New roads post-storm make New Orleans cycling city

Published 2:43 pm Thursday, October 13, 2011

For decades, blogger Joseph Donnelly saw few improvements for urban cyclists like himself in New Orleans, so he used the title of a website he started five years ago as a call to arms: “How To Start A Revolution In An Unfriendly Bike City.”

But a push by the city to use Hurricane Katrina recovery money to make the roads more accommodating has left him with little choice but to scrap the label in favor of something more prosaic. The top of the blog now reads: “Bicycling New Orleans: Practical Survival Tips for Cyclists in NOLA.”

“A lot of my gripes have been resolved,” said Donnelly, who started cycling in the 1970s and ditched his last car for good in 1989. “When I started the blog in 2006, there was not a single bicycle lane anywhere in New Orleans. Before Katrina, the roads were dangerous for everyone.”

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Since 2007, the city has used about $100 million in federal rebuilding dollars to lay 56 miles of new asphalt on 55 heavily used streets, transforming potholed boulevards into smooth blacktops ideal for bike riding. Under the city’s Submerged Roads Program, bike lanes have also been painted on 15 streets, giving the city about 40 miles of bike-friendly pathway. There are plans to pave 26 more streets.

The city is also poised to spend $7 million in federal aid to turn a wide 3-mile stretch of an abandoned railroad easement between the French Quarter and City Park into a greenway that will be known as the Lafitte Corridor.

Ridership has also grown. In 2010, New Orleans ranked 12th in the number of bicycle commuters among American cities, an 84 percent increase in bike commuters since 2005, according to the latest Census data.

New Orleans-based urban planner Robert Tannen said an increase in cycling has many benefits. “It slows down traffic. People are more cautious. It makes for a far more pedestrian-friendly city; bikers are also walkers. And it increases the health and overall well-being of citizens,” Tannen said. “It increases the number of people who patronize local stores and smaller shops rather than the malls.”

The progress has bike enthusiasts dreaming: Can New Orleans, with its flat terrain, warm weather and tightly-knit neighborhoods, rival the nation’s best cycling cities like Seattle, Portland, Ore., and Boulder, Colo.? This summer New Orleans was named a “bicycle friendly community” by the League of American Bicyclists, but it still has further to go to attain the league’s top-tier “platinum” status.

By comparison, Portland has 180 miles of bike lanes. Nearly 6 percent of workers there commute to work, according to the league’s database, compared to about 2 percent of commuters in New Orleans.

Still, the city has come a long way. Bicycle shop mechanic and bike activist Tim Eskew said groups plodded along for years in obscurity and tried to drum up interest in cycling mostly through schools. He said it took about seven years to get city buses to include bike racks. 

“Our biggest brick wall was that we all worked full-time jobs,” Eskew said. 

A confluence of forces after Katrina helped change things — the prominence of New Urbanism (in other words, a return to compact cities) in rebuilding plans, a flood of newcomers and the city’s native sense for European aesthetics. Also, former Mayor Ray Nagin and the urban planner he brought in after Katrina to lead the rebuilding, Ed Blakely, get some credit. After arriving in New Orleans from Australia, Blakely liked to ride his bicycle through the city.  

Challenges persist, though. Despite the push to pave roads, there remain potholes galore, missing stop signs, broken up sidewalks, streets covered in glass and intersections where cyclists have to take a deep breath and hope to make it across. In other words, New Orleans is just like most other American cities — hardly the kind of place where the cyclist comes first.

Randy Bibb, a French Quarter walking tour guide, knows the problems in New Orleans all too well. He’s been a bicycle commuter ever since a tree fell on his car during Katrina.

He said he contends with bad traffic, bad drivers and bike thieves.

“There need to be more bike racks,” he said. “Since Katrina, this is my seventh bike. I’ve had six bikes stolen. There’s no bike lock they can’t get through.”

Charlie Doerr, the owner of Bayou Bikes along the proposed Lafitte Corridor greenway, still worries that money will dry up as Congress struggles to deal with the recession. He has pushed for the trail for years. 

“The faster they get it started, the more likely it will happen,” he said, looking out the back of his shop where the trail would go. “What scares me is that that money has a deadline and it won’t get used. It’s happened before.”

The city’s enthusiasm for cycling is on display every Thursday night when the dozens of costumed participants in the NOLA Social Ride pick a new neighborhood to roll through. 

Their rendezvouses are a slow, beery, roll on two wheels; they zig-zag down back streets, wave at folks sitting on front porches, glide past shotgun houses, old mansions and slave quarters, wobbling into the night aglow in the little lights on their bikes.

Ritchie Jordan, who organizes the NOLA Social Ride, is a funky Jackson Square artist who came to New Orleans from Boulder, Colo., in 2007. He said the popularity of the weekly romp by bike is growing quickly. 

“Even in Boulder I needed a car,” Jordan said. “Not here. We stopped having a car. Coaster brake, it is the most preferred way to travel in this town.”