Bicyclists have a term for what happened to Lucas Cox one year ago this month: "getting doored."
It's a phrase they know all too well. On Sept. 16, 2002, the 33-year-old Cox was riding his bicycle on Camp Street, where he was forced to swerve out into traffic to avoid an opening car door. The abrupt move forced him into the path of an 18-wheel truck that killed him instantly. "Poet, Dreammaker, Dancer, Clown -- Killed on His Bicycle," read flyers promoting a memorial bike ride in honor of Cox, who was active in the local arts community.
"Getting doored" is a phrase that local bike enthusiast, writer and mechanic Shelley Jackson uses frequently -- not just about Cox, but also in speaking of other friends killed or hurt while riding their bikes. Among the victims is a man in his 60s who was killed seven years ago while delivering herbs. He, too, veered into moving traffic to avoid an opening door.
However, Jackson remains determined both to stay on her bike and to stay in New Orleans. "I think about leaving this city all the time," the 31-year-old San Diego native confesses. "But one of the reasons I always come back is there's no way I'm ever going to become a full-time driver again. In most places, that's impossible. That actually keeps me living here. And as many friends that have been hit or killed, New Orleans is still a great place to ride your bike."
Jackson reveals her love of biking in a dangerous city in three 'zines that she has published on the subject. Essays -- both original and by biking buddies -- appear in Chainbreaker and Chainbreaker 2, plus the pragmatic A Rough Guide to Bicycle Maintenance. Jackson waxes poetic on safety advice and rants against America's car culture. Her bicycle history lessons include a profile of African-American champion cyclist Marshall "Major" Taylor, as well as an examination of how bicycles changed women's fashion and thus sparked women's lib. With more than 800 copies sold, Jackson's 'zines are distributed to bike shops and community groups across the country.
Jackson writes in her opening essay to Chainbreaker titled "For the Love of a Bicycle": "It is hard for me to quantify just how much I love bicycles, for me to tell you how much joy they bring me, how much meaning they have given my life. ... The bicycle has caused an evolution in myself. It has helped me to change and expand my values. I have a hope that if this happened for enough of us, there would be a revolution, as Kropotkin says, 'A time of accelerated evolution,' where cooperation, simple mechanics and fresh air would work against the capitalism, technology and fear that threaten to wreck this world. In essence I believe a simple bicycle ride would save us all."
Jackson may lean toward the revolutionary and rhetorical, but her stances mirror those of local bicycling activists. The groups have grown recently in terms of both numbers and organization since Cox's death, spurred on this past year by reports citing the ill effects of sprawl and car culture and laws viewed as decidedly anti-bicycle. New Orleans has relatively few bike lanes or signage to promote a "Share the Road" philosophy, they say. But the historic city has the raw materials: an infrastructure of compact blocks packed with needed amenities designed for walking, not cars; a flat terrain that doesn't quickly exhaust riders; and a climate that allows for year-round cycling.
"New Orleans should be a bicycling paradise," says Frank Douglass, president of New Orleans Regional Bicycling Awareness Committee (NORBAC). "But it's not. It's embarrassing. We could be doing so much more to promote biking in our community. And we'd be a lot happier and healthier if we did."
NORBAC works with schools, government agencies and community groups to improve conditions for local cyclists. Successes include legislation for recreational trails along the Mississippi River and the Northshore's Tammany Trace; the group also lobbies for bike lanes and routes in urban areas, and teaches safety to school children. Douglass, 59, has been a bicycle activist since 1973, when he joined in with a group of bikers sporting yellow ribbons to support the closing-off of the road in Audubon Park to cars. He describes NORBAC as an umbrella group for bike advocacy. It's not always easy.
"The primary difficulty in organizing cycling activism is that bicyclists are, by their very nature, self-sufficient and independent," says Douglass.
Recently released statistics paint a sobering picture of the bicycle's role -- or lack of a role -- in our society.
In August, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) issued a report revealing that, for the first time in our nation's history, the average American household has more vehicles than it has licensed drivers. The report cited 107 million households in the country, each with an average of 1.9 cars, trucks or sports utility vehicles, contrasted to only 1.8 drivers. The total equation: 204 million vehicles and 91 million drivers. In 1995, the last time the DOT conducted the survey, the number of drivers equally matched the number of vehicles.
In the same week that the Transportation Department's findings were making headlines, the American Journal of Public Health and the American Journal of Health Promotion released a report condemning America's urban sprawl. The report concluded that the most dire result of a sprawled-out, car-commuting society was obesity -- to be exact, the report attributed to sprawl an average weight gain of 6 pounds per person. Two-thirds of all Americans live in areas that are considered urban sprawl, the report stated.
Recent legislation, both national and state, has also given cyclists cause for alarm. This spring in the Louisiana Legislature, Rep. Michael Strain (R-Covington) introduced House Bill 22, which would make it illegal for bicyclists to "impede the flow of traffic." With House Bill 22 initially gaining approval in committee, bicycle advocates vehemently protested what they called the vagueness of the word "impede." Also, activists warned, if bikes are illegal on roads, what legal recourse would cyclists have if struck by a vehicle, with vehicle-and-bike accidents already rarely, if ever, prosecuted against the driver?
"House Bill 22 was something that really brought the cycling community together," says Jason Neville, a 24-year-old non-car-owning cyclist and a Green Party candidate for Senate District 3. "The bill was moving very rapidly through the House, but through our networks, we got the word out about this bill, and we stopped it. The author (Strain) agreed to floor it for a year and revise it with wording to make it more bike-friendly."
Nationally, cyclists united to save the "enhancement" programs that grew out of Congress' creation in 1991 of Intermodal Surface Transportation and Efficiency Act (ISTEA) funding, which requires that all forms of transportation be considered in transportation spending. (To see how Louisiana has allocated its $62 million share of ISTEA funding, visit www.enhancements.org, and click on "Projects" on the left margin.) By law, ISTEA must be renewed every six years. In its third renewal this year, the six-year transportation-funding bill (referred to as TEA-21) was stripped of $600 million in enhancements funding in a move sponsored by Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.). But a bi-partisan amendment sponsored by Reps. Tom Petri (R-Wisc.) and John Olver (D-Mass.) restored the funding in a 327-90 vote on Sept. 4. Locally, Rep. William Jefferson (D-New Orleans) voted for the amendment; Rep. David Vitter (R-Metairie) voted against it.
"The political climate right now is scary; this was a very difficult Congress to work with," says Martha Roskowski, the campaign manager for America Bikes, an advocacy group that represents biking issues in Congress. "There are a lot of other priorities right now. There's a huge deficit, and a lot of funding is dedicated to the war.
"This vote to restore enhancements funding was a resounding affirmation that Congress supports transportation choices," Roskowski says, crediting the vocal uproar from the biking community with saving the funding. "It was really about, 'Do we want to build a balanced, healthy transportation system, or do we want to build just highways?' The answer from Congress was that we need to invest in a better, more sustainable system."
Activists such as Jason Neville, who lobbies for biking concerns through the group Campaign for Sustainable Transit, say cycling in New Orleans can be parlayed into positive economic growth. "The movement hasn't been overtly environmental in its official rationale," Neville says. "Of course, everyone is concerned about the environment, and reducing the reliance on cars is a huge way to protect the environment. But, there's something more urgent at stake: creating a sustainable approach to urban development. It's about, do we want New Orleans' transportation modes to look like Kenner, where you can't walk to anything, even to pick up a gallon of milk?"
The 2000 U.S. Census reports that 26 percent of New Orleans' workforce has no access to an automobile, compared to 10 percent nationally and 12 percent in Louisiana. In addition, 1.2 percent of New Orleans workers commute to work on bicycle (roughly 3,000 people total), a number three times the national average of .4 percent.
However, most frustrating to local biking advocates, New Orleans' streets are not up to par with the city's relatively heavy reliance on bicycles. Such concerns -- and the fact that her students were in constant danger while riding city streets -- spurred Liz Davey, program manager for Tulane University's Office of Environmental Affairs, to action.
"People tend to think of bikes as toys," says Davey. "And there are a lot of just recreational riders, and that's great, too. But for a lot of people, especially in New Orleans, the bike is your main form of transportation. Biking is not just done by a tiny minority, and it's not just a hobby."
Davey commutes to work on her bike daily, a lifestyle factor she wasn't expecting when moving here from East Lansing, Mich. -- "the heart of car culture," she says. But arriving in town, she discovered "how easy, how fabulous it is to ride your bike here," she says.
In late 2000, Davey and Tulane students began to collaborate with the Regional Planning Commission (RPC), a public agency composed of officials from across the New Orleans metro area, including parish presidents, mayors and civic and business leaders. The result was Bicycle Resource Map, sold in various bicycle shops and in Tulane's book store, which details bike-friendly routes and lists bike shops, community groups and other agencies that help address bicyclists' needs. Davey and students hit the streets on their own bikes for field research, a process she remembers as "a lot of fun -- I was able to discover a number of fascinating neighborhoods and rides."
Davey's work with the RPC -- specifically Karen Parsons, the RPC's bicycle/pedestrian coordinator -- has led to other efforts to promote local biking. Thanks to lobbying efforts, the state Office of Motor Vehicles recently changed language in the official Driver's Manual to acknowledge that bicycles are considered vehicles with a right to the road. The new Driver's Manual verbiage is already posted in its online edition and is scheduled to hit print next year. It counters what many cyclists consider the current modus operandi of New Orleans drivers: when encountering bikers on the roads, honk and curse repeatedly, and demand that they get out off the street.
Davey says that perhaps the most significant result of her office's relationship with the RPC was the creation of the New Orleans Metropolitan Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan 2002. "The difficult thing about previous transportation plans was they were designed by transportation consultants who weren't cyclists and didn't see transportation issues from the perspective of a bicycle," Davey says. "This Master Plan is a thoughtful checklist of all the things that need to be done to make bicycling safe and appealing in the region."
With much input from cyclists, the RPC's Master Plan includes several recommendations. Among them are to establish criteria (via traffic and street studies) for bicycle upgrades, a review of all state and local ordinances regarding bikes, a review of law enforcement training and practices, data collection of injuries and crashes, and education and training of motorists and cyclists.
Released late in 2002, the Master Plan is currently featured in ongoing negotiations between bicycle advocates and the New Orleans' City Planning Commission (CPC). In April, the CPC began a series of public-input meetings as part of the agency's creation of an overall Master Plan, the city's first since the late 1960s.
Bicycling is just one small part of the transportation portion of the plan. Yet, when the public-input meetings were announced, local advocates jumped at the chance to influence the city. Neville lobbies the Planning Commission as part of the Campaign for Sustainable Transit (CST) and the Committee for a Better New Orleans (CBNO). He estimates that at the meetings, "bicycle advocates outnumber by six-to-one bureaucrats and special interest stakeholders, who usually attend such things."
Organization efforts stepped up this spring, when the Minnesota-based bike advocacy group Thunderhead Alliance held a conference in New Orleans. The group identified the Southeast as having a particular need for effective, mobilized bike lobbies. The result: the newly formed Metro Bicycle Coalition, a group also in negotiations with the CPC to make New Orleans more hospitable to bicycles.
"As far as New Orleans being bike-friendly, it fares pretty poorly right now," says Kate Samworth, a Metro Bicycle Coalition member and bicycle commuter for the past 17 years. "But as far as having one of the greatest percentages of bikers, we're at the top. And finally, we've joined forces. There's a huge groundswell now.
"We're trying to avoid bringing political or environmental arguments out of our advocacy, because the phrase 'environmental activist' scares a lot of people," Samworth says. "We're focused on biking as exercise, reducing traffic and that it's always free parking. We're determined to make New Orleans a better place for bikes. We're determined to create bike lanes, bike routes, because in this city -- whether it's because of income or choice -- you don't really need a car."
Samworth and other coalition members say current plans include several bike lanes, defined as a 4- to 6-feet-wide lanes designated by striping. The targeted areas are Wisner Boulevard from Esplanade Avenue to Robert E. Lee Boulevard; Esplanade Avenue from City Park to the river (with the two-lane portion from Claiborne Avenue to the park converted to one-car lanes in each direction); and Chartres Street in Bywater, currently under reconstruction. Currently, the city's only bike routes are located along Jefferson Davis Parkway and West End Boulevard.
"We're hoping that this Master Plan will give us a general picture of how we all interact on the roads and how all modes of transportation serve the city," says Dubravka Gilic, the CPC's planning administrator. "This is the first comprehensive look at the city's transportation system. And bicycles will be a part of it."
The plan is not yet finalized, so Gilic declines to discuss definite routes and lanes -- except the lane planned for Wisner Boulevard, work on which she says "will begin soon." Plus, the plan will ultimately require City Council approval for implementation. Gilic expects the next draft of the transportation element of the Master Plan to be ready by mid-November.
"The biking community has been very enthusiastic and very knowledgeable in this process," says Gilic. "However, we still have to determine what is reasonable, details of how much it will require, and how long it will take. The city has chronic budget shortfalls and greater transportation needs, like fixing potholes and overall road conditions. So, it's difficult to say what our priorities will be."
Local bikers have become increasingly politicized, but the cycling lifestyle is still rooted in an ethos of independence, say cyclists. An embodiment of this spirit can be seen at the New Orleans Community Bicycle Project, or Plan B, housed in the ARK in Faubourg Marigny. Plan B, granted national nonprofit status two weeks ago, is run by volunteers who staff the warehouse space three days a week, offering assistance and advice in bike repair as well as tools free of charge. Parts and even completely rebuilt bikes are available at bare-bones prices. (A quick sample of services: patches -- 25 cents, tires -- $3 to $8, wheels -- $3 to $10, "build a bicycle" -- $15 to $40.)
On a typical afternoon, the dusty space bustles with sales and bike repair work, as punk rock from bands like The Wankers warbles from a well-worn radio. Signs dotting the walls remember Lucas Cox and admonish to "Demand Transportation Choices." Travis Blankenship, a 12-year-old sixth grader at Colton Middle School, works quietly and steadily to build a bike from scratch. Almost finished, the bike will soon be the second one he's built at Plan B.
"It's cool here," Blankenship says, while brandishing a wrench to tighten a bike fork to its frame. "They're nice; it's a nice spot to hang out." Blankenship adds that he's here at Plan B all three days it's open: Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Plan B hours extend from the late afternoon to early evening.
"Plan B is a place for people to work on their bikes; a space where tools and advice are accessible," says Yoni Mazuz, a founder of Plan B who, along with Jackson and John Greken, have been at Plan B since it started with a fundraiser in the form of a punk show at ARK following the Krewe du Vieux parade in 2000.
"It's also a place for people to get used bikes and parts at affordable prices," Mazuz says. "We're not a bike shop, and have no desire to be one. But we do want to grow and expand."
Mazuz says that Plan B wants to expand on a relationship with area public schools -- courses initiated by Douglass and currently taught by Greken at Charter Middle School in Hollygrove -- and eventually support a paid staff. "We're here to make bikes safer and run better," Mazuz says, lacking pretense or political aim. "That gets more people riding bikes on the street. Really, here it's so easy and cheap to get around on a bike. Too easy to even bother with a car."
Frank Douglass, considered perhaps the founder of bike activism in New Orleans, has taught a course at Plan B. He credits Mazuz and his group as "having the gonads to take action and put bikes on the streets in their own grassroots way."
"Most bikers just want to ride their bikes," Douglass continues. "They're not keen on being involved with aggression or aggravating the system. But somebody has to. The problems we're facing now -- in Iraq, in Afghanistan -- we wouldn't have if we were all on bikes. We'd have more natural resources, better public health, cleaner cities. But the purpose of society today is to make a buck: buy the bigger SUV, fill your car with gas, pay your insurance. The bicycle goes against all that."
Neville, as a political candidate, future urban planner and bicycle advocate whose bike sports the sticker "Question Internal Combustion," realizes that "biking will always be an individual thing, but if its laws are codified and promoted, it'd be a safer, more attractive thing."
"I don't believe in the state telling people how they should view others in society," Neville says. "But people need to know what the law is. The law is that bicycles have a right to the road.
"In a lot of cases, if it's easier to ride a bike, people will recognize that and say to themselves, 'Maybe I need to be riding a bike or walking, instead of driving.'"
- Greg Miles
- Dar Wolnik, Steve Fussel, Yoni Mazuz, Travis Blankenship, Shelley Jackson, Ethan Clark, Kate Samworth and Ed Melendez.
- Donn Young
- Jason Neville, a cyclist and a Green Party candidate for Senate District 3, says local cyclists are packing local city planning meetings. "Bicycle advocates outnumber by six-to-one bureaucrats and special interest stakeholders, who usually attend such things," he says.
- Donn Young
- Yoni Mazuz and 12-year-old Travis Blankenship work on building Blankenship's second bike at the New Orleans Community Bicycle Project, or Plan B. "Really, here it's so easy and cheap to get around on a bike," says Plan B co-founder Mazuz. "Too easy to even bother with a car."