Pedal Pushers

Alex Woodward on the ambitious plans to make New Orleans a more bike-friendly city -- new lanes, new racks and even "bike valets" at festivals



May I park your bike for you?" That's Jamie Wine's calling card this afternoon. At this year's first Wednesday at the Square concert, Wine is offering valet parking — for bikes.

  The Young Leadership Council (YLC) and bike advocacy group the Metro Bicycle Coalition (MBC) launched their bicycle valet program last week at the annual spring and summer festival. MBC director Wine corraled a dozen bikes inside an orange plastic barrier around two tents set up across the street from Lafayette Square.

  "We've had bike parking at festivals, but it's been kind of piecemeal," Wine says. "Look at Jazz Fest — they have tons of bike parking and they want people to ride bikes. So this is the next step. It's like coat check for bikes."

  A valet service sounds over the top, but consider how it got to this: neighborhoods demanded bike lanes, the city received funding to build them and now they're here. Now bicyclists need safe, secure parking and somewhere to go. A valet service means bike projects are booming enough to afford a little practical luxury — and one that offers "100 percent supervised" parking, Wine says. "It's just like locking their bike, except it's being watched so they don't come back to a stripped bike later."

  In City Park and throughout Bayou St. John, there are miles of lanes for recreational riders. But now bike paths and lanes are popping up on major streets, from Orleans Avenue to St. Charles Avenue. Carrollton Avenue's lanes are completed, and St. Claude Avenue is shaping up to be the city's most popular bike route. What will it take to get New Orleans on the map for biking in the U.S.?

In 2004, the city secured a $4 million, five-year bond initiative for bike and pedestrian projects — not enough for a top-to-bottom overhaul for cycling, but enough to make a dent. After Hurricane Katrina, however, the city received an additional $200 million to repair streets under the Submerged Roads program. The city also tapped into stimulus funding from the Obama administration for "enhancements" — resources for bicyclists and pedestrians. By 2008, bike roadways doubled from 11 miles to 22 miles. This year, the city plans an increase to 65 miles total, nearly doubling its current 38 miles. Five years ago, bike lanes totaled zero miles in New Orleans.

  "Because it was so small to start out with, we're seeing good growth," says Dan Jatres, who works with both MBC and the Regional Planning Commission, which governs planning for transportation projects in the metro area.

  Even the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) is involved. Last year, NOPD and then-District C Councilman James Carter introduced an initiative that would have required cyclists to pay a $15 fee to register their bikes, a move unpopular with many. It was pulled before a vote was taken, and both the new City Council and NOPD administration don't plan to pursue it again.

  Instead, current District C Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer wants NOPD officers on bikes in the French Quarter. In his 65-point plan, NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas says he wants to see biking officers in all districts. The French Quarter Business Association set up a "bikes fund" to support the plan.

  The city's Department of Public Works says 2011 is set to be a big, important year for the city's bike infrastructure. It's not as grand as Los Angeles' announcement of thousands of miles of bike lanes, and resources aren't as deep as New York City's hundreds of miles of lanes. But consider how far New Orleans has come: pre-Katrina, the city had limited plans for lanes and paths. Following the 2005 levee failures, those plans had to start from scratch, and as the city rebuilt, planners looked for ways to involve bikes at the same pace as the rest of the city.

Metro Bike Coalition director Jamie Wine (left), Max Meltzer and Dan Jatres operate a bike valet at the Wednesday at the Square concert last week at Lafayette Square. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Metro Bike Coalition director Jamie Wine (left), Max Meltzer and Dan Jatres operate a bike valet at the Wednesday at the Square concert last week at Lafayette Square.

  That growth is partially thanks to a rare post in city government: bike engineer.

  "Unfortunately, with the devastation of the storm we were actually able to make good on a lot of the resources that came into the city after," says Jennifer Ruley, the sole bike engineer with New Orleans' Department of Public Works. "We were limited with what we were able to do with ($4 million) until we realized we were leveraging, after Katrina, a complete resurfacing of streets. All the work that's going into the resurfacing projects, we just have to add our contribution to create a bike lane or something like that, at a very insignificant cost."

  Her post, funded by a grant from the Entergy Corporation, allows the city to have a bicycle advocate working on its payroll when previously there was no person dedicated for working on bike projects.

  "It's very uncommon for cities to actually have grants from outside entities paying for an engineer to do this work," Ruley says. "In the past couple of years we've seen more cities realize that the public health messaging and policy changes only go so far — you really need someone inside the machine making the changes."

  Ruley oversees projects in the Public Works pipeline and finds ways to integrate bikes into the picture. Getting more lanes on more roads is just the start. She also gets other city planners and engineers to ride bikes and talk the lingo.

  "I have that conversation with staff — 'bicycle this, pedestrian that,'" she says. "The fact we've been able to open the door to (bike projects) as legitimate needs and worthy of our time and efforts is pretty tremendous. It affects livability, quality of life, and attracting and keeping people here."

Despite that growth, New Orleans ranks nowhere close to other major biking hubs. Seattle is climbing to 100 miles of bike roadways, New York City installed 250 miles within three years, and Los Angeles committed to 1,600 miles in a 20-year master plan. New Orleans didn't even crack the top 50 in Bicycling Magazine's best biking cities in 2010, and it only received an "honorable mention" from the League of American Bicyclists.

  But New Orleans, like bike meccas San Francisco and Portland, Ore., did rank in the top 10 of 51 U.S. cities for bicycle commuting. Last year, the Alliance for Bicycling & Walking found 9 percent of all trips in New Orleans are by bike, meeting the national average. Councilwoman Palmer wants the city to be No. 1, and Public Works thinks it can get there.

  "For us to say we're successful is to really build the commuting population," says Robert Mendoza, the city's director of Public Works. "If we don't get to that, I don't know we'll be able to say we were successful in doing this."

  The challenge now? "The name of the game is increasing connectivity," MBC director Wine says. Finding ways to connect bike lanes to other bike lanes means giving cyclists a place to go once they've arrived at their destination. There are bike paths in Mid-City near Bayou St. John, but how does the city connect those to Carrollton Avenue in Uptown? And from there to St. Charles Avenue? Streetcars and buses have similar budgetary and geographic gaps, but bikes have a bigger obstacle: bad roads.

  "I get calls: 'Why does it stop there, why not continue on?'" Ruley says. "The reality is we don't want to direct people to potholes."

  Mendoza says his department's goal this year is connecting those clusters of lanes and paths to others. "We'd like to see it extend to the whole city," he says. "Why can't someone from Gentilly also bike in? We have to get all the way out there. The St. Claude (bike lane) now reaches beyond Bywater into the Lower 9th Ward into St. Bernard. That's where we can make a difference. It means less cars on the road, the roads last longer — there are lots of pluses to that whole process."

Jennifer Ruley, who oversees bike projects for the city Department of Public Works, rides her bicycle along the newly paved bike lane on Orleans Avenue. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Jennifer Ruley, who oversees bike projects for the city Department of Public Works, rides her bicycle along the newly paved bike lane on Orleans Avenue.

  Public Works also is looking to connect Earhart Boulevard at the parish line to its Uptown terminus. Once completed, the Lafitte Corridor project, which Ruley manages, will link the French Quarter to Lakeview.

  "We're not just laying the paths, we're linking them together, which increases their value," Mendoza says.

  So what happens once the routes are improved? Where do bicyclists go?

  MBC partnered with YLC for its Where Ya Rack bike rack initiative, which installed 45 racks in 2010 and has another 100 racks sponsored and ready to be installed once the city approves. When those are in place, the groups plan to install 150 more.

  "There hasn't been a lot of city investment in 'end-of-trip facilities' — the fancy term for bike parking," Jatres says. "(Racks) encourage people. They know at their destination they have a safe place to put their bike. People have the confidence to know, 'If I ride my bike, there'll be a bike rack.'"

  MBC and Public Works last month combined forces to survey businesses and residents to see where bicyclists go in the French Quarter — and where they park their bikes.

  "Vehicles have been the primary focus for 30 years," Mendoza says. "Pedestrians and cyclists have been getting the third and fourth tier. It should really be in reverse, with vehicles (last). A sustainable city really cares about its pedestrians, and cyclists are right behind them. Nobody shops inside a store when they drive past it."

The elephant in the room: For all the resources and funding funneling into bike projects in the New Orleans area, is anyone using them? And is New Orleans healthy enough to use them? Louisiana consistently ranks in the highest percentile for obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In 2010, America's Health Rankings stuck Louisiana at 49th — second only to Mississippi.

  But bike ridership is increasing. Earlier this year, Tulane's Prevention Research Center (PRC) found average ridership along St. Claude Avenue increased 57 percent (or about 143 cyclists a day) since bike lanes were completed there in 2008. (The report also noted ridership by women increased 133 percent.)

The Where Ya Rack initiativeis working with the city to increase the number of racks available to cyclists across New Orleans. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • The Where Ya Rack initiativeis working with the city to increase the number of racks available to cyclists across New Orleans.

  In New Orleans, bike advocates are focusing on schools to keep kids healthy. MBC partnered with the Kids Walk Coalition, a branch of PRC, to help students stay active — whether biking or walking — from home to school. Several schools (including Charles Drew Elementary and Esperanza Charter) also are part of the Safe Routes to School Network, which builds a neighborhood-wide system to ensure kids a safe bike ride or walk to school.

  Last year, Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Sherri LaBas signed a Complete Streets initiative, making sure all transportation plans incorporate safe routes not only for motor vehicles but also pedestrians and, of course, bicycles. The RPC is continuing its public awareness campaign ("It's Safe, It's Courteous, It's the Law") for 2009's Colin Goodier Bicycle Protection Act — better known as the "three-feet law," which gives bicyclists at least three feet of space from passing motorists. Louisiana now joins 20 other states with similar laws. (New Mexico just passed a five-feet law.)

  Jatres says legislators will introduce bills this year to clarify — and expand — existing bike laws. It won't be groundbreaking, he says, but it'll finally bring Louisiana up to speed with other states.

  The Tulane PRC report also suggests that more bike traffic means potential economic boosts. Friends of the Lafitte Corridor organizers are talking to businesses along its route to brainstorm ways to attract the anticipated wave of bike traffic along the corridor. Where Ya Rack is gathering sponsorships from local businesses to install bike racks outside their doors.

  Bicyclists are a previously untapped market of which Public Works is finally taking notice. For example, Mendoza says Magazine Street is too narrow to safely plan a dedicated bike lane, but there's room for bike parking and bike racks. "We clearly want to bring bikers to Magazine Street," he says. (Where Ya Rack installed two racks outside Whole Foods Market, and seven along Lafayette Square across from Magazine Steet.)

  Back at Lafayette Square, Wine hands each rider a free bicycle kit, with a local bike resource guide, a tire repair kit, lights and reflectors. He also has a clipboard with a petition asking for more bike lanes.

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