Thomas Meric remembers his favorite bike ride into work in the Central Business District: As he rolled down Canal Boulevard just after dawn on a crisp spring morning, he saw the rising sun sharing the sky with the moon.

But he also remembers his worst trip down Canal: when a truck driver blew past shouting for him to get off the road, with some obscenities mixed in.

"You can just sense the tension sometimes," Meric said. But he still bikes every day because "you get to work and you feel good. You feel charged, and you’re awake."

Meric is part of a growing group of New Orleanians who, despite some angry motorists here and there, are increasingly ditching their cars for trips around town.

The number of bicycle commuters in New Orleans has nearly doubled since 2010, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Walking to work is up over that period as well, while the share of people who drive to work every day has slipped.

Some transportation experts believe that the commuting numbers collected by the Census Bureau capture only part of the overall shift away from cars in compact cities like New Orleans.

Whether it's walking, biking or hailing an Uber or Lyft, motivations for avoiding driving range from saving the planet to saving a few dollars on parking. Improvements in infrastructure and technology are also making the decision easier.

For instance, the city now has more than 120 miles of bikeways, ranging from “sharrows” painted onto traffic lanes to fully separated bike paths. Bike lanes give cyclists a little more breathing room from speeding cars.

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A growing share

With its compact core and mostly flat streets, New Orleans has always been more welcoming to cyclists and pedestrians than some of its hillier or more sprawling counterparts.

The city, however, does not have the same bike-friendly image as places like Portland, Oregon, and longtime cyclists remember a time when biking here was a drag. One bicyclist remembered a shop owner telling him that the shop never gave advice on where to ride, because the roads were so bad.

But New Orleans has a lot more in common with Portland than many people might think. It now ranks fifth out of the 70 largest cities in the country for its share of bicycle commuters, according to an analysis of census data by the League of American Bicyclists, a national advocacy organization.

According to the league, the Crescent City has seen a 94 percent increase in bicycle commuting since 2010. Last year, more than 5,100 people, or 3.3 percent of the city’s commuters, biked to work.

More people are also commuting by walking. The number of pedestrian commuters has increased from about 8,000 in 2010 to about 11,000 last year, according to census data compiled by Ralph Buehler, an associate professor of urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech.

Although the number of auto drivers in New Orleans has increased since 2010, as the city experienced an overall post-Hurricane Katrina population return, they now make up a smaller share of commuters, down from 80 percent to 76 percent.

To ditch or not to ditch

The shift in commuting patterns does not necessarily mean that fewer people are owning cars. Several bicycle and pedestrian commuters said they are just using them less frequently.

Meric, a 28-year-old equities analyst, substitutes his bike for his car on most mornings but hasn't given up the car altogether. He rides the bike for a host of reasons.

“Definitely to save a little wear and tear on my car and some gas money, and also just to get a little bit more exercise,” he said. He also said he “felt like it was a good way to be greener, just to have that in my everyday life.”

Dixie Rubin, a 58-year-old employee of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, said she switched to biking, walking and taking the streetcar to save money on parking.

Her flexible commute from Gentilly to the French Quarter or Central Business District employs the potpourri of options available these days. She might park her car on Canal Street and catch a streetcar if the weather’s bad. If the weather’s good, she often drives to the edge of the Quarter and walks or takes a Blue Bike, the bike-sharing program launched last December.

“I was trying to figure out various ways I could get to work instead of paying $200 plus per month for a parking contract,” she said.

A small minority of people are ditching cars completely. Bear Hebert, a 34-year-old life coach, gave up owning a car 10 years ago to save money.

“I think it’s becoming more and more normalized; it’s just not as big of a deal,” Hebert said. “There’s kind of a class thing in there, because many people in the world and in New Orleans in particular manage to get by without a car, and it’s not life-threatening.”

Nationally, many of the people abandoning cars altogether do not fit the stereotype of a young urban professional, said Michael Smart, an assistant professor of planning and public policy at Rutgers University.

“By far the largest (number of) people who give up a car are people in precarious economic circumstances,” he said.

Paving the way

Since Katrina, the city has attempted to improve bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, adding bike lanes on many major streets as well as larger projects such as the Lafitte Greenway, which runs from the edge of the French Quarter through Mid-City to Bayou St. John.

“Everyone, I think, feels a little bit safer, a little more comfortable, and that opens up the opportunity to get more people out,” said Geoff Coats, the general manager for the Blue Bikes program.

A city contractor recently began the three-month process of installing 485 new bike racks in neighborhoods including the CBD, Treme, Marigny, French Quarter, Lakeview, Central City and Algiers.

“Cities have been promoting cycling. There has also been increased interest in cycling mainly by younger adults — millennials moving into cities,” said Buehler, the Virginia Tech professor.

The physical improvements have real-world implications for cyclists. Hebert remembers the thrill bicyclists felt when Esplanade Avenue was renovated with a smooth surface — and new bike lanes.

“It was a major quality-of-life shift for me, because I lived in Mid-City and I worked in the Bywater,” Hebert said.

The launch of the Blue Bike network, whose bikes are now a familiar sight, was a major factor in Rubin’s switch. “I hated to bring my bike to the Quarter or the CBD," she said. "When the Blue Bikes started, I was like, ‘Man, that’s perfect. I don’t have to worry about locking my bike up.’ ”

More pedestrians

While the census provides information on commuting patterns, it doesn't measure the trips people take outside of work — such as trips to grocery stores, churches or bars. But one experimental study suggests there are more walkers out everywhere.

Tulane University geographer Richard Campanella pored through Google Street View images from 2007 to 2016 recently and made a surprising discovery. When he picked a series of random spots on the street and counted the people walking there, on average, the number of pedestrians had increased from 1.1 people to 3.5.

Campanella credited the population boom over that time period for part of the increase, but he said that young professionals rediscovering urban spaces might also help account for the increase.

He noted that the average number of bicycles in the images increased from 0.12 to 0.59 over the same period.

Non-commute trips are where companies like Uber and Lyft may represent a bigger factor in the shift away from solo drives, observers believe.

Even so, Lyft seems to be making a play to become a commuting option. It recently launched a subscription plan allowing riders to pay $300 for 30 rides a month, up to $15 in value each.

Buehler said it’s “surprisingly difficult” to measure the impact of Uber and Lyft on transportation patterns because the companies do not share their data.

Coats, the Blue Bikes manager, emphasized that many people really do need cars for everything from picking up children and helping ailing parents to delivering goods.

"As someone who was 'car free' in New Orleans for a number of years, I can tell you that type of person is very unique and there are not many of them. It is essentially like becoming vegan — a serious commitment that many people can’t do," he said.

Still, he believes that both bike shares and ride shares point the way toward alternatives to driving.

“What if, instead of everybody owning a car, people just used the amount of car they need at any moment?” he said.

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432