Dozens of bicyclists demanded better-designed streets and stronger laws at a New Orleans City Council meeting Thursday in the wake of a deadly crash on Esplanade Avenue that killed two cyclists and injured several others.
With emotional pleas, personal stories of the horrible scene at the March 2 crash and accounts of the daily dangers facing those on bikes, riders said the city has not done enough to protect them.
“I’m here to call for a system where people who are doing everything right like David and Sharree don’t have to worry” about their safety, said Nellie Catzen, who was riding with David Hynes and Sharree Walls when their group was struck by an allegedly drunk driver on the Saturday night before Mardi Gras. Hynes and Walls were killed.
Bicyclist after bicyclist addressed the council over the course of more than two hours, telling stories of crashes, near-misses, being hit by drivers opening car doors and the general harassment they experience at the hands of some motorists.
The calls for change came as the council approved a resolution and began the process of raising the fines for blocking bike lanes. Mayor LaToya Cantrell's administration also announced it will begin a citywide effort to plan for better bike infrastructure this spring.
Walls and Hynes were killed and seven others were injured when Tashonty Toney crashed into a group of cyclists riding on Esplanade. Toney is jailed on two counts of vehicular homicide, seven counts of vehicular negligent injuring, hit-and-run driving and reckless operation of a vehicle.
Two other bicyclists were killed in crashes earlier this year.
Lois Benjamin, Walls’ mother, described her anguish at her daughter’s funeral and called for swift action to protect riders.
“Get rid of the red tape. I don’t mean no harm. But get rid of the wind-bagging so that no mother has to go through this again,” Benjamin said at the council meeting.
The city has taken steps toward improving bicycle safety, including a “complete streets” program that has expanded the number of bike lanes in the city.
But riders and advocates say designating lanes is not enough.
“These events have shown us what we have known all along: A single stripe of paint is not enough to protect bicyclists,” Bike Easy Executive Director Dan Favre said.
The advocates called for creating protected bike lanes, which divide bicyclists from traffic using barriers or a lane of parked cars, and urged stronger enforcement of traffic laws. Bike Easy set up such lanes on several major streets last year as part of a temporary pilot program.
Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer said installing protected lanes is a necessary safety measure, though she acknowledged the change would require some adjustments and may not be popular.
"Its going to be uncomfortable, but we have to force the issue," she said.
An ordinance drafted during the meeting would increase the penalties for driving or parking in bike lanes, setting a minimum fine for both offenses at $300. Parking in a bike lane currently carries a $40 fine; the fine for driving there is entirely up to the discretion of a judge.
Beyond the direct danger to bicyclists posed by motorists driving in bike lanes, cars that block them can force riders to mix with cars in regular travel lanes.
"It’s completely unacceptable, and you're right, the enforcement is not where it needs to be," Councilwoman Helena Moreno told riders who complained that little is done to keep the designated bike lanes clear.
The council unanimously passed a resolution calling on the Cantrell administration to install protected bike lanes, update policies dealing with bicyclists, improve enforcement of traffic laws, promote education about cycling, and close off some routes to cars during major events including Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest and French Quarter Fest.
The resolution also seeks to jump-start an initiative approved three years ago but never implemented which set aside money to redesign the most dangerous intersection in each council district.
“There’s words and there’s action, and without execution and enforcement — which is the executive branch — words and laws mean nothing,” Councilman Jason Williams said. “This body will be calling the head of Public Works back here with dates and times, and rest assured if there’s a failure there will be consequences.”
The administration pointed to its own efforts to improve bike safety, including the creation of an Office of Transportation and ongoing work to include bike lanes in new street projects, including work recently completed on the South Broad Street overpass. That project includes plastic bollards to separate cyclists from motorists, though riders argue that more substantial barriers are needed.
In an emailed statement, Cantrell said she would be launching a transportation strategy this spring that would serve as a vision for how "New Orleanians can get around safely, no matter what mode of transportation they use." She also said the city will be starting a planning effort specifically focused on biking, funded by a $2.6 million grant.
Staff writer Jessica Williams contributed to this report.