City Council backs Freddie King’s plan to nix MacArthur, Newton bike lanes

Rebuking the Department of Public Works for its lack of public engagement tied to the mayor’s bike lane program, the New Orleans City Council on Thursday (Sept. 15) voted unanimously to remove 2.2 miles of protected bike lanes on two Algiers streets, saying the agency failed to adequately notify residents before redesigning the two roadways to benefit bicyclists three years ago.

In what was his first piece of legislation after he became the council’s District C representative in January, Councilman Freddie King III initially sought a “robust review” of the protected bike lanes on MacArthur Boulevard and Newton Street. King also asked the Department of Public Works to present alternative designs for the roadway.

But after receiving no response, King proposed eliminating the protected bike lanes on those two roadways altogether. The council voted 7-0 to do just that.

“This about not allowing communities to have a voice in how their neighborhood should look,” King said. “This is not a ‘NIMBY,’ a not-in-my-back-yard conversation. This is about ‘let me have a voice in how the neighborhood I live in, that I play in, that I work in, how that neighborhood should look.”

On a separate front, Councilman-at-large J.P. Morrell said Thursday that he was introducing legislation would require the Department of Public Works to hold three public meetings in each of the seven City Council districts to educate the public on the city’s bike lane plans.

Like King, Morrell held the Department of Public Works at fault for failing to keep the public apprised of bike lane planning.

Since 2011, the City of New Orleans has had a “complete streets” ordinance that prioritizes bike lanes and other forms of transportation. The City Council bolstered that policy in 2018. But it wasn’t until two bicyclists were killed by a drunk driver on Esplanade Avenue following the Endymion parade in March 2019 that the Department of Public Works ramped up bike lane development.

The city planned to install a 75-mile network of protected bike lanes citywide within a 2-year period, a break-neck pace that King asserted left residents out of the planning process. During Thursday’s council meeting, he aired a video recording of a 2019 meeting, during which Jennifer Ruley, who leads the bike lane program for the city, described the development tempo.

“You’re going to see the rapid development and engagement, community engagement, around these issues in a very short and concise format,” Ruley told the council in 2019. “We’ve never done anything like this. … Expect to see a lot of moving parts and a lot of community engagement all at the same time.”

Said King on Thursday, “We had all of that. We didn’t have the public input that we were promised.”

The city hosted two meeting in Algiers in April 2019, he said. Only 24 Algiers attended them.

“Two meetings, 24 people from Algiers attending, speaks to the lack of public input,” King said.

King’s predecessor as the District C representative, Kristin Palmer, championed the bike lane programs and in 2018 traveled to Seville, Spain, with Cantrell administration employees to look at bike lanes – a junket paid for by the bicycle trade group People for Bikes.

At a political forum in Algiers while she was running for the at-large seat that Morrell won, Palmer acknowledged the Department of Public Works’ shortcomings. King said she called the outreach “a disaster.” Click here to see Palmer on video critizing the DPW outreach.

King noted the irony, given the controversy over the bike lanes she helped foster. “The very person who was very influential in making this happen.”

King hosted his own public hearing on Sept. 7, at Alice Harte Charter School. Attendees were asked to sign sheets as they entered, with bike lane proponents signing one set of sheets and bike lane opponents signing the other set.

Of the 239 people who attended, 214 opposed the protected bike lane designs. The remaining 25 were proponents. And of them, 15 were from Algiers, King said.

King also cited the Department of Public Works’ data on car wrecks in Algiers. According to that agency, during the 5-year period ending in 2018, there were 2,088 wrecks in Algiers. Yet, during that same period, there were only two wrecks involving bicyclists on MacArthur and Newton. That’s 0.1 percent of the wrecks, he said.

“If this conversation was truly about safety, truly about safety, we would focus on the one accident per week that occurs at the intersection of Wall Boulevard and Gen. de Gaulle,” King said. “If this was truly about public safety, we would be fighting for sidewalks in front of Edna Karr Senior High School.

“This has turned into something more than just public safety, in my opinion,” he added. “The ghost bikes with my name on it in front of City Hall kind of explains that.”

King alluded to the ghost bikes that bike lane proponents left outside City Hall as a message that his bike lane ordinance would cause bicyclists’ deaths.

Like Algiers residents feeling left out of the planning process, Morrell said he did not know of the Department of Public Works’ bike lane plans for Gentilly before he was elected to an at-large seat last year. “As an engaged voter, pre-council, as an engaged voter, I had no idea of what the plan was for Gentilly, no idea of what the bike lane plan was for Gentilly.”

He waited to learn something from the DWP. “I gave you an opportunity to engage a policy maker for what the plans were for Gentilly,” he told several departmental employees in the council chambers. “And I received no outreach from DPW.”

He said he did not find fault in the bike lane advocates or residents involved in the controversy.

“It’s a failure of the City of New Orleans to manage advocacy,” Morrell said. “In my opinion is, DPW outsourced advocacy to biking advocates. And I’m not saying that, to be clear, as a negative to bicycling advocates. They are passionate about the issue, and they’re doing their very best. And it’s a yeoman’s task to educate people on the plight of bikers.

“That being said, that is not their job. It is DPW’s job to foster and have these meetings. The resources this city has to reach residents is far larger than advocacy groups (have). I see some people here from NOLA Ready. They can text you on the toilet to tell you the mayor has a meeting.

“That is the level of outreach,” Morrell said. “They have the resources of the City of New Orleans to reach you via email, neighborhood engagement, god forbid go on Nextdoor, whatever. They can reach you. And they didn’t.

“And that’s because DPW didn’t want to do it.”

Click here to view the Sept. 15 City Council meeting. The meeting included public comment for and against Councilman King’s ordinance and commentary from council members. Discussion on Councilman King’s ordinance begins at 3:48:50. He motions to hold the vote at 5:40:50.