With flat terrain, mild winters and a compact urban grid built largely before the dominance of automobiles, New Orleans should be a bicyclist’s dream. But local cycling advocates say that dream has long been stymied by the lack of a bike-friendly infrastructure or even much public recognition that bicycles belong on New Orleans streets.
That is changing, however, thanks to several recently completed construction projects, more in the works and ongoing advocacy programs to promote more and safer bicycling around the city.
This fall, the city’s new Wisner bike trail officially opened, creating 4.7 miles of dedicated off-road paths and marked bicycle lanes on streets stretching from Mid-City to the lakefront via Bayou St. John and City Park. Earlier this year, marked bike lanes were debuted on Robert E. Lee Boulevard in Lakeview and on St. Claude Avenue in the 9th Ward and Faubourg Marigny. A year from now, the city plans to have at least three more stretches of marked bike lanes on Harrison Avenue, along more of Robert E. Lee Boulevard and on Louisiana Avenue. Unlike dedicated bike trails, the marked lanes don’t separate cyclists from automobile traffic, but they still go a long way to improving bicycle safety.
“The big thing is that it raises awareness among drivers that there are going to be bicyclists on the road and that they have a right to be there,” says Dan Jatres, program manager for the Regional Planning Commission’s Greater New Orleans Pedestrian and Bicycle Program.
In 2003, the nonprofit Metro Bicycle Coalition campaigned for more attention to bicycles in the city’s master transportation plan and in 2004 successfully lobbied to have approximately $4 million of a $260-million capital improvements bond dedicated to bike-friendly projects. With another $200 million in federal money coming as part of Katrina-related street repairs, there’s more opportunity for bicycle infrastructure.
Enhancements to make bicycling more attractive come at a time when the environmental impact of heavy automobile use is getting more attention, and also when higher fuel prices are making habitual driving more expensive. To help get more people out of cars and onto bikes, the RPC plans to begin a new “Create-a-Commuter” program this spring. These classes are intended to help people select the best cycling routes, teach basic bike maintenance and tactics for managing a change of clothing at work after a brisk pedal during rush hour. Businesses, Jatres says, can also request a course for their employees to attend together.