The morning of March 2, a Buick plowed into a 45-year-old cyclist at the intersection of Canal Street and Jefferson Davis Parkway, resulting in the year’s first bicycle-related fatality in New Orleans.
Cycling-related deaths in New Orleans are relatively rare. There were three last year in a city where murders took 150 lives.
But the collision that took place in the center lakebound lane of Canal Street at Jeff Davis does point to a growing problem.
Lt. Anthony Micheu, commander of the New Orleans Police Department’s Traffic Division, said days after the incident that police concluded the Buick’s driver was not at fault.
Still, as the city seeks to promote cycling, creating new bike lanes along major thoroughfares, the number of cycling-related accidents is on the rise, even if most don’t result in loss of life.
“I’m seeing more bike usage, and I’m seeing more vehicular traffic than ever before,” Micheu said. “Our city is growing in population; that’s part of the reason I’m seeing more accidents.”
Bike accidents in Orleans Parish more than doubled from 129 in 2010 to 308 in 2014, according to preliminary numbers from the Highway Safety Research Group at LSU.
That spike in accidents comes despite — or perhaps in part because of — the fact that there are more lanes dedicated to cyclists throughout the city than ever before.
Last year, the League of American Bicyclists recognized New Orleans as a silver-rated “bicycle-friendly” community, and when the Lafitte Greenway bicycle and pedestrian path is finished this spring, New Orleans will have more than 100 miles of completed bikeways, up from 11 miles in 2005.
Researchers at the University of New Orleans’ Transportation Institute recorded a 52 percent increase in ridership at 12 different locations where they tracked bicycle traffic between 2010 and 2014.
On Esplanade Avenue, where a bike lane was installed in 2013, there was a 200 percent increase.
On St. Claude Avenue, which got a bike lane in 2010, there was a 199 percent increase from 2010 to 2013.
“It’s not surprising that the rise in crashes also corresponds to the increasing population generally,” said Tara Tolford, who leads UNO’s Pedestrian Bicycle Resource Initiative. “In the few years right after Katrina, there were far fewer people, far fewer crashes. It’s not necessarily that people are becoming less safe; there’s just a lot more interaction between bikes and cars on the road.”
Jonathan Kennedy is part of the city’s growing cyclist community. Born and raised in Mid-City, he moved back to New Orleans in 2012 after several years in Austin, Texas, and Denver and now is part of a group called NOLA Social Ride, which uses social media to organize weekly rides through the city.
He has five different bikes in his living room — one for mountain biking, another for groceries and so on.
Like other cycling evangelists, he emphasizes that improving safety will boil down to everyone on the road knowing what the rules are.
“I think a lot of it comes down to education,” Kennedy said. “There are as many bicyclists that don’t know the rules as there are drivers.”
Jamie Wine, the interim executive director of a local group called Bike Easy, has made it his mission to change that. The group has been working with local officials on policy issues and holding educational workshops and clinics around the city about safe biking practices.
“I think when you have people one on one, there’s a broad level of agreement about the ideas that our organization puts forward,” Wine said. “But I think when you get someone behind the wheel of a car, that person doesn’t always follow what you say when you had them face to face.”
Wine said that going forward, his group is hoping to be more proactive, pushing educational efforts in neighborhoods before new bike lanes are opened.
Tolford, at UNO, said cyclists do appear to be growing more aware of the rules of the road for bicycles. She found that in the four-year period she studied, helmet use increased from 10 percent to 19 percent. Similarly, cyclists riding legally — with traffic as opposed to against traffic, for instance — increased from 76 percent in 2010 to 87 percent in 2014.
“We’re seeing more people getting it right,” Tolford said. “On the streets where there is a bike lane, we’ve broken it down: There are more bicyclists riding safely and legally on streets with bike facilities.”