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Putting The Pedal To The Metal: New Orleans' Bicycling Infrastructure Is Expanding

Nina Feldman
The newly-repaved Esplanade Ave. As part of the street's reconstruction, a lane in each direction was eliminated and a bike lane added.

No matter what neighborhood you live in, chances are you’ve been confronted with one thing this summer — and that’s construction. As roads from the Lakefront to the Riverbend get smoothed over, city officials are taking the opportunity to ensure that the new roads are better not only for drivers, but also for cyclists.

Lalo Flores, a Mid-City resident and avid bicyclist, is impressed by the repairs to Esplanade Ave.

“I will tell you, this street? It was like, so many holes, before; it was really bad,” Flores says. “Many people, they didn’t want to ride bicycle here in Esplanade because so many holes. But now, it’s like really, wow, beautiful.”

Esplanade Avenue isn’t the only major New Orleans artery to receive a new surface. Repaved roads, and the bike lanes that go along with them, are popping up all over the city.

Dan Jatres, the program manager for the Pedestrian and Bicycle Program at the Regional Planning Commission, says New Orleans is ideal for biking for three key reasons:

“Being flat, so it’s easy to ride a bike; the city has a very small compact footprint, so things aren’t far apart; and the street grid makes it easy in many parts in the city to get around on bike, and not have to deal with large roadways with a lot of motor vehicle traffic,” he says.

Every two years, the Alliance for Walking and Biking issues a benchmark report that measures the percentage of people who commute to work by bike each day in the country’s 100 largest cities. In the 2012 report, New Orleans ranked tenth.

“New Orleans is kind of under the radar, I think, nationally in terms of people widely considering it a bicycle friendly city,” Jatres says.

So, why is it that New Orleans is perfect for biking, but doesn’t have the reputation to match? Among the nine cities ranking in front of New Orelans are places like Seattle, San Francisco, Minneapolis and Portland — places known around the world for their bike culture and infrastructure.

The same benchmark report measured what percentage of roadways the average American city devotes to bike facilities — designated lanes, shared lanes and pathways. New Orleans logged in at about one-fifth of the national average. 

That means New Orleans has lots of people biking, and not a lot of designated, safe places for them to do it. The result?

Partial New Orleans bike map, from Bike Easy.

“In terms of bicycle related accidents, we’re higher than average, looking statewide,” says Mark Jernigan, the Director of the City of New Orleans’ Department of Public Works. A 2012 report published by the University of New Orleans found that 54% of all bike accidents in Louisiana occurred in Orleans Parish, and bicycle crashes have gone up in the New Orleans region every year since 2006.

“Our focus really is safety from a bicyclist’s perspective, but also a motorist’s perspective,” he says.

The city partnered with local men's dance troupe the 610 Stompers to launch a campaign designed to increase bicycle safety awareness. Billboards around town caution motorists to “Leave three feet when passing cyclists — it’s the law”.

Jatres and Jernigan both admit that the current bike lane network is patchwork; so far, bike lanes have popped up where opportunities exist. A lot of roadway repair funding comes from federal recovery dollars that were allocated to the region after Hurricane Katrina, so when there’s money to repair a road, these guys see if they can fit a lane.

“We really take a look at where we can leverage work that’s going on already,” Jernigan says. “You look at a typical road, you’ve gotta have pavement in really good condition in order to go down and do the striping so that it’ll stay for a while.”

But Jatres says that once recovery funds dry up, the real planning will begin. The city will use the existing facilities as a starting point, and create a more intentional and comprehensive network. Lanes could be designed for kids to be able to ride their bikes to school, or to make it easier to get from uptown to downtown and back.

Jatres says he wants to focus on improving connections that get people across barriers, like the Interstate.

“Focusing on those choke points, particularly for bridges, will be more of a priority in the near future,” he says.

For some riders, the existing lanes are inspiration enough. David Anderson is Vice Chairman at First NBC Bank.

“Last year I started riding when the mayor had his ‘ride your bike to work day,’ and I haven’t stopped since then,” Anderson says. “Now, I bring my daughter to school — I bought an attachment that fits on the back of the bike. And I drop her off at the French immersion charter school and they say ‘Bonjour’ and I say ‘Bonjour’ and I ride on to work. I feel like I live in Paris; it’s wonderful.”

Anderson says he rides 5.2 miles every day, dressed in a suit and tie, from his house near Audubon Park to his office in the CBD.

“It certainly is not a traditional mode of transportation for most bankers — maybe back at the turn of the century it was more popular,” he says. “Hopefully it will catch on more and more.”

The chances for that look good — Jatres and Jernigan both confirmed that the Landrieu administration is exploring the option for a city-wide bicycle share program in the near future, which would further establish New Orleans as a top American city for bikes.