Our next stop on our bike tour of the nation brings us to New Orleans, where flat terrain, streets laid out in a grid system, and an abundance of festivals, historic districts, art happenings and phenomenal restaurants make biking not only accessible but well-worth it. It’s no wonder New Orleans is ranked 6th in biking and walking levels by the Benchmarking Report, and 10th in the nation for pedestrian and biking by 2010 League of American Cyclists (and sixth in the nation in terms of mode share for bike commuters).

With all the activity around biking, including 45 miles of bike pathways in place and a 20 percent increase in cycling between 2010 and 2011, New Orleans has its sights set on becoming the most bike-friendly city in the nation. The city was just awarded Bronze Level bicycle-friendly status from the League of American Bicyclists, so watch out! We’ve spoken to Jamie Wine, executive director of Bike Easy, and Jennifer Ruley, pedestrian and bicycle engineer and consultant to the City of New Orleans, to tell us how the city is doing it.

What’s Up, New Orleans? Complete Streets Ordinance Approved

Hurricane Katrina nearly demolished all of New Orleans in 2005, but the city took the federal government’s assistance as an opportunity to start fresh. According to Mr. Wine, with that influx of cash there was suddenly the idea “that we don’t have to do things the same way we’ve always done them.” And while the “federal money helped repair all the damaged roads from the storm,” says Mr. Wine, it was the city which painted the bike lanes and improved New Orleans’ streets to now include about 50 miles of bicycle facilities.

A large majority of the new bike lanes were funded by local money dating from a transportation measure passed in 2004. New Orleans still has much room for improvement despite the new bicycle-friendly initiatives, improvements that will come with the Complete Streets Resolution signed by the  mayor in December, and might be the most significant advancement for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure in 2011.

The Complete Streets concept “captures a systematic approach to design of our streets to accommodate the needs of everyone,” says Ms. Ruley. “Interest came from advocates who had been long advocating for accommodation of bicylcists, people with disabilities, transit users, pedestrians, and the like.” It used to be that one needed to look for elsewhere for funding related to bike and pedestrian developments, but not anymore with the ordinance.

Adopting this model makes sense, says Ruley. The costs of painting a bike lane and the like “are so minor compared to the costs of building a street or roadway or whatever that these needs, accommodations, and facilities like bicycle and pedestrian facilities, should be considered in the project from the beginning.” The actual legistlation came from the City Council, which had convened meetings with different stakeholder groups, but it was ultimately a community effort to support the city joining the growing nation-wide trend. The Department of Public Works and the City Planning Commission are directed to “develop goals and metrics” for the program, which is to be “fully implemented” by December 2012.Another interesting, if less sweeping, development is the Lafitte Greenway, which stretches from the back of the French Quarter all the way to the Lakeview neighborhood for 3 miles. This is another result of bike advocacy and a sort of public awareness renaissance post-Katrina. A greenway is “a more modern version of a linear park and they provide a specific transportation function as well as the benefits of a park function to communiteis and also help with environmental sustainability and those aspects,” says Ms. Ruley. The greenway will cost $7.6 million to develop a 3.1 mile stretch, funding that comes from Community Development Block Grant funds from Katrina.

New Orleans Bike Culture
It would take three posts to cover New Orleans bike culture and happenings, so we’re concentrating on a few.   Bike Easy, a grassroots non-profit committed to making riding bike in its namesake easy, safe, and fun, helps the good times roll on two wheels with their bike valet and Second Line.

Bike Easy has had a couple of goes at offering a bicycle valet program, which helps festival goers avoid hectic, expensive parking. Bike valets are becoming increasingly popular. “All this great stuff is happening: we’re encouraging people to ride to the festival, we’re giving them a safe place to leave their bikes so they can feel safe riding their bikes and not getting messed with while they’re in there,” and it’s a perfect tool for outreach and gaining visibility, too.

“We also get a chance to educate the bicycle rider: it’s a chance for us to talk to our audience directly, so we can talk to them about the complete streets measure or ask them to become members or come to one of our classes.” The Young Leadership Council’s (YLC) Where Ya’ Rack? program is also worth noting; racks are sponsored by citizens and business owners and installed by the YLC volunteers.

Bicycle Second Line is a parade styled after the second line, the big brass band that follows the main parade during Mardi Gras and beckons everyone to join in. “Our bicycle second line is just like that: you put a band on the back of a truck and we cruise around town through the French Quarter, we see the sites, and we pick people up on their bicycles.” You can also join Krewe of Bike-us on their ride if you have a costume, a bicycle, and an unwillingness to deal with poor parking on Fat Tuesday. And if you don’t feel like biking at all, you can take a pedicab instead. NOLA Bike Taxi offers an eco-friendly alternative powered by a fellow human being.

There are options for those who prefer mountain bikes, including the Mississippi River Trail, the 3,000-mile bike path that runs from New Orleans’ Audubon Park all the way up to Minnesota. The New Orleans Bicycle Club exists for those who have a little fire inside them, as well as the Critical Mass Rides. Should something happen to your bike during your play, just join the Plan B Community Bike Project in their work space for bicycle building and repair lessons. Volunteers help with bicycle repair and the place offers free use of tools. Don’t have a bike? NOLA doesn’t have a bike share program yet, but you can rent one from Joy Ride Bike Rentals while you enjoy I-Witness Central City, a cell-phone tour of the city’s intimate stories.

Challenges in 2012: Education and Street Health

Cars and bikes alike are jostled or destroyed by poor road conditions, which costs motorists an average of $681 a year. The federal money after Hurricane Katrina helped repair much of the city infrastructure, but, according to Mr. Wine,  there are also some deferred maintenance issues. The terrible roads can make riding difficult, but the solution seems to be long in coming: The Department of Public Works says it would take around “$3 billion to meet rehabilitation and reconstruction needs and another $40 million to $45 million a year to properly maintain the streets.”

Bike safety education, on the other hand, seems like something that can be tackled immediately. You won’t see New Orleanians decked out in bike gear, according to Mr. Wine. “Nine percent of our people, adult riders, wear helmets, where in most other cities in the U.S. it’s like 70 or 80 percent. Everyday riders ride in their skirts, they ride in their flip-flops, they ride with a beer in their hand, they ride without a helmet- it’s kind of like “live and let live”.”

Worse than not using helmets is the ninja salmon phenomenon. “People are riding against traffic. They don’t have bicye lights, and they don’t wear light clothes, so you have these dark clothed no reflectors- basically ninjas riding against traffic like salmon, so we’ve got these ninja-salmon out there that are like unavoidable sometimes when you’re on a vehicle!” says Mr. Wine.  Bike Easy just procured a grant to fund education, and will be offering two hour bike-safety classes in neighborhoods, community groups, churches, and schools to address those little bad habits and get the good folk of New Orleans to at least protect their heads. Education also covers car owners and police, of course. Many people bike in New Orleans, and people in vehicles, including police officers, don’t always know the rules. Sound familiar?

Images: Cheryl Gerber, Editor B