Bicyclists in New Orleans are angry.
On July 6, Ben Gregory, a 37-year-old visual artist, was biking on Elysian Fields Avenue when he was struck by a hit-and-run motorist and left for dead. It was the fifth death this year of a bicyclist in New Orleans.
Despite the city's continued trumpeting of its commitment to alternative modes of transportation, cyclists keep getting hurt, and tension between motorists and cyclists continues to rise both on and off the streets.
Gregory's death was the final straw for some cycling activists, who are organizing a "die-in" in front of New Orleans City Hall at 2 p.m. July 23 — the date of the next New Orleans City Council meeting. More than 350 people have clicked "attending" on the event's Facebook page (a number that may or may not translate to actual attendees) promising to play dead at City Hall, hoping to get some attention and action on safety from both the council and Mayor Mitch Landrieu's office.
Alexander Fleming organized the die-in. "If you go down St. Claude [Avenue], in less than a three-, four-, five-mile radius, it's just ghost bike, ghost bike, ghost bike," Fleming says of the white bikes the biking community erects as memorials where a crash has resulted in death. "It's getting creepy." Fleming got the idea for a bicycle die-in from an event in Houston two weeks ago.
Michael Payne, director of Houston's bicycle advocacy nonprofit Bike Houston, told Gambit that his city has seen five cyclist deaths in 30 days — the worst month, statistically, in the city's history — and the die-in was a grassroots attempt to call attention to the sudden uptick in lives lost to collision. Payne isn't sure yet what the impact of the die-in will be, since it was so recent, but he's glad advocates were able to have their voices heard.
"I think it's an effective thing to do to raise awareness," he says. "It was well-attended. We had between 100 and 200 cyclists there."
Bike Houston also directs cyclists and friends of victims to Houston City Council public comment in an effort to "put a face with what's happening in the city," Payne says. "So if someone stands up and says, 'My best friend was killed and I'll never see him again,' that actually resonates with the elected officials. And when they say, 'You know, this person was riding in the bike lane and got run over by a truck' ... these are real people and real stories, so that's all very helpful."
Dan Favre, who directs Bike Easy, the New Orleans equivalent of Bike Houston, says Bike Easy isn't helping organize the die-in, but the group has been in touch with Fleming and other participants and supports the action.
"Especially in the aftermath of Ben Gregory's death [this month], emotions are very high," Favre says. "I think that folks who ride are scared — they're feeling it, their friends are dying."
Fleming acknowledges that keeping all roadway users safe requires a handful of policies, including education and enforcement of the bike lanes that already are painted. But he says improving infrastructure is key.
"The majority of the problems I see, it's like, cyclists trying to avoid a pothole, there's a car, what can you do?" he asks. "Narrow roads and lights are not working and that's the big thing. Infrastructure affects cyclists, infrastructure affects pedestrians and it affects people who drive."
"It's just that the streets suck. That's it. That's the biggest thing, I think," says Ilana Greenwald, a student at Tulane University who bikes two hours every day. "More than cars, it's the actual streets — the potholes."
Kate Jamison, another Tulane University student, says she bikes between 20 and 50 miles a week, depending on her schedule. "I've never had any bad experiences on my bike, really," she says, but two of her fellow employees at the Jewish Community Center have been hit by cars in the last year — one of them a Tulane student.
The solution is "more bike lanes." Jamison says, citing a number of Uptown arterial streets that need bike lane designations, including Napoleon, Louisiana and Jackson avenues. (Since 2008, the city has striped more than 87 miles of bike lanes, with plans to exceed 100 before the end of the year.)
"I think Bike Magazine put us up at like fifth in the nation for most bike-friendly city as far as layout and stuff like that," says Steven JP Pool, a member of the Bad News Bike Club, which helps build and coordinate the installation of ghost bikes where cyclists have been killed. The group plans to send people to the die-in.
"Conversely, we're absolutely one of the most dangerous cities," he says, "There's the argument that there's great infrastructure here with the bike lanes that exist, but then there's other arguments that, you know, the infrastructure is also such that it's dangerous."
Favre agrees, though he also emphasizes the importance of education and enforcement. "The city of New Orleans needs to start planning for a comprehensive and connected network of bicycling facilities," he says, "so that someone leaving their house in Gentilly can make it to a house in the Garden District via a series of safe and convenient facilities."
Pool would like to see more enforcement. "If we had a legitimate way of enforcing the laws we already have, and if we had a good, legitimate way to educate everybody of what those laws were, I feel like we would eliminate a lot of the problem," he says.
"Everything we've done up to this point has been a failure. So now it's time that everybody speaks up and calls bullshit."
Fleming attended a City Council meeting July 9, the day the council was scheduled to appoint members to its Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety Advisory Committee, which the council created nine months ago. It still hasn't met.
"They were supposed to appoint these people (at the last council meeting)," Fleming says, adding that he told a friend at the meeting, "They're concerned more about dead Confederates than they are dead New Orleanians."
City Councilman Jared Brossett heads the Transportation and Airport Committee. He says the first meeting of the new committee is scheduled for noon Aug. 21 in City Council chambers. Of the 13 members, he says, most have been appointed.
"The advocates should continue to promote bicycle safety," Brossett told Gambit. "That's what this committee is about, respecting everyone's different modes of transportation and making awareness of the traffic laws in our city."
Pool has a blunter message. "These ghost bikes are kind of our thing, and that's because we're trying to bring that stern message to people: Look the f—k out," he says. "You are not the only ones on the damn street, you need to share this. Cyclists have every right to be here, and you are not going to take that away from us."
— Charles Cody Siler contributed to this report.