Bicycle Commuting in New Orleans: A Better Idea Than It Sounds
The 5 best (and 3 worst) things about not being stuck in a car
There seems to be a pattern emerging here at MyNewOrleans.com: The editorial staff is completely devoid of reliable cars. After Eve's car got throttled by age, the elements and hit-and-run drivers, another editor's car flooded, and yet another's car decided to Occupy Driveway and refused to start. Finally, it was my turn: My brakes began spasming uncontrollably. Being the road-ragey Yankee that I am, I don't particularly like decelerating anyway, but as a matter of public safety I figured I should probably get the brakes looked at.
Which made me, at least temporarily, a bicycle commuter. Fortunately – at least for most Big Easy cyclists – New Orleans was recently named a bronze-level Bicycle Friendly City by League of American Bicyclists. Of course, where I live in Broadmoor, that doesn't mean much, and since our office is technically in Metairie, it didn't mean much more for my commute. But since the office wasn't the only place I needed to go in that particular week, and since I've been gone for long enough to forget certain things about the city, I got to see it as a new cyclist once again. Here's what I found, in no particular order:
1. You can park anywhere
Ever since the new parking meter system was put in place, parking has become a thornier issue than it already was, particularly in the CBD and downtown. However, if you're on two wheels, you never have to deal with that particular headache. Not only has the city installed a broad network of new bike racks, there is ironwork all over town that, in a pinch – and provided you ask the property owner – can serve as a makeshift rack. (That being said, make sure you have a sturdy lock, and make sure you run it through both wheels. And take anything on a quick-release with you – saddle, seat bag, water bottles, even your light. The city's not that safe.)
2. It's just as fast as driving … mostly
Maybe it's just because I ride as though I have health insurance (because I finally do!) and consequences be damned, but you can really stomp through most of the city. Stop-and-go traffic doesn't so much apply to cyclists, presuming they know to watch out for the errant lane-changer and people who don't check their rear-views before opening doors (incidentally, "dooring" someone is a felony in most states), and I've found I can get almost anywhere in the city in about 15 minutes. St. Charles and Napoleon Avenues make really handy (and pretty well-paved) axes by which to traverse Uptown; I found Earhart decently navigable for getting between Uptown and Downtown and City Park by way of Jefferson Davis a safe bet to make it to the Lake.
3. Your coworkers will be impressed
Okay, my coworkers weren't exactly impressed … most of them thought I was insane. I didn't bother explaining at first that I found a route that circumnavigated I-10. But that aside, instead of dreading a boring, stop-and-go commute that will invariably get you stuck in three lanes of traffic, you have a nice, leisurely ride waiting at the end of your work day. And if you get to commute through Old Metairie as I did, well, that's just gravy.
4. Motorists are increasingly considerate
It's not exactly a condition you can measure, but with the rising numbers of cyclists (and bicycle lanes) in the city, motorists have become more and more sensitive to what some call "vehicular cycling" – that is, bikes acting as cars. In New Orleans, as everywhere else, cyclists are bound by the same traffic laws as motorists, and also entitled to the same protections, including a 3-foot buffer zone into which a motorist may not enter (it's state law – Gov. Jindal signed it back in 2009). Tulane Avenue and the north-south routes in Mid-City and Gentilly are still a bit of a rough ride, but even on Earhart drivers gave me plenty of space. I've seen more and more motorists yielding to cyclists, and more and more cyclists signalling properly. Of course, there are still the asshats who ride the wrong way down one-way streets, ride on sidewalks and ignore traffic signals – but let the NOPD deal with them. (Hey! A new idea for municipal revenue.)
It's sort of a no-brainer. Say your commute is five miles each way (like mine is). You ride to work fast (because you're late) and take your time going home. Maybe you run a couple errands, bringing up your total daily mileage to 15 or so. You've just worked out twice in one day at different levels of aerobic exhertion. Boom. It's not an instant six-pack, but it's sure not going to hurt.
And of course, since I love playing both sides of the same argument, here are couple of problems with my theory:
1. You're an easy target
As the Times-Picayune reported yesterday, a cyclist was attacked this week on the Mississippi River levee. Earlier this fall, burglars preyed on the parked cars of cyclists and triathletes training along Lakeshore Drive. Being on a bike can put you in a vulnerable position; if you're on a path or sidewalk and aren't decked out with knobby tires, you can pretty much only move like a chess piece – in one direction. So ride careful.
2. A lot of roads still really … well, you get the idea
My bike isn't exactly built for commuting; it's the same rig with which I race, but retrofitted with bigger tires and the aerobars removed. Still and all, it's a pretty soft ride for a road bike. After a week of commuting, however, I was glad for the cushioned bucket seat of my now-slightly-safer Explorer. If you're going to commute by bike, invest in a bike with a carbon fiber or suspension fork, a decent saddle and a forgiving seatpost – or just go full-suspension. Your delicate parts will thank you later.
3. For better or worse, you are your own engine – and cargo space
Most tasks are easily manageable with a bike and a backpack, but larger grocery trips are pretty much nixed once you check your keys in with your mechanic. Also, if you need any dry cleaning done, better find somewhere in walking distance. And forget about doing any major moving. Or logging.