Bicycle lanes are an increasingly common sight along New Orleans streets these days, and a new study from Tulane University shows that where these lanes appear, more cyclists follow; it’s an elementary formula that carries the promise of fewer cars and healthier people around the city.

The study examined St. Claude Avenue, the first street in the city where dedicated bicycle lanes were added. Within six months of that project’s completion in 2008, researchers found a 57-percent increase in the number of riders per day there, compared to a study period a year earlier when no lanes existed.

“These findings suggest that bike lanes are well-suited to New Orleans,” says lead author Kathryn Parker, assistant director of Tulane’s Prevention Research Center. “Installing bike lanes is a cost-effective means of encouraging residents to be physically active for transportation and recreation.”

The Prevention Research Center is interested in the findings as part of its effort to encourage residents to be more active and improve their health. 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 have long pointed out a lack of bike-friendly infrastructure or even much public recognition that bicycles belong on New Orleans streets at all.

“We have high levels of people who are overweight and obese, but if there was better infrastructure we could make an impact,” says Parker. “If people see more bike lanes, if they see more bike racks – that gives more legitimacy to the whole prospect of biking to get around on a daily basis.”

Parker’s research was published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health and represents one of the few such studies of cycling in a particular area before and after bike lane installation. In addition to the overall 57-percent increase in overall cycling, they found a 133-percent increase in female riders.

“I was surprised to see such a big increase in women biking. It just shows you how women clearly like to have a dedicated place to ride,” says Parker.

While stripes on the road don’t offer any physical protection for cyclists from errant motorists, Parker says bike lanes “serve as a visual reminder that there’s someone else on the road. There are cyclists and now there are more of them.”