New Orleans’ Complete Streets policy, which the Crescent City government is implementing and which has drawn the ire of many Algiers residents because of car lane closures and unsightly bollards along residential streets, originates with a bicyclist-centric planning movement that began in the early 2000s.
New Orleans’ policy also reflects a relationship between local and national bicycle advocacy groups and city officials, who in recent years traveled to Europe to study how public policies shape transportation networks.
Pushing back against decades-old roadway designs that favor motor vehicles, Complete Streets proponents seek public policies that give equal weight to all forms of transportation, from bicyclists to walkers, and to people who rely on mass transit systems.
Their goal is to create an interconnected “low-stress” roadway system with lower speed limits that is safer for bicyclists and pedestrians while reducing the number of motor vehicle crashes. They also tout bicycling’s health and environmental- and economic-friendly benefits. The proponents back their positions with data such as car crashes and fatalities, and they often seek lower speed limits for motor vehicles.
Although some sources say Oregon spearheaded the movement in the early 1970s, the National Complete Streets Coalition asserts it began the push for Complete Streets policies in 2004, the year the group was formed. Today, more than 1,600 policies have been adopted nationwide, along with 35 states, according to the coalition.
Among them is the state of Louisiana. In 2009, at the behest of the state Legislature, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development convened a working group with the aim of adopting a complete streets policy for the Bayou State.
That policy was adopted for statewide use in 2010. The National Complete Streets Coalition ranked Louisiana’s as the second-strongest policy of its type in the nation. In 2014, the state codified its Complete Streets policy through legislation presented by then-Sen. David Heitmeier, the optometrist and Democrat from Algiers.
MOVING NEW ORLEANS
In 2011, New Orleans adopted its own Complete Streets policy, now called “Moving New Orleans – Bikes,” making the Crescent City the first municipality in the state to enact such an initiative.
Seeded by former Mayor Mitch Landrieu and championed by Mayor LaToya Cantrell and District C City Councilwoman Kristin Palmer, the city’s Complete Streets plan calls for creating 75 miles of new bikeways in its early years and ultimately would cover 600 miles of municipal and state roadways in Orleans Parish.
Its proponents envision a network of bike lanes that allow bicyclists to commute to various destinations, including their jobs in the Central Business District and surrounding area. Mayor Cantrell has pledged $10 million to this effort in its early years, according to published accounts. Details on the city’s roadway redesigns can be found on it’s corridor fact sheets published online.
Much of the initial work appears in Algiers, where more than 10 miles of new bike lanes have been developed and more are planned, including the state’s Gen. Meyer Avenue.
The Algiers transportation network, according to proponents’ vision, ties New Orleans’ West Bank area to the Algiers/Canal Street ferry, giving bicyclists access to the Central Business District and French Quarter.
PeopleForBikes in 2020 rated the Algiers bike lanes as the No.1 project in the nation. Representing the bicycle industry and whose 271 members include Walmart, PeopleForBikes is involved in the push to create the Complete Streets plan in the Crescent City.
LOST IN ALGIERS
It was January 2021 when many Algiers motorists began noticing the newly created bicycle lanes along Holiday and Gen. de Gaulle drives. Raising their ire was the city’s eliminating the right-turn lane on northbound Holiday’s approach to Gen. de Gaulle, creating a rarely used lane for bicyclists while exacerbating the traffic congestion at what already was a problematic intersection during the workday rush hours.
It was a harbinger for what was to come.
By March, motorists saw the redesign underway at the intersection of Holiday and MacArthur Boulevard, with reinforced concrete humps rising from the asphalt.
Slowly, MacArthur’s four motor vehicle lanes were reduced to two from Kabel Drive to Woodland Highway. One lane was converted into parking. A protected, 6-foot-wide bicycle lane lined with reflective, 29-inch-high bollards was created along the curb.
The outcry was evident on the Nextdoor app. The reviews were mixed, with the majority of comments coming from residents who oppose MacArthur’s new design. Few Algiers residents who favor the redesign spoke up; most of the favorable opinions were from residents living in some of Orleans’ east bank neighborhoods.
“No one is opposed to sharing the road,” wrote a Huntlee Village resident on Nextdoor. “What we don’t agree with is eliminating a whole lane of vehicular traffic for a bike lane that in fact will not be used by the majority of the population of the area.”
Although the city held several public meetings in 2019, purportedly to gather input from residents and reveal design plans, the reality of what the Cantrell administration, Councilwoman Palmer and bicycle advocates had been planning didn’t hit home until residents felt the traffic impact and saw the unsightly bollards.
SHAPING PUBLIC PERCEPTIONS
As the city was developing its Compete Streets plans a decade ago, it was aided in part by an entity called the Sustainable Transportation Advisory Committee, the members of which are unclear. That committee was active from 2010 to 2015.
However, in 2016, members of this committee formed the New Orleans Complete Streets Coalition, whose members include the nonprofit Bike Easy and other bicycling advocacy groups, Tulane University, the University of New Orleans, the American Heart Association, the Algiers Economic Development Foundation and others.
The coalition in effect promotes the city’s efforts to implement its Complete Streets policy and through its community engagement mission and has taken a de facto public relations role for the city.
For instance, when Algiers residents along the MacArthur Boulevard corridor began vocally opposing how the city was redesigning the key thoroughfare for a barely existent bicyclist population, the coalition countered with an online public relations campaign. It featured Algiers residents who support the changes and enlisted volunteers who rode their bicycles in new bikes for photography sessions.
When Aurora West resident Denise Davila began a change.org petition calling on the city to justify its MacArthur Boulevard redesign with empirical evidence, the coalition pushed back and created an online petition of its own, asking Algiers residents to tell city leaders they support the roadway changes.
Behind this public relations push is PeopleForBikes.
In addition to sponsoring the New Orleans Complete Streets Coalition’s Facebook page, PeopleForBikes has bankrolled local efforts to sell the complete streets policy on New Orleans’ residents, in part through a $2.6 million grant intended to shape public perception of bicycling. PeopleForBikes also is providing technical support to the city in its quest to build this network, city officials have said.
PeopleForBikes also has a grant program, through which money is provided at the local level. It’s unclear if this funding source is routed through the New Orleans Complete Streets Coalition, which provides “activation mini grants” to local entities.
For instance, Aurora West Civic Association president Angela Baldwin applied for and received a $750 grant to underwrite the costs of a bicycling event in Algiers in September 2020. Councilwoman Palmer, an Algiers Point resident, attended Baldwin’s event, according to the coalition. The event began at Norman Playground and included a trek on MacArthur Boulevard.
Thirty-five bicyclists of varying ages participated in the event, Baldwin wrote in a blog post published on the coalition’s website. She asserts that through her event, “we were able to show how many people in our area enjoy bike riding and how necessary designated bike lanes on roads are.”
“Also, it confirms that more bike trails in our area would (without a doubt) be utilized,” Baldwin wrote.
Her event was held before the city carved its “protected bike lane” design into MacArthur Boulevard.
The coalition’s public relations campaign appears to have fallen short of winning over local residents, as Algiers homeowners and others have spoken out and organized against the redesign of MacArthur Boulevard. “Our Streets, Our Choice” signs appear on numerous lawns along MacArthur and elsewhere. Many of these residents opposing the new MacArthur design live in the Aurora West neighborhood.
The oak tree-lined suburban thoroughfare with numerous homes services neighborhoods such as Aurora West, Woodland Heights, Huntlee Village and Walnut Bend. Prior to the changes that occurred in 2021, bicyclists and drivers shared a lane. MacArthur since has lost two motor vehicle lanes in favor of a protected bike lane.
Oddly, in city planners’ views, these protected bike lanes aren’t ideally suited for MacArthur, or Holiday Drive, which is slated to receive a similar design.
“A Protected Bike Lane can improve perceived comfort and safety of bicyclists. 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. ”
FACE OF BICYCLING ADVOCACY
The apparent force behind the New Orleans Complete Streets Coalition is the nonprofit Bike Easy, and its executive director Dan Farve. The coalition and the nonprofit share a Central City address and phone number. Farve’s Bike Easy email address is listed on the coalition’s Facebook page.
An environmental activist from California, Farve moved to New Orleans about 15 years ago and evolved into the public face of bicycling advocacy in the Crescent City. He is the go-to source for local news media outlets when reporting on bicycling matters in the city.
Through Bike Easy, Favre participated in a public-private effort with the Cantrell Administration in 2019 to demonstrate how protected bike lanes would work in the French Quarter and Central Business District, called “Connect the Crescent.” Farve later appeared before the City Council to brief it on the project.
In addition to leading Bike Easy and being an occasional rallying commenter on the “Bike Uneasy” Facebook page, Farve also is board member for the Blue Krewe bikeshare effort, through which residents and tourists can rent blue bicycles on a short-term basis.
Favre also was among bicycle advocates and New Orleans elected and other city officials who traveled to Europe to study public bicycle policies. Among city officials on a 2019 trip to Seville, Spain, were City Councilwoman Palmer and members of Cantrell’s administration. PeopleForBikes reportedly paid for the trip.
UPDATE: On Sept. 16, Farve announced his resignation as Bike Easy’s executive director. He did not disclose a reason for his departure, which is effective Sept. 30. His acting replacement initially was Robert Henig Bell, Bike Easy’s campaign manager and a frequent online content contributor to the New Orleans Complete Streets Coalition. In April 2021, for instance, after Denise Davila created a petition calling for a halt to bike lane construction, it was Bell who circulated an online petition in opposition. Bell since has left, and the nonprofit’s second acting executive director was, as of late November, Allene La Spina.
‘CHARACTER OF NEW ORLEANS NEIGHBORHOODS’
The year before she joined the bicycle junket, Palmer and at-large Councilman Jason Williams – now New Orleans’ district attorney – presented a resolution in support of the city’s policy “to support a data-driven and equity-focused complete streets policy in the city of New Orleans,” according to the document. It promotes protected bike lanes, “other low-stress bikeways” and other amenities; “traffic calming treatments like roundabouts and smaller lane widths … .”
The 2018 resolution includes a call for the “regular evaluation and reporting of performance measures including but not limited to ridership, equity, safety, health outcomes, project selection, community participation, resilience, and outs of staff training.”
Notably, the policy says, “the implementation of Complete Streets policy shall reflect the context and character of New Orleans neighborhoods’ built and natural environments while enhancing the appearance of such. The City of New Orleans shall consider methods of providing development flexibility within safe design parameters such as context-sensitive design solutions … .”
The following year, in 2019, the city held public meetings, including several in Algiers. Bike Easy participated in these meetings. Within a year, the city decided on the redesign of MacArthur Boulevard.
And by 2021, the unsightly bollards were being installed. Algiers motorists were feeling the impact of new – and adverse – traffic patterns. City officials still have presented no empirical data to the public to justify the roadway redesigns.
The University of New Orleans Transportation Institute is working with the city to gather data, city officials have said.
To pay for these new policies, New Orleans is using money raised through the sale of bonds, city officials told Algiers residents during a May 25, 2021 meeting called by the Algiers Neighborhood Presidents Council in response to residents’ uproar. About 300 people attended the meeting, with the overwhelming majority of them being opposed to the city’s plans.
In April 2016, New Orleans voters approved the issuance of $120 million in general obligation bonds, most of which was to be used generally on streets projects.
According to a Department of Public Works capital budget planning document, the city would use the bond revenue to “help the city meet its Complete Streets Policy goals.” This included the “installation of bike facilities in the CBD/French Quarter to connect the existing network” of bike lanes. The Cantrell administration used funds from the 2016 bond issue to pay for the Algiers projects.
And then, in November 2019, voters approved the issuance of $500 million in general obligation bonds. Voters didn’t specify how that would be spent, but Mayor Cantrell’s administration recommended that half of it be spent on drainage, storm water management, bridges and Complete Streets and roads. She recommended that $128 million would be spent in 2021.
Meanwhile, the city’s home rule charter requires that any capital budgets, Capital Improvement Program and any decisions to construct a capital improvement be consistent with the city’s master plan. The city spells out its bricks and mortar priorities in its 5-year Capital Improvement Plans, with the city saying it would use some of its bond revenue as a local match for federal funding.
Department of Public Works budget requests make up the lion’s shares of these Capital Improvement Plans, with portions of the departments’ spending priorities be placed on roadway “enhancements,” according to these budgetary blue prints.
The city’s 2015-2019 blueprint showed a spike in roadway enhancement plans when compared to previous plans. In that plan, the Department of Public Works requested $250 million for roadway enhancements.
The 2017-2021 plan includes the “Behrman Highway Multi-Use Path Connection,” for which $110,000 was to be allocated to construct a 10-foot-wide bicycle and pedestrian path that would connect Tall Timbers to the Walmart Supercenter shopping area.
The 2021-2025 plan includes $15,000 for a “Behrman Bike Path and Trails Feasibility Study, through which the Department of Public Works would “gather information and plan future developments within this area.”
The 2018-2022 plan includes an almost $1 million overhaul of Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in Central City for bicyclist and pedestrian benefits. And it called for a $630,000 study downtown traffic patterns with a goal being safety and access for all roadway users, including bicyclists.
As of this writing, the city is developing its 2022-2026 capital budget priorities.
Separate funding sources would presumably cover the cost of Gen. Meyer, which is a state roadway and is slated for “Complete Streets improvements” from Whitney Avenue to Woodland Highway at an estimated cost of $4.4 million, most of which would be federal funds, according to a New Orleans Regional Planning Commission document.
– by Paul Purpura