Scruffy young cyclists spread in twos over several city blocks with clipboards and colored markers, pens and pencils in hand. They jot notes at each turn and mark up photocopies of neighborhood maps: look for the "big, juicy neutral ground" along Canal, or "watch out for streetcars and coppers" in the heart of the French Quarter. A thick red line cuts off Iberville Street from Royal to Dauphine streets, and "Bourbon = pedestrian shooting gallery."
This rough sketch outlines just a portion of the future for New Orleans cyclists — a rough draft for a map nobody would dare leave their stoop without.
New Orleans' reputation for bicycle navigability may seem little to nonexistent, thanks to plentiful potholes, one-way streets and colorful driver-to-driver language. But above all else, New Orleans is flat and enjoys mild temperatures much of year. Lauren Rae Sullivan, who assembled the team to help map out the city in bikespeak, sets out to prove just how bicycle-friendly New Orleans can be, potholes and all.
Sullivan's NolaCycle Bike Map Project kicked off in June 2008, just a few months after she moved from Cincinnati. Her plan for a citywide map came more from necessity than a grand urban-planning mission.
"When I first moved, I didn't really know how to get places," she says. "When I left my house from Tulane and tried to get downtown, the first day I ended up hitting one road that was more or less not passable, to another that was terrible, then trying to fight Claiborne —'Oh God, this is really scary. There's got to be some better way to figure out how to get around New Orleans.'"
The more Sullivan talked to cyclists, the more she realized not being able to travel on two wheels wasn't her problem alone. She found her concrete colleagues had similar problems finding a comfortable road — one with decent pavement quality and safe drivers. Finding a reliable post-Katrina road map also was problematic, as the only available maps for cyclists pointed out the city's proposed routes or lanes-in-progress. Sullivan thought she would give a citywide map a shot.
"I just decided to run with it, and things seemed to work out pretty well," she says.
Sullivan modeled her map strategy and campaign from a meeting with Youthline, an organization that sends high school students to map neighborhood resources on foot, from schools to employment and health services. Sullivan, a product of Cincinnati's DIY punk rock scene, assimilated into the local cycling community through Critical Mass group rides and Plan B and RUBARB bike co-ops, where she gathered supporters for her project.
"For me alone to try and figure out all the best routes in the city would be an indefinite process," she says. "It would take forever. But if I could organize every weekend, get just six people to get out and map a neighborhood block by block, we could knock it out pretty quickly."
Sullivan's project rapidly gained momentum within the cycling community through her NolaCycle blog (www.nolacycle.blogspot.com) — its mission statement and logo flying at its header. Sullivan says the project aims to show "there are ways to make cycling just as easy as driving, if not easier." The map also would give tourists, visitors or new residents a guidebook to navigate the city.
"You can come in pretty clueless if you're not familiar with the city," she says. "Having tourists rent a bike over a tour bus or a car can be especially great for the city. You're so isolated [in] a car from what's going on around you. On a bike it's a nice balance between getting somewhere efficiently and being able to interact with your surroundings and interact with people around you and communicate, and be able to just stop."
Weekend meet-ups brought volunteers together at a designated time and neighborhood, where Sullivan distributed clipboards with a map mockup to be filled in with markers: red for bad roads, gray for moderate roads, and blue for good roads. The maps incorporate three different factors: road width, speed of cars and pavement quality. Mappers added their comments — "man-eating potholes" and intersections of note, among others — in the margins, creating a block-by-block, street-by-street, analysis of the city, man-eating pothole by man-eating pothole. With their highly unscientific process, the citizen surveyors continued throughout the year, finishing most of Orleans Parish with just a few gaps in Gert Town and the Upper 9th Ward, which Sullivan says will be included soon.
Earlier this year, Sullivan presented the project to the city's (now former) recovery director Ed Blakely, who found it beneficial not only to cyclists, but also to Robert Mendoza's Department of Public Works as a rudimentary jumpstart to the city's pavement management program. Dan Jatres, the Regional Planning Commission's Bicycle and Pedestrian Program coordinator, says the maps could provide the city with an amateur but comprehensive sketch of road quality.
"Right there, there's a benefit to the city's bottom line in helping manage the road network better, coming out of a citizen-driven project," Jatres says. "Who knows what other benefits, once (the map's) out there." He says it might spur ideas within the cycling community.
"The project really evolved into a bigger thing than I was ever expecting," Sullivan says. "We've been able to involve a lot of people from different cycling backgrounds. Sometimes a lot of people get stuck with, 'Oh, I do competitive cycling,' or 'I just do advocacy for the government,' or 'I'm just a commuter,' and I think with NolaCycle we've been really successful with reaching out to people in the whole spectrum of the New Orleans cycling community. ... It's community building while building a resource."
NolaCycle volunteers range from Sullivan's friends in dedicated bike co-ops to recreational cyclists just looking for a weekend ride. Previous attempts to unite different cyclists — from the "business-suits-and-spandex" to the "blue-jeans-and-grease-under-the-fingernails" crowds — have been problematic, according to Sullivan. (Ideologies butted heads during meetings for massive inter-group bike rides, including disagreements over providing bottled water and police escorts.)
"People who are typically younger, more progressive or radical ... don't really see the value in coordinating," Sullivan says. "They're more interested in doing. And if they're doing things a little different, or a little rebellious, or a little bit dirty or less organized, it doesn't matter. I think people have more in common than they realize. There are times when a DIY approach works really well, and then there are times working inside the system works really well, and those two things can converge pretty beautifully."
Sullivan's next move is to finish the digital conversion from hand-drawn doodles to computer-generated graphics so it can run online for printer-friendly viewing this summer. Graphic designers approached Sullivan about the final printed product (to be offered for free around the city sometime this year), which may borrow from Vancouver's credit card-size fold-up maps, or may look similar to Minneapolis' waterproof and tear-resistant laminate that fits in a back pocket. Others have suggested interactive, GPS-ready maps fit for computers and iPod applications (think MapQuest for your bike on an iPhone.) But designers, paper stock, printers and publishing cost money. Sullivan and company started looking for the right grants and funding to help move the humble, go-get-'em DIY project to a legitimate, City-sponsored showcase.
"People forget that these two perspectives can work together," Sullivan says of the meeting between her "grease-under-the-fingernails" crew and government officials. "I think when you work in government you forget how interested your public is in the future of the community."
Since the late 1970s, New Orleans has had a trial-and-error track record with attempts to introduce bicycle and pedestrian master plans, from lane-sharing proposals to trail construction. The Department of Transportation's attempt to map greater New Orleans became an illegible mess of colors and lanes. Luis Alvarez's The New Orleans Bicycle Book (1984) lovingly introduces cyclists to the potholes and broken glass riddling New Orleans streets — still a challenge for inner tubes and car struts more than 20 years after its publication. The book's suggested maps and routes now pay homage to neighborhoods and city blocks forgotten post-Katrina.
But the city's $200 million in federal aid to repair roads — part of the Submerged Roads Program, a Federal Highway Administration project to repair Katrina-damaged roadways — does not foot the bill for construction of pedestrian and bicycle lanes that weren't in place before Katrina.
"We went back and forth on that for a while," Jatres says. "The extra cost is fairly minimal — we're not adding asphalt or roads. It's re-proportioning the lane space that's out there. That's what we're doing when we're looking at these roads: What can fit with what we currently have? Widening roads is far more expensive than what the city wants to take on right now."
Even adding minimal improvements like stripes designating bicycle lanes, come with a price. "That was something (the federal program) was adamant they could not fund," Jatres says. "We came to an agreement: They will assist in their projects, and move striping around to accommodate the city's ultimate plans, but the city has to pay for the extra cost of bike lane painting and signage, things like that."
The Metropolitan Bike Coalition (MBC), which provides a unified voice for underrepresented cycling groups, successfully lobbied in 2004 for the city's Master Plan to include an additional $4 million to aid in bicycle and pedestrian projects. Completed projects include trails along Wisner Boulevard, Marconi Drive and Whitney Avenue on the West Bank. And though the city made good on its promise, doubling its bicycle mileage facilities in 2008, the completed lanes and paths only offer recreational bicycling — rather than commuter-based — facilities, and are crowded near City Park, Lakeview, some lanes along St. Claude Avenue and the river Uptown, excluding neighborhoods citywide.
"There are large swathes of the city that haven't gotten new or improved facilities," Jatres says. "There are plenty of roads out there, while not officially designated an improved bikeway, (that) are more than suitable for cyclists to use comfortably and safely."
Jatres says that's where the importance of a bike map lies — introducing New Orleanians to New Orleans. "You might be familiar with the quality of the roads and volume of traffic in your immediate area, but if you live Uptown and are looking for a good way to get to Bywater, you're probably not familiar with every block in between," he says. "That map will help people determine their own routes, and as the city continues investing in improved facilities, you can adjust that."
Proposed facilities include lanes on St. Charles Avenue and in the CBD, and in neighborhoods in Central City, Gentilly and Mid-City. The $2.6 million Lafitte Corridor Revitalization Plan and Greenway Trail Design and Construction project, a state-approved 3-mile pedestrian and bike path from the French Quarter to Lakeview, will be anchored by Armstrong Park and connect bike paths on Marconi Drive and Bayou St. John with the inner-city corridor.
Sullivan, however, wants to expand beyond the city limits. She's on the lookout for future mapping recruits for Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes, the West Bank and the Northshore.
"We've got a lot of things going for us, just the way the streets are laid out," Sullivan says. "New Orleans is set up on a grid that's kind of like a spoke and wheel. We have all these neighborhood streets that go everywhere. Louisiana as a state is more challenging. I'd really like to see ... how we can connect all our cities and make biking not just an inner-city form of transportation. Once you get out of the city, it's a different ball game."