Their first signs were subtle: A coworker combing her helmet-mussed hair in the ladies' room; an empty space in the parking lot; a cruiser padlocked to the railing outside. Pretty soon, I learned four or five people at my workplace were swapping out cars for bikes at least a few times a week.
If you notice more bike commuters, it's not your imagination. New Orleans ranks ninth in the nation for the percentage of people commuting by bicycle, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's yearly American Community Survey. That's partly because the amount of biking infrastructure (bike trails, lanes and shared lanes) has increased greatly over the last eight years.
"When Hurricane Katrina happened, we had about 11 miles (of bike trails and lanes)," says Dan Jatres, pedestrian and bicycle program manager at New Orleans Regional Planning Commission. "Today, we're up to 58 miles. ... UNO and Tulane University studies show those new bike lanes are attracting people who previously weren't riding."
"Build it and they will come," says Jamie Wine, executive director of the nonprofit Bike Easy. "People are seeing bicycling as more and more safe, and we're seeing those people ride more." Wine points out that people are twice as likely to get injured from walking than from bicycling. "Bikes are safer than people think," he says.
Victor Pizarro, director of community bike project Plan B, says the expansion of bike lanes and infrastructure has made bicycle commuting safer than ever before. "Fifteen years ago, riding a bike around the city, it was me and people with DUIs and crackheads," he says. "Now there are all these organizations, social rides that meet every week ... It's been a tidal wave of change."
The more people ride bikes, the easier it is to ride, says Bryan Gottshall, a sound engineer and graduate research assistant who commutes to LSU via bike and the LA Swift bus. "It's easier to bike in New Orleans because there's a critical mass of people," says Gottshall, who has biked in Downingtown, Pa. and New York City. "Here, drivers cut you off a little more, but they're at least used to dealing with bikers."
That doesn't mean cyclists can throw caution to the wind. Though New Orleans leads the nation in the number of bike commuters, it also has the most crashes. "Our crash ranking nationally was 46 or 47 out of 50 states, and New Orleans had the highest concentration of crashes," Wine says.
To that end, the Regional Planning Commission is creating a bike safety campaign featuring the 610 Stompers, and Bike Easy and Entergy are presenting the second NOLA Bike to Work Day Tuesday, April 9. Open to anyone with a bike, the event features free coffee, snacks, giveaways and prizes and is intended to help make New Orleans more bike-friendly. "More than 500 riders participated in the inaugural NOLA Bike to Work Day last April, and we're hoping even more riders participate this year," Wine said in a press release.
While community events and campaigns foster greater awareness of cyclists and bike safety, the onus is still on individual riders to protect themselves. Wine advises cyclists to act like a car and follow the law for maximum safety. "Stop at stop signs, go the right way down one-way roads, take the full lane for maximum visibility instead of biking all the way to the right or on a sidewalk," he says. "If you act like a vehicle, people know what you're going to do — you're predictable and less likely to get in a crash."
Ben Elder, an endurance coach and performance program manager at Elmwood Fitness Center, also emphasizes the importance of following traffic laws and having the right gear. "Make sure you're always wearing a helmet and have lights on (your bike), a red light on the back and a headlamp," he says. "Have a bright colored riding jacket so people can see you."
Before your first bike commute, map out a route and drive it to familiarize yourself with traffic, safe crossings, torn up sections of road and other hazards. Then ride the route on the weekend to see how long it takes. "The last thing anyone wants is to be late for work and rush in all sweaty before that Monday morning meeting," Elder says. "You just need to take a little extra time to plan."
As far as physical preparation goes, Elder says no special training is needed if you're commuting three to five miles. "It's just about getting out there and doing it at your own pace," he says. Elder says bike commuting can provide enough physical activity to meet the American College of Sports Medicine's (ACSM) fitness recommendations. "The ACSM's requirement is three bouts of 30 to 40 minutes of cardiorespiratory exercise a week to maintain fitness," he says. "I think it would be enough if you're commuting to work five days a week, three miles each way — you're spending at least 30 minutes a day on the bike." Wine says that if you bike or walk every trip that's less than one mile, you can lose 12 pounds in a year.
Gottshall and Pizarro both cite exercise as a reasons for bike commuting, as does Katie Walenter, a freelance writer and Gambit contributor. "I get my exercise through riding around town. I'm really strong now," says Walenter, who hasn't owned a car since her high school days. "It is a freeing experience to get to places by your own legs."
Walenter says bike commuting is good for her physically and mentally. "(My morning commute) was my time to be alone, and it was a beautiful ride," she says. "It was a peaceful time for me to get to work in the morning."
In addition to health, bicycling has other benefits."One (benefit) is reducing traffic congestion," Wine says. "For the environment, there's less emissions. Bikes help with social equality issues: A car costs $500 a month at least. A bike costs $500 once and $100 a year to maintain it. If you're trying to build wealth in your community, a bike is a great way to reduce expenses."
Bicycling also has a strong fiscal and economic impact: "Bike infrastructure is cheaper. Per dollar spent, you create more jobs," Wine says. A study by the New York City Department of Transportation showed a 40 percent increase in gross revenue at businesses near protected bike lanes. "Bike riders shop at local businesses more frequently and spend significantly more money than automobile drivers as a whole," Wine says.
There are other benefits that aren't yet backed up by studies, such as community building and crime reduction. "If you talk to bike riders anecdotally, they know people on their route. It's people paying attention to what's happening in our neighborhoods. It's more eyes on the road," Wine says.
The community building aspect struck me when I set out for my first bike commuting expedition last week. Traveling from Bywater to Mid-City, I cruised through Treme and down Orleans Avenue, past people on porches or sidewalks who waved and said good morning. Workers unloading trucks on North Scott Street behind the Rouses nodded, and I felt a kinship with fellow bike commuters wearing backpacks, helmets and business attire.
The experience was, as Walenter described, a time of morning solitude, but one punctuated by moments of sheer terror, like when a city bus honked as it whooshed by inches away from my left shoulder. Still, biking felt more invigorating than sitting in traffic, and when I arrived at my desk, I felt pumped up and ready to work. But the next day, in torrential rain, I was glad to hop in my car. In this respect, I'm nowhere near being a diehard bike commuter, though I can understand the mindset.
"The weather is always an issue," Gottshall says. "Despite the negatives, I still prefer to bike places even if driving is an option."
NOLA Bike to Work Day is Tuesday, April 9. Visit www.bikeeasy.org for more information or to register for the free event.