, people have kind of gotten back to routine, they haven’t necessarily changed those unsafe behaviors,” Tolford said.
What makes a street safer
City officials view the spike in deaths and injuries as a public health crisis that isn’t inevitable.
“These crashes, and these fatalities and severe injuries, are preventable,” said Jeanie Donovan, deputy director for population health and disease prevention for the New Orleans Health Department.
Some view enforcement as an important way to address lawless driving. The number of drunk driving arrests has fallen dramatically in recent years, according to NOLA.com, as the New Orleans Police Department’s ranks have dwindled.
But city officials and transportation advocates both place greater emphasis on a more proactive set of solutions: retrofitting streets to make them safer for all users of a road.
There are a few main ways to design safer streets, said Jennifer Ruley, the mobility and safety division manager for the Department of Public Works, including reducing speeds for cars and addressing the conflict points – often at intersections – where crashes tend to happen.
Interventions can be relatively simple, like making sure speed limit signs are replaced after storms, paving new sidewalks, or installing crosswalks so pedestrians have more visibility, Ruley said. Then there are the more dramatic road redesigns, like widening curbs to force drivers to turn more slowly or installing protected bike lanes, with buffers like curbs or plastic bollards to physically separate bicyclists and drivers.
The city recently received funding to help advance planning for those kinds of infrastructure changes. In February, New Orleans was awarded a grant through the Safe Streets and Roads for All Program, a new federal initiative created through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Its goal: prevent roadway deaths and serious injuries.
New Orleans got over $750,000 to create a Comprehensive Safety Action Plan, which Ruley said will kick off later this year.
It could be years down the road until those changes to streets actually happen: The planning effort will take 12 to 18 months, Ruley said. Once it’s complete, the city can then use the plan to apply to the same federal program for funds to actually redesign streets.
Stops and starts
It’s not the first time officials have planned to make roads safer. Consistently, the city has lagged behind its own goals to retrofit streets.
The ongoing Moving New Orleans Bikes project envisioned a 75-mile network of bike lanes built out over the span of two years, beginning in 2020. Some segments of streets have been transformed through the program, like the stretch of Elysian Fields Avenue between St. Claude Avenue and the Mississippi River, where intersections have been narrowed to allow pedestrians and bicyclists a shorter route to cross the wide road. But only about half of the full 75-mile network has been built.
Ruley said there are a few reasons for the slowdown. The pandemic set back the timeline. So did issues stemming from ongoing road work citywide, as the city races to spend billions of dollars in post-Katrina federal funds to patch streets. Community resistance to some bike lanes has played a role, too.
An earlier Pedestrian Safety Action Plan from 2014, developed by the multi-parish Regional Planning Commission, aimed to help New Orleans cut pedestrian fatalities in half by 2030. That would’ve brought the annual tally down to four per year, compared to the 2011 and 2012 rate of eight per year. Instead, the number of deaths has shot up: in 2021, over 20 people were killed while walking in New Orleans.
The 2014 plan recommended changes to a few high-crash intersections. Some are technically under control of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, Ruley said. That means the city has to work with the state to alter the road, which can add hurdles to the process.
Some of the proposed changes have been implemented since then, like adding more pedestrian countdown signals around the city, Ruley said. Others are still in planning phases nearly ten years later, like modifications to the intersection of Read Boulevard and the I-10 Service Road in the East, down the road from where Monroe was killed.
Nellie Catzen, co-chair of the New Orleans Complete Streets Coalition and executive director of the nonprofit Committee for a Better New Orleans, said the city has made some real strides toward improving its streets over the last decade. But it still lacks a true network of safer roads, she said.
“If I’m taking a walk, and I’m trying to get to the bus stop, it doesn’t really make a massive difference on my life if one part of that walk is safe, but then I have to cross the street without a crosswalk or go to the bus stop that’s literally under the highway,” she said.
And while the city has built more infrastructure to encourage walking and biking over the last decade, not all of it truly protects people, said Tolford, the UNO professor. More bike lanes painted on roads might entice more people to bike, but those bicyclists aren’t truly protected without a physical barrier between them and car drivers.
“You can build tons and tons of facilities, but if they’re not actually providing any sort of physical protection, and if they’re not helping to reduce overall traffic speeds for everyone on the road, then you are creating more opportunities for conflict between different road users,” Tolford said. “It’s not just about the quantity of the infrastructure, it’s also about the quality.”
For Catzen, the issue is personal. She was injured in a high-profile crash in 2019, when a drunk driver plowed into a group of bicyclists after the Krewe of Endymion Parade, killing two people. The stretch of Esplanade Avenue where she was hit has bike lanes, though they’re just stripes of paint on the ground; there are no bollards or curbs keeping cars and bicyclists physically separated.
Ever since the crash, Catzen has wondered how a layer of protected infrastructure could have changed the outcome.
“We can’t always stop people from making poor decisions – like getting wasted and driving under the influence,” Catzen said. “But we can set up our places, our streets, to insulate people from the consequences of poor decisions.”
Nothing has been done to change the setup of the road in those four years, though Ruley said the road is a priority for safety changes. Still, crashes have continued since. About a mile and a half down Esplanade, a Touro hospital nurse, Katherine Elkins, was hit by a driver while biking away from Jazz Fest in April. She’s now recovering from a traumatic brain injury.
When the city has built protected infrastructure in recent years, it has faced some fierce pushback from residents, at times pitting members of the mayor’s administration and the city council against one another.
Last September, the council voted unanimously to remove a set of bike lanes in Algiers, after a vocal group of residents claimed they snarled traffic and took away coveted street parking spots. Council member Freddie King, whose law office is along one of the bike lane routes, led the effort.
Many Algiers bike lane critics said there hadn’t been adequate community engagement ahead of the buildout, a critique that council members invoked when voting to remove them. Catzen said she hopes the city will meaningfully engage people as it sets priorities for the new citywide road safety plan to leverage a potentially transformative investment from the federal government.
“How we make this plan drives how good the plan is, but also how good the result may be,” Catzen said.
To Clark Thompson, truly addressing the scale of roadway deaths and injuries will require a shift away from the American status quo: designing roads to prioritize moving people safely over moving cars quickly.
On a spring morning nearing the anniversary of Larry Monroe’s death, Thompson visited the ghost bike on the I-10 Service Road. He volunteers to install the memorials all over the city and maintains them long after they’re put in. As speeding cars raced by, he cleared some tall grass from around the bike. He also pointed to where a sidewalk could be installed along the road’s edge to give people walking and biking an option other than the busy thoroughfare – something the Regional Planning Commission recently began studying.
Encountering grieving family after grieving family, Thompson pushes back against calling these deaths “accidents.”
“People call them accidents, but what they really are is results,” Thompson said. “They’re results of political decisions. They’re results of expedient engineering decisions. And people’s lives are lost as a result.”