Cassandra Brooks’ last memory with her son Ralph “Peedy” Brooks was at a wrestling match at John Curtis Christian School in River Ridge that he took her to less than a week before he died. She said the two shared a love of wrestling ever since Ralph was young, when he would practice his moves on family members, including her. 

“I’d have to tell him, ‘I’m your mama. My bones don’t bend like that,’” Cassandra Brooks said, sitting in her niece’s apartment in Metairie last week.. 

She was surrounded by family members, including her niece Jenea Campbell, 33, her sister Esthonia Brooks, 60, her son Rashid Brooks, 27 and Ralph Brooks’ close friend Katie Venegas

They remembered Ralph Brooks, 43, as a jokester with a deep, cheeky laugh, who loved to work out, stood up for the people he loved and “would literally give you the shirt off his back,” according to Venegas. 

In the early hours of May 30, Brooks was cycling home to Mid-City from the French Quarter, where he worked as a bartender, when he was struck by a Dodge Ram on Claiborne Avenue in the Treme/Lafitte neighborhood, according to news reports.

“He was just doing what he did every time,” said Allene La Spina, executive director of the New Orleans bicycle safety advocacy group Bike Easy. 

According to reports, police investigators said Brooks was traveling northbound on St. Louis Street when the truck, heading eastbound on Claiborne Avenue, hit him. However, an eyewitness who spoke to Fox 8 News at a dedication for Brooks, but asked not to be identified, said the vehicle hit Brooks at the intersection of the Lafitte Greenway bike and pedestrian path and Claiborne Avenue and that the driver then allegedly reversed the truck several feet, dragging Brooks’ body with it, finally stopping near St. Louis Street.

In a Friday (June 23) email, Jennifer Ruley, mobility and safety lead engineer for the city’s Department of Public Works, disputed what was reported in the Fox 8 story.

“The details of the Claiborne incident as reported by Fox were incorrect according to the NOPD. That incident did occur at St Louis and Claiborne and is still under investigation,” Ruley wrote.

In a preliminary report, a New Orleans Police Department detective who investigated the crash wrote that he did not believe the truck’s driver, who was released from the scene, was impaired or distracted at the time of the crash. “No primary causative factor of the crash has been determined at this time,” the detective wrote, adding that the investigation was ongoing. 

Cycling fatalities like Brooks’ have become more common in recent years in New Orleans. The city has the highest rate of bicyclist fatalities per capita among major cities in the United States, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration analyzed by the League of American Bicyclists. A deeper look at the data shows New Orleans averaged just under 4 cyclist deaths per year between 2017 and 2021. That’s a fraction of the numbers seen in larger cities. But it places New Orleans at the top of the list of bicycle fatalities per capita among major cities in the United States, according to the data, with about one annual bicyclist death per 100,000 residents per year. That’s up 11% from 2012-2016, according to the report. 

Three fatalities since early May

The city has recently experienced a rash of such deaths. Including Brooks, at least three bicyclists have been killed by motor vehicles since the beginning of May, nearly reaching the city’s 2017-2021 annual average in less than two months.

In early May a cyclist was killed in a hit-and-run on Interstate 610, according to police. Two weeks after Brooks died, at roughly 11:45 p.m. on June 13, cyclist Dustin Strom, 36, was struck and killed at the intersection of St. Claude Avenue and Marigny Street, this time by a vehicle that a New Orleans Police Department bulletin alleged was being operated at a “high rate of speed.” The driver, 35-year-old Darren Mcintosh, was arrested. 

An account published on Bike Easy’s blog by witness David Symons described the crash in sobering terms. 

“I knew immediately that the impact was not survivable,” Symons wrote. “And only hoped that he would die quickly with little pain. It was an utterly horrible thing to see.” 

Not all of these accidents end in deaths but the results are still troubling. In April, Katherine Elkins, a nurse at Touro Hospital, suffered a traumatic brain injury after a car hit her and sped off as she and her partner were biking on Esplanade Avenue away from Jazz Fest toward the French Quarter.. And on Saturday night (June 17) a well-known local street performer was knocked off her tricycle while riding on St. Charles Avenue, suffering moderate injuries

The rise in traffic fatalities in New Orleans follows a national trend. And pedestrian fatalities tend to be higher than cyclist traffic deaths. There were 21 pedestrian deaths and seven cyclist deaths in Orleans Parish in 2021, according to the New Orleans Transportation Safety Dashboard that the city launched in May in an effort to be more transparent about its safety data. The dashboard showed a 32% increase in traffic fatalities overall between 2020 and 2021, the most recent data available. 

Cycling traffic accident victim Ralph Brooks’ mother Cassandra Brooks, aunt Esthonia Brooks and cousin Jenea Campbell open Brooks’ funeral program to a page with his photos. They painted their nails purple, his favorite color. Credit: Bobbi-Jeanne Misick / Verite

Ruley, the mobility and safety lead engineer for DPW, attributed higher traffic fatalities to more distracted driving, more speeding and an increase in drivers on the road as gas prices dropped during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ruley also said street designs have not kept up with traffic injuries. 

“Bicyclists and pedestrians are a subset of total roadway users that are more vulnerable to injury due to lack of physical protection, such as a car,” she said in an email. “Therefore, improving the safety of vulnerable road users is beneficial to all roadway users.” 

Ruley noted that there are more people commuting by bike in New Orleans than in other cities with lower rates of cyclist deaths. According to Census estimates, roughly 18% of New Orleans households do not have access to a car in a city with limited public transportation. The pandemic also increased bicycle ridership across the country. 

“So this means more exposure to traffic by bicyclists,” she said. 

Bicycle safety advocates say more biking infrastructure and greater traffic enforcement is needed to prevent cyclist and pedestrian deaths. 

Infrastructure improvements moving slowly 

“We know anything that has a barrier, like a flex post or sometimes stronger separation between a car and a bike lane proves to be safer for people biking,” La Spina from Bike Easy said. “But unfortunately I don’t necessarily feel like the city has made it a priority to push for that.”

In 2019, the city launched the Moving New Orleans Bikeway Blueprint – a plan to add 75 miles of protected bike infrastructure throughout the city in two years, beginning in 2020. It looked at the level of comfort that cyclists felt on any given street related to existing infrastructure, rate of speed and volume to identify streets that needed better protection. 

But while some parts of that project have been implemented, only 32 miles of the network had been built as of May 1, according to a report published on the city’s website. Ruley said more miles are in the works. 

Clark Thompson, a naval engineer who welds, paints and installs the white ghost bike memorials for deceased cyclists posted around town, said the city needs more than just bike lanes. It needs to rethink its road design altogether.

Thompson was at home, down the street when a drunken motorist drove through a group of cyclists on Esplanade Avenue following the 2019 Krewe of Endymion parade. . The crash killed two people, Sharee Walls and David Hynes, and injured several others. 

His wife and daughter watched it happen and ran home to see if he could help. He ran to the scene. 

“There was nothing I could do,” Thompson said. “I watched David die.” 

Since then, he’s felt called to advocate for cyclists and to maintain the memorials. He said city streets should be designed to make it uncomfortable for motorists to drive higher than 25 miles per hour.

“Bikes are going to share the road with cars,” he said. “Design (the streets) where cars are compelled to go slower.” 

Ruley said some new road features – including speed humps and narrower streets – aimed at establishing speeds that match the way the streets are used by everyone, are set to roll out as part of a “Speed Awareness Program.” The city’s decision to change the speed limit in the French Quarter from 25 mph  to 15 mph in 2021 is part of this consideration for how the roads are used. 

Charlie Thomas, an attorney who represents cyclists and the families of cyclists injured or killed in traffic collisions, including Brooks’ family, said infrastructure becomes more important when there’s little to no enforcement of the rules of the road. He said the main causes for the rise in cyclist and pedestrian deaths in New Orleans are reckless driving, including speeding, and a lack of accountability. 

“The culture of driving (in New Orleans) has gotten so awful,” Thomas said. “Drivers that we have are so careless and so reckless and (there’s) zero police enforcement.” 

Like other police departments around the country, the NOPD has been experiencing shortages in recent years. Last year, the department announced that it would hire civilians to manage some traffic violations. NOPD has focused its efforts on reducing violent crime. Thomas said cyclist and pedestrian traffic fatalities are violent crimes. 

Ruley believes enforcement is part of the solution too. 

“Better design can only go so far if people are still unafraid of the consequences of getting caught,” she said. 

This is where Thompson, the cycling advocate who maintains ghost bike memorials, differs. He said that unlike enforcement, infrastructure that keeps every road user safe leaves less room for human error. 

But more significant infrastructure could take some time. In February, the city received a $751,631 grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation as part of the Safe Streets and Roads for All Program to build a Comprehensive Safety Action Plan, which will be rolled out later this year. 

The money will only cover planning, which itself will take 12 to 18 months. Then the city can apply for more federal funding to implement its plans. 

Political pushback

Bike-friendly infrastructure generally benefits everyone in the community, including people who use motorized wheelchairs in bike lanes and pedestrians who receive greater visibility when crossing a street with a bike lane than crossing one without, La Spina said. 

But she fears that new, safer infrastructure may be losing support from city officials. 

The Moving New Orleans’ plan for improved bike infrastructure received overwhelming support from the public and City Council after the post-Endymion crash.

She has been discouraged by recent pushback against this type of infrastructure. In September, the City Council voted in favor of an ordinance to remove 2.2 miles of bike lanes in Algiers along MacArthur Boulevard between General De Gaulle and Woodland drives, and on Newton Street between Elmira and Behram Avenues, after residents in the area strongly voiced their opposition to the new infrastructure, calling the protected bike lanes “unsightly and grossly underused” and complaining that they took away necessary street parking. Many said they hadn’t been given enough opportunity to provide input on the project. 

“I was shocked to see the number of people who were angry because they weren’t given a voice,” Councilmember Freddie King III, whose district includes Algiers, said in an interview. 

King, who introduced the ordinance, said he was listening to his constituents, who complained of having to park farther away from their homes at night. He said business owners worried about their customers having to park farther away from their entrances, also at night, and drivers were put in harm’s way having to park closer to the flow of traffic. 

Critics of King and other council members who voted in favor of the ordinance said they were bending to the political will instead of looking at science. 

“Bottom line is, we know what to do. The deaths are a result of the choices that politicians are making,” Thompson said. 

Changes to streets often come with initial community resistance, Ruley said. 

“This response is fairly universal based on what we have seen in New Orleans as well as what we hear from other cities,” she said. “The complaints recede as people adapt.” 

King said he supports bike infrastructure in areas “where there are large numbers of cyclists.” 

But Ruley said a high volume of cycling traffic should not be the only deciding factor on where to place new or improved bike infrastructure. 

It’s not just a matter of where people are biking now that should inform where infrastructure like protected bike lanes go but increasing the ability of all people to benefit from these safety features,” she said. 

This story has been updated to include an additional comment from Jennifer Ruley of the New Orleans Department of Public Works.

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Before joining Verite, Bobbi-Jeanne Misick reported on people behind bars in immigration detention centers and prisons in the Gulf South as a senior reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration...