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Biking in New Orleans: Sprocket Science 

Biking around town has its ups, downs — and potholes.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER

Blues musician Kenny Holladay puts heavy music equipment on his one-speed cruiser and pedals from Bywater to gigs at Checkpoint Charlie and elsewhere.

The ride was off to a great start. The sun was shining and I was sitting high on the saddle of a sturdy bicycle, cruising smoothly past one block of New Orleans architecture after the next on my way to a business meeting.

Then the driver of one of the cars streaming past me decided to throw a fit. She laid on her horn, swerved aggressively toward me and roared past with one hand holding a cellphone to her face and the other giving me the middle finger. Up ahead, I could see a concentration of deep, jagged potholes waiting like ski trail moguls. Later, downtown, when locked my bike to a street sign, a bellhop emerged from the adjacent hotel with a line about private property.

For a city with no hills, riding a bicycle around New Orleans still has plenty of ups and downs.

The ups: an independent, affordable means for commuting, running errands or just getting around that doesn't pollute the environment or bury you in fuel and insurance costs — all in a city with a compact urban grid built on flat terrain.

The downside: hostile or careless motorists, poorly maintained city streets and scant official accommodations like designated bike parking and bike lanes.

The ups are growing more convincing, however, as the impact of automobiles on the environment and the city's urban fabric becomes clearer and the financial cost of constantly driving them bites deeper. Meanwhile, efforts are underway to alleviate those pernicious downsides, from public advocacy to brick-and-mortar construction projects built with bicycles in mind.

It adds up to an exciting time to be on a bike in New Orleans.

Various players ranging from grassroots bike advocacy groups to official planning agencies with pots of government funding are working to raise the profile of bicycling in our city, and even a casual look around the streets of New Orleans reveals more people embracing this gentle, healthy means of personal transportation.

One of those making the switch is Townsend Myers, a criminal defense attorney and an avid cyclist. He has recently decided to "dumb down" one of his high-end competition bicycles, adding fatter, slower but more sturdy tires and handlebars that allow him an upright riding posture — all so that he can pedal from his Uptown home to his downtown office as much as possible.

"At the end of the day, I can afford gas. I'm doing it because it seems like the right time now, like it makes sense now," Myers says. "The city does seem to be paying more attention to it."

That attention has been a long time coming. Bicycle master plans were created for the New Orleans area as early as 1977 and more recently in 1993, but the on-street routes and other recommendations included in their pages were largely ignored. Federal law has mandated since 1991 that states and regions consider the needs of cyclists and pedestrians in their transportation plans, but this mandate didn't spell out any required investments and had no sway at all over local roads maintained — more or less — by the city.

Not surprisingly, cities with better bicycle infrastructure see more residents using bicycles. A U.S. Census report last year found only 0.4 percent of commuters use bicycles nationwide. But in Portland, Ore., which is at the forefront of the bicycle movement, cyclists make up 6 percent of commuters. It's no coincidence that Portland also has a robust, interconnected network of bike lanes and off-street paths and city maps tracing out easy bike routes on streets with less traffic.

Things are changing in New Orleans, however. 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 is more opportunity for bicycle infrastructure.

When streets are resurfaced, the Regional Planning Commission (RPC) is adding new striping to designate bike lanes. The lanes were added on Robert E. Lee Boulevard in Lakeview and on St. Claude Avenue in the upper Ninth Ward and Faubourg Marigny. Additional bike lanes are planned in conjunction with resurfacing work on Magazine and Camp streets between Calliope and Canal streets. While the painted lines don't offer bicyclists any physical protection from motorists, they are effective at showing that bicycles belong on the road and cyclists should travel with traffic.

"Louisiana law is very clear that bikes are vehicles and belong on the streets, and bicyclists have the same rights and responsibilities as people in cars," says Dan Jatres, the RPC's director of education and outreach.

There are plenty of moves afoot to get more people biking as well. The grassroots citizens group Friends of the Lafitte Corridor (FOLC) is working to transform an under-used industrial corridor into a 2.9-mile "greenway" with a paved bike/pedestrian path stretching from the edge of the French Quarter to the cemeteries district at the edge of Lakeview. FOLC received an $85,000 grant to build the first phase of the greenway through Mid-City, with additional funds granted through the City Planning Commision's Master Plan in January.

The RPC plans to offer a "Create-a-Commuter" program intended to make residents more comfortable biking around the area. The classes will 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 can also request a course for their employees to attend together, Jatres says.

Even if bicycle basics are old hat, it always helps to have a role model, someone you know is out there pedaling when it's hot, or cold, and you're tempted to just hop in the car for a simple errand down the street rather than go by bike.

My bicycle hero is Kenny Holladay, a blues musician who travels from his Bywater home to his regular Wednesday night gig at Checkpoint Charlie on Esplanade Avenue, to his Friday night gig at the Apple Barrel on Frenchmen Street and just about anywhere else in town on a rugged, one-speed cruiser bike. He loads up his 30-pound steel guitar, a second guitar, a small box amp and whatever else he needs and doggedly pedals downtown, often rolling right into the venue to park by the stage.

Despite the heavy load, Holladay praises his chosen means of transport for saving him a fortune in auto-related expenses and freeing him from the bother of finding parking. Like all of us who bike a lot in New Orleans, however, his biggest wish is for a little more respect from drivers.

"I pay for the roads like everyone else, I just happen to be on a bicycle," Holliday says. "You're not going to catch me on I-10, but don't give me a funny look if I'm on Tchoupitoulas Street."

click to enlarge greenmatters1-1.jpg
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