It's 4 p.m. on a Friday, and Armand Clintan, 16, is skateboarding outside Rouses Markets in the Central Business District. A friend takes a video of his jumps and turns and stops, deleting the clips when Clintan falls and praising him when he lands a kickflip.
The boys stand with a half dozen other teenagers at the corner of Baronne and Girod streets, and cars regularly turn into the bike lane, a few feet from the boys.
"This is definitely a bike lane!" one boy shouts as a car darts into the lane striped for the exclusive use of cyclists, which the city installed as a six-month pilot program last December.
Clintan isn't surprised. "Yeah, I see cars use the bike lane all the time," he says.
Between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m., more than 40 cars drive down the bike lane. Two Regional Transit Authority (RTA) buses turn it into a bus lane for several blocks. Two taxicabs roll lazily down the bike lane. A Budget rental truck parks with its warning lights on in the middle of the bike lane for 35 minutes. A cyclist is forced to swerve around the truck and into traffic, then swerve back into the bike lane.
Within the same hour, one police officer drives by. No one gets a ticket.
Mike and Abby, who work at a hair salon on Baronne Street, say they've seen this scene every day since December, when the city took out one lane of vehicular traffic to create the dedicated bike lane.
"We see cars using it a lot," says Mike (like Abby, he didn't want to give his last name). "We see people riding down the wrong way sometimes. We see people on bikes still using the sidewalk or car lane. ... I'd say it's about 50 percent taxis using the bike lane, surprisingly. We haven't seen anything being enforced.
"I'd like to add," Mike says, "that the people who do ride bikes are extremely hostile."
On Twitter, the account Bike Lane On Baronne (@BikingOnBaronne) invites people to post photos of blatant disregard for the bike lane, and the account shows dozens of images of taxis, buses and private vehicles driving down the lane. The street is a major feeder of cars out of the downtown area and onto Interstate 10, and "whenever this gets backed up, everyone goes down the bike lane," Abby says.
The City of New Orleans boasts about its huge strides in creating cycling infrastructure under Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Right now, there are almost 100 miles of bike lanes throughout the city, says Hayne Rainey, communications manager for the mayor. Rainey says the city plans to install 500 bike racks in the CBD to accommodate bicycle parking needs in the coming months.
It's part of the 2011 "Complete Streets" ordinance, which Rainey says "encourages easy travel for all users, including motorists and bicyclists and walkers and the disabled, to be able to utilize the public right of way. "So we've really been pushing to promote bicycle ridership in our network of bicycle lanes, whether they be designated lanes or shared lanes, throughout the city," Rainey says.
Enforcement of traffic laws, according to Department of Public Works (DPW) Director Mark Jernigan, is a shared responsibility of DPW and the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD). Moving violations fall under the purview of the NOPD, while vehicles parked in the bike lane impeding traffic — such as the Budget truck mentioned above — can be handled by either NOPD or DPW.
Though enforcement falls partially under his department's oversight, Jernigan says he can't estimate the number of tickets that have been issued on Baronne Street since the pilot program took effect six months ago. Violations of this kind can be punished with fines of hundreds of dollars.
"We do have officers that are out and about that are actively patrolling," says Rainey. "Their top priority is fighting crime and public safety. Obviously this does count as public safety, and certainly we are taking steps to increase that enforcement on our side, especially with DPW's parking enforcement officers that are actively working the CBD. ... It's not uncommon for vehicles to block public right-of-way like that, and hopefully it's kind of like, when you get a parking ticket you learn from that lesson, and you don't do it again."
Four cyclists have been killed in New Orleans in traffic crashes this year — the most recent on May 17, when an elderly man was struck by an off-duty NOPD officer at the corner of Martin Luther King Boulevard and South Claiborne Avenue. (As of last week, the NOPD still listed the incident as under investigation, but a May 18 press release from the department laid the blame on the cyclist: "Bicyclist Killed After Disregarding Red Light" was its title.)
In 2009 and 2010, according to crash reports compiled by the Highway Safety Research Group at Louisiana State University, the number of cyclists involved in reported crashes with motor vehicles stayed relatively constant in Orleans Parish: 120 crashes in 2009 and 129 crashes in 2010. In 2013, the most recent year data was compiled, that number shot up to 282.
The transportation arm of Vox Media voted New Orleans one of the five deadliest cities for pedestrians and cyclists in 2014. Meanwhile, the League of American Bicyclists upgraded New Orleans to its "silver-level" biking award in 2014 (putting the Crescent City in the same category as New York City when it comes to bike friendliness.) The Vox report, however, says New York has 2.1 biker deaths a year per million residents, while New Orleans has 5.54, more than double that of NYC.
The New Orleans City Council formally approved the creation of a Pedestrian and Bike Safety Advisory Committee in February, and Landrieu signed it into law. But, three months later, Rainey says the committee is still in the early stages of getting members appointed to it. The bike lane is in District B, which is represented by City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell. (The committee will "likely be appointed by early summer," says an NOPD spokesman.)
"I am in favor of any efforts by the City to make our streets safer for our children and community members," Cantrell told Gambit in a statement. "We have a Complete Streets ordinance, which means that all modes of transportation need to have safe access to the streets. Before the Baronne Street bike lane was installed, there was no dedicated through transit for bikes in the CBD even though bike traffic had increased significantly in town. I look forward to the upcoming review of the lane by the DPW as the pilot program comes to an end.
"We need to remember that this is still a pilot program and DPW is continuing to measure traffic flow, enforcement, and safety procedures. My office has received minimal complaints and will continue to work with DPW to ensure that these streets are shared by all — walkers, bikers, and drivers."
RTA director of marketing Patrice Bell Mercadel initially told Gambit the agency would have no comment on the Baronne Street pilot program.
After we forwarded the RTA numerous photos of its 91 Jackson-Esplanade bus driving down the bike lane illegally, the agency didn't directly address the issue, but replied with a statement: "The safety of our riders, operators, and the motorists and bicyclists we share the road with is the top priority of the (RTA) in New Orleans. The RTA provides quarterly safety training to operators with bike safety as a recurring topic. RTA will continue to reinforce this safety message on an ongoing basis. RTA welcomes feedback from the community. RTA investigates all community submitted concerns and takes appropriate corrective action as necessary. Comments, compliments, and concerns may be submitted to our Rideline at 504-248-3900 or online at www.norta.com."
Charlie Thomas has been riding around New Orleans on a bicycle all his life, and he says while the city is ideal for biking, it's still dangerous. "I love it in New Orleans," he says. "It's such a bikeable city because it's tightly laid out and it's flat, you only need one gear."
Thomas is an attorney who focuses on bicycle law and represents victims of accidents. He says half of the bike crashes in the state of Louisiana occur in New Orleans, mostly between Bywater and the CBD.
"We don't want any more bike cases," Thomas says. "I want everybody to be able to ride around safely and not get hit. And partially that's because I have two small daughters, and I ride around with my oldest one — she's two — on the back of my bike a lot and it worries my wife to death."
Thomas has ridden the Baronne Street bike lane many times, and he's aware, firsthand, of the frequent misuse of the designated cyclist area by motorists and bicyclists alike. When the pilot program was first initiated, he says, he followed behind a car driving down the lane, grinding his teeth the whole way — until he pulled up next to the car and saw Billy, a family friend, in the driver's seat.
"Billy just has no idea that it's a bike lane," he says. "He works at Galatoire's in the Quarter; he's a server, he's been a server there for 20 years. It sparked in my head that there's a lack of education with motorists. It's not this intentional disregard. It's 'I don't know what all these stripes are.' The first part needs to be education."
Education, Thomas says, is just starting to happen, with a grant from the state Department of Transportation and Development that will fund an ad campaign to alert the public to the rules of the road. During that time, Thomas says he wants to see NOPD pulling violators over to give them warnings. But, he says, "After some sort of period of education, you need to turn to enforcement."
The city had to fight to install the Baronne Street dedicated bike lane, presenting plans at public meetings and trying to overcome skepticism of nearby merchants. In December, businesses on Baronne Street filed an injunction against the plan, but Civil District Court Judge Pro Tem Lynn Luker ruled that there wasn't enough reason to stop the project.
According to the six-month time limit the city imposed on the plan, the pilot program should be coming to a close in the next few weeks, but Jernigan says his department does not yet have a clear picture of what will happen next — if the bike lane will remain or if Baronne Street will go back to two lanes of vehicular traffic. Jernigan says the bike lane will remain until DPW decides what to do with it.
"We're still collecting data," Jernigan says. "I think the pilot was initially set up as a six-month pilot, so we've still got a little more work to do on our side to take a look at what the conditions are. I would expect something probably a little later in the year."
What specific data the city are gathering is unclear. Jernigan says DPW observes "traffic conditions along the corridor" and counts the number of cyclists using the bike lane using the field engineering method of standing for a given period and counting the cyclists that pass. Asked what the city has done to reach out to drivers to make sure they understand how nearly 100 miles of new infrastructure is meant to be used, Jernigan says, "We've been using a variety of avenues to talk bike safety and the rules of the road, if you will. We've been taking advantage of media coverage to get the word out, as far as safety goes."
But what should a bicyclist do if he or she comes across a bus or car stopped in a bike lane?
"Some of this goes back to the rules of the road," Jernigan says. "If you think about it, if you're in a car and you're in a travel lane, you come up to a vehicle with the blinkers on, stopped — as a driver, normally you stop behind them and look and observe to see if you can safely go around them. That's something that we expect the bicyclists to do should they unfortunately encounter that kind of obstacle in the bike lane."
When asked about future enforcement levels if the pilot program becomes permanent, Jernigan demurs.
"I would say it's premature to say that it will be a permanent fixture at this point," he says, "just because we're going through the pilot. I'd rather answer that question when everything is finalized one way or the other."— After this story went to press, we received more information from New Orleans Police Department spokesman Tyler A. Gamble:
8th district officers coordinate with DDD [the Downtown Development District] on patrolling for violations in the bicycle lane. They issue citations when they observe violations.
The Regional Planning Commission is hosting a workshop for the New Orleans Police Department next month. The purpose of the 2-day workshop is to engage 15-20 officers from across districts around Enforcement for Pedestrian & Bicycle Safety (dig deeper into bicycle laws, common crash types and enforcement techniques)
NOPD has recently applied for grants that fund increasing safety on the roads through enforcement (DWI, underage drinking, motorcycle and bicycle/pedestrian). This funding covers the cost of overtime hours for traffic cops.
And Councilmember [Jared] Brossett’s Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety Advisory Committee will likely be appointed by early summer. This includes one person appointed by the mayor and representatives from DPW, CPC, Health, Human Relations and RTA.