Before a March 11 City Council meeting, a petition circulated online requesting signatures protesting a proposed law deemed a "hardship for some" and a "punishment for others." The petition, authored by Robin Gruenfeld, a member of the Metropolitan Bicycle Coalition, was an attempt to respond to an agenda item — outgoing District C Councilman James Carter's proposed ordinance to amend and reinstate a bicycle registration program that hasn't been enforced since before Hurricane Katrina. (The petition has gathered 359 digital signatures as of press time.)
The former law, enacted in 1987, required cyclists to pay $3 to register their bikes in a database maintained by the superintendent of police; in turn, cyclists received a registration plate to be attached to their bikes. The database was destroyed following Katrina and the ordinance suspended; without the means to store and register cyclist information or provide a plate, cyclists were not required to sign up.
Carter's reimagined ordinance, which would take effect Sept. 1, calls for a $15 fee for non-commercial bike use (a fivefold increase over the pre-storm fee) and a $75 fee for commercial use. Cyclists would register their bikes at a designated bike shop or at New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) substations. Bicycles valued at less than $100 or with wheel sizes smaller than 20 inches would be exempt. Failure to register a bike or furnishing fraudulent information, regardless of bike size or value, would be a misdemeanor.
The new ordinance was tabled at that March meeting and reslotted for a vote April 22. Representatives from the MBC met with the council's Criminal Justice Committee in mid-April to discuss their concerns, but it didn't come up then, either; Carter deferred the vote until the May 6 meeting, three days after he would leave office.
The result? Three days after they take office, the new City Council will be voting on a bike-registration ordinance proposed by none of them — an ordinance that doesn't specify the difference between a commercial and a non-commercial bike and is equally unclear as to how the city intends to measure the worth of a bicycle to determine whether it even needs a license. Moreover, the ordinance says nothing about how the city would use the fees it would collect.
Carter's office, the NOPD, and incoming District C councilwoman-elect Kristin Palmer's office did not respond to repeated calls and emails to answer these questions.
Carter, who served as chair of the council's Criminal Justice Committee, proposed the reordinance of the program (amending sections 154-1403 through 154-1406 of city code) at the recommendation of the NOPD. Amy Chandler, chief of staff for outgoing District A councilwoman Shelley Midura, who also served on the Criminal Justice Committee, says NOPD wants to bring the program back as a crime prevention measure and theft deterrent, as NOPD has difficulty recovering and, when found, properly identifying bikes. NOPD Lt. Michael Sarver has been working on the NOPD proposal.
According to the ordinance as currently written, the superintendent of police, upon receiving an application, would issue the registration sticker. NOPD would keep a record of registered bikes, including the date issued, the name and address of the cyclist, the sticker's identification number, and the fee paid. The sticker, displaying a registration number and placed on a visible location on the bike, can't be removed unless the bike is no longer used in the city or it's dismantled.
Dan Jatres, vice-president and membership coordinator for the MBC, says he met with Carter "to outline some of the concerns to try to get an idea of what the motivation was to bring the program back at this time and why such a significant increase in the fee." According to Jatres, the NOPD told Carter "the registration fee would have to be $15 to set the program back up.... If all the money is going to administrative overhead and not back into infrastructure or education or awareness or things like that — where is that money going?"
The city has implemented several pedestrian initiatives since the storm, including building bike lanes and repaving roads. But the fees collected from cyclists, according to Jatres, would only be used to repair, manage and maintain the registration database itself.
Jatres says the MBC's biggest concern is the fee hike — a 500 percent increase for non-commercial registration. As for the "commercial" fee, the ordinance does not make clear who would need the $75 license.
"A lot of people bicycle for economic reasons, that's their form of transportation. Having low income people (pay) a $15 fee can be a significant burden," Jatres says. "The $75 fee for commercial use — it's left fairly vague. Could be couriers, bike rentals, anything. If you use a bicycle as transportation for work, could that be broadly defined as commercial? It left it vague enough where that line between commercial and personal could be blurry."
The ordinance does not spell out how NOPD would enforce registration, which Jatres and other cyclists fear could result in potential harassment. The MBC says it's received complaints from cyclists saying NOPD officers have stopped them and told them to ride on the sidewalk or to wear a helmet, neither of which are laws in Louisiana.
"There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding among at least some officers within the department, which leads to the concern — here's one more tool that can be interpreted or misused, either out of ignorance of the law or intentions to harass cyclists," Jatres says. "That was what hit Councilman Carter, 'OK, we really need to get everyone in a room to talk about this.'"
But why $15, Jatres asks, and what incentives, if any, will NOPD provide cyclists? "Does that mean NOPD has some sort of estimate of how many people are going to register? We feel the higher you raise that fee, the less people are going to feel inclined to register, particularly if they already own a bike," he says. "It's one thing if you have to when you're in the bike shop and you're buying a new bike. But if you already own one, what's your incentive to voluntarily go over to NOPD and pay $15?"
During the last few years, several U.S. cities have started similar registration programs, with city and state officials getting behind them under the theft prevention banner, while others have gone in the opposite direction in hopes of encouraging bicycling.
Some cities and states, including Oregon and Washington, also have introduced measures to increase fees in recent years, with mixed results. Detroit enacted a 2008 ordinance calling for police to fine cyclists that didn't present a $1 registration sticker; a month later, the city council repealed the law. Oregon's House Bill 3008, a proposal for cyclists to cough up a $54 fee every two years to pay for roadwork and bike facilities, underwent considerable scrutiny and vigorous protests from the biking community — and subsequently died.
In New Orleans, the Regional Planning Commission, of which Jatres also is a member, established a pilot program to train NOPD on the rules of the road and how to address bicycle traffic and law enforcement. A follow-up program will work with state police. Jatres will reach out to the incoming administration at City Hall and to the NOPD as more bike facilities — lanes, road expansions and repairs — develop in New Orleans.
The NOPD'S Third District requested the RPC's help to properly enforce recently installed bike plans on Gentilly Boulevard — a good sign, says Jatres, that law enforcement and the cycling community can work together.
"They're being proactive and seeking out that information," Jatres says. "Everyone needs to be brought on the same page."