Statistics from the 2000 U.S. Census put numbers behind the obvious: there are a lot of bicyclists on the streets of New Orleans.
The Census informs us that 1.2 percent of New Orleans workers bike to work for their daily commute, a figure three times the national average of .4 percent. It adds up to 3,000 bike commuters, though local cycling advocates dispute that number as too low, citing an inherent difficulty in tracking bicycle use. In addition, 26 percent of our work force has no access to automobiles, a huge number when contrasted to 10 percent nationally and 12 percent across Louisiana.
Reasons for riding a bike are as varied as cyclists themselves. But the fact is that many in our city can't afford a car and the expenses of loan payments, insurance, fuel and repairs that accompany automobile ownership. Add to that the comparative advantages of riding in New Orleans -- flat terrain and weather suitable year-round for bikes -- and it becomes evident why so many rely on bikes as a primary mode of transportation. "Really, here it's so easy and cheap to get around on a bike," says Yoni Mazuz, a founder of Plan B, a bike repair, education and outreach nonprofit in Faubourg Marigny. "Too easy to even bother with a car."
Unfortunately, local cycling advocates paint a picture of New Orleans as a dangerous place for bikers. Without the protection of bike lanes on most roads, riders frequently face assaults from rude or overly aggressive auto drivers. "New Orleans should be a bicycling paradise," says Frank Douglass, president of New Orleans Regional Bicycle Awareness Committee (NORBAC) and a founding father of local bike activism. "But it's not. It's embarrassing."
Mean-spirited drivers are not the only threat to local cyclists; some lawmakers give it their best shot, too. Last month, Congress removed from a transportation funding bill $600 million for "enhancements," money that can be used to promote and facilitate other transportation choices (including bike lanes) as established in 1991's Intermodal Surface Transportation and Efficiency Act, which dictates that not all transportation money be used to build more highways. National outcry from bicyclists helped save the enhancement funding in a bipartisan amendment that the House ultimately approved in a 327-90 vote.
Last spring in Louisiana, state Rep. Michael Strain (R-Covington) introduced House Bill 22, which would have made it illegal for bicyclists to "impede the flow of traffic." Concerned over the vagueness of defining "impede" -- and fearing that the bill would essentially make bicycles illegal on roads -- cyclists effectively organized and lobbied until Strain agreed to drop the bill.
Local bicyclists credit the uproar caused by House Bill 22 for uniting them. But for many, the upswing in activism began in response to the tragic death of Lucas Cox, a beloved figure in the local arts scene who was killed last year after being "doored" -- avoiding an opening car door that fatally pushed him into the path of an 18-wheel truck.
This spring, the Minnesota-based bike advocacy group Thunderhead Alliance held a conference in New Orleans, citing the need for -- and potential of -- an effective, organized bike lobby in New Orleans and across the southeastern United States. Locally, training and advice provided by Thunderhead Alliance is aiding cyclists in what may prove to be their biggest challenge yet: influencing the City Planning Commission's (CPC) pending Master Plan, which examines all phases of planning in New Orleans. The transportation plan will cover everything from airports to bicycles; cyclists hope for an infrastructure that makes the city more bike-friendly.
The local Metro Bicycle Coalition has been meeting with CPC officials. The coalition, which organized under Thunderhead Alliance guidance, reports that meetings have generally been positive. However, Dubravka Gilic, the CPC's planning administrator, hedges a bit when asked what provisions will be made for bicyclists. "It's difficult to say what our priorities will be," she says. The next draft of the Master Plan will be released in mid-November, Gilic estimates.
We encourage the CPC to make a bike-friendly New Orleans one of the agency's top priorities. This means adding bike lanes on major thoroughfares known to be frequented by bikers. Signage designating some neighborhood streets as bike routes will help raise awareness of cyclists. Other cities commonly have such markers; New Orleans should, too.
The things that make New Orleans so conducive to bicycles also make it a unique and desirable place to live. Unlike many other metropolitan areas, much of our city was not designed with automobiles in mind. Government agencies should build upon our unique urban landscape by enacting laws that protect and promote -- rather than threaten -- bicyclists' right to a share of the road.
Above all, responsibility for increasing bicycle safety falls on the drivers as well as cyclists. Drivers should fight the temptation to honk, curse or become agitated at a slower moving bike. A simple pass will suffice; an added wave of the hand or nod of the head is welcome. We should all share the road.