In the face of complaints that current policies fail to serve impoverished neighborhoods, New Orleans officials are overhauling rules passed seven years ago to encourage more cycling and walking in the city.
Under the revised “complete streets” initiative — which requires redesigns of city streets to accommodate all forms of travel, not just cars and trucks — data will be used to guide the placement of bike lanes on streets.
The city will then create and fund a citywide bike plan, replacing the old practice of simply throwing in a bike lane whenever funding popped up to repave a major city street.
Importantly, once streets are made “complete,” officials will track progress over time to see how the investments are working. The city might look at whether driving or biking accidents in targeted areas have gone down, for example.
The changes will finally realize the “unfulfilled promise” of the initial complete streets ordinance, said Dan Favre, executive director of Bike Easy, one of several groups that advised the city on the new approach.
“Many people in many of our neighborhoods, and especially those that have long been underserved, still struggle to get around safely and easily,” Favre said at a City Council meeting last week.
At that meeting, the council passed a resolution supporting Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s move to update the "complete streets" program.
The move comes as the city prepares to spend a $2 billion federal settlement to fix Katrina-damaged streets and pipes. The city will be required to make the overhauled streets accessible to all travelers.
Cantrell announced the planned changes in a transition plan she released in May, which noted, as Favre did Thursday, that two-thirds of all car crashes involving pedestrians and bikers occur in the poorest third of the city.
That statistic suggests either that the dozens of miles of bike lanes laid under Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration were rarely put in struggling neighborhoods or else that education about bike laws by the city or advocacy groups has been lax.
The city’s overhauled approach is intended to solve the former problem. Under it, officials must invest first in city areas where most residents have modest incomes, are minorities or don’t have access to cars.
Officials will also place bike lanes, shade trees, pedestrian walkways and other amenities in areas where the city wants to spark more private retail or residential investment, which would help bring residents without cars closer to potential jobs.
The policy also requires the city to give residents a say in where bike lanes and other investments will go. Once those amenities are installed, the city and its partners will gather data on the health and safety of nearby residents, to see if the work has had an impact.
Cantrell’s team — headed by a new Office of Transportation — is already hunting for money for a citywide bike plan, and it is taking a close look at the design standards and guidelines for streets, said LaTonya Norton, a Cantrell spokeswoman.
The administration has assembled data on bike lanes, available on the city’s website, and this week will start providing data on available bike racks on that site. It also has worked with the Trust for Public Land to analyze such data to find places where biking and walking lanes are most needed, Norton added.
However, the problem of people being unaware of bike rules and regulations also needs to be a priority of both the city and of groups like Favre’s, council members Helena Moreno and Jay Banks said Thursday.
“You are not supposed to ride a bike the wrong way down a one-way street,” Banks said. “(Bicyclists) play just as big a role in making sure that they are safe as do motor vehicle owners.”
Favre responded that while “infrastructure doesn’t stand alone,” more bike lanes and new street designs — with narrower lanes, roundabouts or bunches of shade trees in their neutral grounds — are the best ways to get drivers to slow down and give those not in cars the space to travel.
Bike Easy regularly trains people on bike safety. And on Saturday, it set up temporary “traffic calmers” — lane narrowers, speed bumps and other tools — at two Gentilly intersections, to get some travelers briefly accustomed to how city streets will look in the near future.
“As we are continuing on this crazy journey of $2 billion of street improvements, we need to make sure we are rebuilding the streets in a way that leads to slower traffic speeds,” Favre said.