It appears likely that all four lanes of Lakeshore Drive will remain open to vehicles for now, but the debate over whether to close some of those lanes to allow more room for bicyclists and pedestrians to enjoy the New Orleans lakefront seems to have just begun.
A special committee set up by the board of the Non-Flood Protection Asset Management Authority, which manages a large section of the city’s lakefront, voted Tuesday evening for a short-term compromise: All lanes will remain open, with the outer lanes in each direction marked off to be shared by vehicles and bicycles, similar to an arrangement that prevails on various other thoroughfares around the city.
Looking further ahead, the committee also voted to get in line for potential state funding that would pay for a long-term redevelopment of the 5.2-mile stretch of roadway, a plan that likely would involve hiring consultants and conducting a full traffic study.
Both moves still need to clear more hurdles. They will need approval first from the authority’s recreation committee, then from the full board. It was not clear how soon those votes might happen.
In any case, Tuesday’s committee meeting once again turned a spotlight on the modern urban dilemma over how to divide road space between cars and bikes, with the city’s geographical and racial tensions added into the mix.
On one side of that split sat committee member Dawn Hebert, a resident of New Orleans East. Like many of her neighbors, Hebert applauded when the authority’s board last month finally opened Lakeshore Drive to westbound traffic seven days a week. For decades, only eastbound traffic was allowed on weekends, an arrangement that struck many as unfair to those coming from the eastern, more heavily African-American, section of the city.
Now, Hebert is fighting to make sure not only that traffic flows both ways, but that all four lanes stay open to allow an easy flow of traffic.
She introduced another New Orleans East resident, Octave Rainey, who said he had counted the cyclists on Lakeshore Drive over the course of several days and found that most of them use the street only in the morning on weekends, when vehicle traffic is lightest anyway.
“These are the conclusions I came up with, and some people will not like them,” Rainey said. “Cyclists’ numbers and usage of Lakeshore Drive do not require the closure of two lanes for cyclists.”
Peter Bennett, who sits on the committee for an advocacy group called Bike Easy, did indeed take exception to those conclusions. He framed the issue as a chicken-or-egg problem, asking whether bicycle traffic might not pick up if there were a dedicated lane where more people felt safe riding.
Bennett ultimately voted against even the idea of shared lanes, arguing that most amateur cyclists won’t feel safe with such an arrangement. He said the idea “preserves a highway-like roadway in the middle of a park.”
The committee’s chairman, a retired traffic engineer named Mike Stack, seemed to carry the argument with an overarching point, however: The authority right now does not have the funding to really study the question, and an in-depth traffic analysis would likely be necessary to secure the cash needed for such a major reordering of the roadway.
Along with the shared lanes, he introduced a successful motion recommending the authority apply to the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development for money to do a full overhaul of Lakeshore Drive. The whole committee agreed on that.