Bad drivers, not bicyclist prevalence, drive protected bike lanes
It was night on Sept. 7, 2020, and Claudell Dixon pushed his Dodge Challenger to 71mph on southbound Holiday Drive in Algiers, doubling the speed limit on the residential thoroughfare. The 21-year-old Algiers man blew through the red light at MacArthur Boulevard and plowed into the side of an eastbound Nissan driven by Johnny Garcia Romero.
Romero, 33, was killed. The collision sent both cars onto the neutral ground on the south side of MacArthur, shattering a concrete light post and littering the intersection with auto debris. First responders could not remove Romero’s body from his car until the electricity was cut to that light post, according to a news report.
Since that night, Dixon has pleaded guilty as charged to negligent homicide. Criminal District Court Judge Benedict Willard suspended prison time, sentenced Dixon to five years of probation and ordered him to pay $5,000 in restitution, court records show.
And since that night, the intersection was redesigned to accommodate “protected bike lanes” under Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s Moving New Orleans – Bikes program. Lime-green paint and reflective “flex post” bollards delineate the bike lanes that allegedly would make the intersection safer for everyone.
Yet, 17 months after Romero died, that concrete light post, a safety feature that should illuminate the intersection at night, still has not been replaced (as of Feb. 3, 2022).
BAD DRIVERS MEAN BIKE LANES
Traffic engineers and bicycle advocates point to bad drivers as reasons why the Cantrell administration needs to move forward with its plan to set up a 75-mile connected network of bike lanes across New Orleans within two years. In Algiers, 11 miles of bike lanes would be created, much of it funded by the municipal debt that voters approved in 2016.
In justifying the need for bike lanes, the Cantrell administration routinely cites the numbers of automobile wrecks and the percentage of drivers speeding. These numbers are standard elements in the city’s public statements when it comes to Moving New Orleans – Bikes press releases and fact sheets.
Missing from the public statements, however, is the number of bicyclists who actually use the so-called “improvements” to the roadways.
So in effect, one could easily assume, protected bike lanes’ primary role is to provide traffic control and law enforcement measures.
‘STRONG COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT’
When Romero was killed, the Cantrell administration had plans on the books to install protected bike lanes on MacArthur and Holiday. Months earlier, the mayor kicked off $20 million in bike lane developments for Algiers at a photo op on Newton Street, where she ceremonially rolled paint on the street, according to a city press release. Before most Algiers drivers saw the roadway changes that were coming, the city’s plans for for the West Bank community already received national accolades.
Four months after Romero was killed, People for Bikes, a national bicycle industry group that has provided financial and other support in developing and promoting the Cantrell administration’s bike lane policies, named Algiers as the No. 1 emerging protected bike lane network of the year.
The Dec. 17, 2020 news release included a quote from Mayor Cantrell in which she applauded her administration’s commitment to the bike lane planning that had occurred during the prior year. “Now we’re seeing the results of strong community engagement and thoughtful planning on the ground in Algiers … ,” the mayor asserted.
People for Bikes added of Algiers: “The bikeways themselves aren’t flashy. Designers will note the use of low-cost materials with plenty of potential for future upgrades that improve the functionality and aesthetic of each corridor.
“However, the sheer ambition of this work, the speed at which the city has moved and the determination to deliver high-quality projects to one of the city’s most often neglected neighborhoods is worth the top spot on our list,” the organization said.
People for Bikes was showering praise on the Cantrell administration for its bike lane plans in Algiers before many Algiers residents even knew what was coming.
Bike lanes already had been installed in portions of Algiers by the time the organization issued the news release, including Newton Street and Garden Oaks. But in the months following People for Bikes’ showering its accolades on the Cantrell administration, protected bike lanes sprung up at the more heavily traveled intersection of Holiday and Gen. de Gaulle and then the 1.7-mile length of MacArthur Boulevard in the Spring of 2021.
Residents who weren’t in the know were caught by surprise by the administration’s decision to install the most intrusive, visually unappealing design available to it. Indeed, bicycle advocates and the national bicycle industry group were applauding the design before many residents knew it was coming.
Investigative journalist Jason Berry, who lives near MacArthur at its eastern end, was driven to commentary on his American Zombie blog in July 2021, after he saw what Moving New Orleans – Bikes brought to his neighborhood.
“I mean … it’s so gloriously f–ked in respect to the actual traffic patterns and needs of the community I can’t even describe it,” Berry wrote. “I can imagine some city planning dude sitting in an office on the West Coast looking at Lower Algiers on Google Earth and thinking ‘Oh yeah … this is just like that neighborhood in Portland … I know exactly what to do here!”
Residents’ complaints, primarily on social media, drew unwanted attention from impassioned bicycle advocates who pushed back with public relations campaigns and in many cases with personal attacks on bike lane critics. Opposition to the protected bike lane design grew:
- More than 250 residents crowded into Alice Harte Charter School in May 2021 for a meeting hosted by the Algiers Neighborhood Presidents Council, at which city officials addressed the bike lane plans.
- More than 1,300 people have signed a petition asking the Cantrell administration to suspend further bike lane development until the city could determine the number of bicyclists who actually use the lanes.
- Residents formed the Our Streets Our Choice Coalition, hoping the Cantrell administration would reconsider its bollards-based design on MacArthur and to call more public attention to other bike lane plans, such as on Gen. Meyer Avenue.
Had there been a large number of bicyclists riding local streets daily, residents’ complaints likely would have been minimal.
But residents who live on and near MacArthur Boulevard know the number of bicyclists is extraordinarily low, far too low to justify the new design. According to one non-city source, a mere eight bicyclists ride MacArthur daily, when more than 12,000 motor vehicles are counted.
And citywide, according to the 2016 U.S. Census Community Survey, 3.3 percent of New Orleans residents, or about 5,900 bicyclists, rode bikes to their jobs every day. That’s citywide.
The city enacted a Complete Streets ordinance in 2011, and the City Council in 2018 sought to update the policy to include numerous factors. Among them was regular evaluations and reporting of various “performance measures,” which include “ridership” and “community participation.”
During the May 2021 meeting at Alice Harte, after the protected bike lanes were installed, a city official told the crowd that UNO was conducting a traffic study. It’s unclear which study he meant.
But two weeks after that meeting, the UNO Transportation Institute released the results of a study showing a spike in bicycling and walking that coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic stay-at-home orders and shutdowns. It mirrored a nationwide trend. Saying cycling and walking in New Orleans increased by 158 percent, city officials have used this report as a talking point in promoting the bike lane program.
As for Algiers, a UNO press release announcing the study only mentioned a 17-percent increase in bicycle and pedestrian traffic at the “Algiers Point River Trail.” The paved path atop the Mississippi River levee at the time connected downtown Gretna to the Federal City area, a stretch that includes the Algiers/Canal Street ferry.
The study in part was sponsored by People for Bikes, “which has partnered with the City of New Orleans to support implementation of the city’s ‘Moving New Orleans Bikes’ plan,” according to the press release.
The UNO Transportation Institute’s “role is to support evaluation by collecting data about changes in use of specific facilities where infrastructure is being upgraded, as well as to measure overall changes throughout the bikeway network,” according to the press release.
It’s unclear whether another study is being or has been done since the pandemic lockdowns were lifted. Further details of this study were not released, so it’s also unclear whether the UNO researchers measured bicyclist and pedestrian traffic elsewhere Algiers.
‘IMPROVEMENTS WILL REDUCE SPEEDING’
When it came to rolling out the protected bike lane designs, the city only provides data that reinforces just how poorly many New Orleanians drive. The data doesn’t look at how poorly some bicyclists ride, particularly those riders who ignore the newly created protected bike lanes or generally disobey basic traffic laws.
Three bicyclists have been killed in Algiers, one each in 2019, 2020 and 2021, according to news reports. All three died on Gen. de Gaulle Drive, which has no bike lanes — yet.
Of those three, at least two of the bicyclists were killed after they disregarded red lights and pedaled into the paths of oncoming vehicles whose drivers had the right of way.
Citywide in 2021, at least six bicyclists were killed in the city, a portion of the 32 bicyclists who were killed statewide, according to news reports.
Bicycle advocates cite deaths such as Romero’s as rallying calls for more protected bike lanes. They stand behind the Cantrell’s administration plans to complete a 75-mile bikeway network citywide in two years.
In effect, the city is installing protected bike lanes not based so much on the number of bicyclists who would use them, but rather as traffic control and law enforcement measures.
In public statements, city officials use motor vehicle data gathered over a 5-year period ending in 2018 in explaining to the citizenry why protected bike lanes were selected for MacArthur and elsewhere in New Orleans.
Of the 327 wrecks counted during the study period, 123 of them happened at Holiday Drive, according to the city’s data.
One person was killed and 274 were injured during that period, the city says. Six wrecks involved bicyclists on MacArthur.
The city also asserts that in November 2019, seven of every 10 motorists on MacArthur exceeded the 35-mph speed limit “between General DeGaulle Drive and Holiday Drive,” according to an April 2021 fact sheet the city released to the public in explaining its bike lane decisions.
“The safety improvements will reduce speeding, shorten crossing distances for people walking, improve visibility at intersections and driveways, and provide a protected bike lane with separation from motor vehicle traffic,” according to the April 2021 fact sheet, which mentions a 2020 death – Romero’s.
Notably, under the Cantrell administration’s changes, this stretch of MacArthur retained all four motor vehicle travel lanes and includes the commercial end of that roadway.
In recent social media debates since newly elected Councilman Freddie King III sought a “robust review” of Algiers bike lanes, bicycle proponents, some of whom are prone to exaggeration and wage personal attacks on bike lane critics, assert that the 70-percent speeding rate applies to all of MacArthur.
No so, according to the city data. On the other end of MacArthur between Eton Street and Woodland Drive, only one in 10 drivers exceeded the 35 mph limit, with one of those drivers reaching 82 mph during November 2019, the city says.
The city has not released comparable data for MacArthur between Eton Holiday.
MacArthur from Kabel to Woodland is entirely residential and yet has undergone the most dramatic changes under the Moving New Orleans – Bikes program. For decades, it was a four-lane boulevard shaded by oak trees and in recent years was completely resurfaced. Prior to the Spring of 2021, bicyclists and motor vehicle drivers were instructed to share a lane in each direction of MacArthur.
MacArthur now has only two lanes between Kabel and Woodland. The placement of “flex post” bollards, said to be “traffic calming” devices that make motorists drive slower, has often made navigating the area more challenging for bus drivers who are unable to take tight turns.
And, under certain morning conditions, after parents drop off their children at the Eton Street elementary schools and blend with local outbound commuters, the westbound MacArthur traffic has been seen to back up five blocks at the Kabel Drive intersection.
‘Determining the appropriateness’
The protected bike lane design is wholly inappropriate for this stretch of MacArthur, according to a description of bike lanes published online by New Orleans’ Department of Public Works.
“A Protected Bike Lane can improve perceived comfort and safety of bicyclists,” according to the DPW. “It requires more space than a Bike Lane or Buffered Bike Lane and typically functions best on streets with few conflicts such as driveways or cross-streets.”
The city also says that protected bike lanes are the “minimum design standard” for streets whose speed limit is above 30 mph and which carry more than 6,000 vehicles daily. That describes MacArthur.
But in selecting that design, the city says other facts should be considered “in determining the appropriateness” of protected bike lanes.
“These factors include the presence of driveways, the impacts to on-street parking, the lack of convenient on-street parking within walking distance, and the continuity of design,” the city said in an August 2021 statement that announced changes to be made to the bike lanes on MacArthur.
Those changes included removing the bollards entirely in the 4300 and 4400 blocks of MacArthur and returning curbside parking to the dozen homes in that stretch. It’s unclear why the city decided to undo the protected bike lane design only in those two blocks, other than it was done “in response to public comments.”
Meanwhile, more than 100 homes line MacArthur between Kabel and Woodland Drive alone, with 11 side streets intersecting the boulevard in that stretch alone. Most of these homes have driveways that are accessed from MacArthur. Some homeowners in this stretch lost on-street parking.
As far as we known, none of the residents between Kabel and Woodland want the protected bike lane design.
As part of the redesign the city announced in August 2021, some “flex post” bollards were removed in this area.
This concrete light post at MacArthur Boulevard and Holiday Drive was shattered in a September 2020 wreck in which a 33-year-old man was killed. The driver who caused the death has had his criminal case adjudicated, bike lanes have been installed at the intersection and yet, 17 months after it was damaged, the city has yet to replace it (as of Feb. 3, 2022).