Allene La Spina, executive director of bicycle-safety advocacy group Bike Easy, began receiving emails on Wednesday (June 28), from fellow cyclists with stories about traffic incidents on New Orleans’ streets that left them shaken.
La Spina posted the ones she was authorized to on the Bike Easy Blog.
“While riding on the [Lafitte] Greenway and trying to cross Broad [Street], two cars had stopped for me,” wrote a resident identified as Colleen on the blog “And [as] I was crossing a car behind them, decided to drive up on the sidewalk to pass the other two cars that had stopped and barely missed me as I’m screaming.”
Another message, from a bicyclist named Nathan, described how the driver of an SUV “abruptly braked and drove directly into my path.” The cyclist said he was hit in the chest with the car’s side view mirror. He heard the driver, bracing for carnage, tell a teenager sitting in the passenger seat, “Don’t look!”
Over the past several weeks, Bike Easy urged New Orleans residents to write these letters and make calls to their City Council members and other city government officials asking for the city to take cyclist and pedestrian safety more seriously.
The organization declared last Wednesday,a “day of action.” The organization held office hours to support the cyclist community and to give away bike helmets supplied by Blue Bikes, the city’s E-bike-share program. Eighteen people collected helmets. Some also shared stories of bike accidents and ways they are staying safe.
Bike Easy also posted a petition, which it began circulating on June 22, asking city officials to make a public statement about cyclist and pedestrian deaths in New Orleans, to make safe streets for all users a priority, to promote safe driving, and to work with Louisiana Department of Transportation & Development to better manage state-controlled streets in the city.
La Spina submitted the petition to the New Orleans City Council last week. More than 700 people had signed at the time.
“I write to you today in hopes that you heard our message loud and clear: We want people on bikes to stop dying in our streets. I have attached the petition we began circulating on June 22nd, which includes the current 709 signatures with comments,” she wrote in an accompanying email.
“We have decided to keep the petition open till we begin seeing a change that will actually make our streets safer for ALL users. It is obviously an important issue to many.
“I’m happy to keep this dialogue open.”
As of Wednesday morning (July 5), the petition had received nearly 900 signatures. La Spina said she has yet to hear back from council members.
Petition drive follows multiple crashes in city
The push from Bike Easy came after a rash of cyclist traffic accidents that resulted in death or serious injury.
In late April, after leaving the Fairgrounds during Jazz Fest, Katherine Elgin suffered a traumatic brain injury after a hit-and-run crash on Esplanade Avenue. In early May a cyclist was killed in a hit-and-run on Interstate 610, according to police. On May 30, cyclist Ralph “Peedy” Brooks, 43, was struck and killed on Claiborne Avenue near St. Louis street. Two weeks later, 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 the New Orleans Police Department alleged was being operated at a “high rate of speed.” The driver, 35-year-old Darren Mcintosh, was arrested on charges of reckless driving and negligent homicide. On June 17 a well-known local street performer was knocked off her tricycle while riding on St. Charles Avenue, suffering moderate injuries. And on June 30, a St. Bernard Parish Sheriff’s deputy riding a motorcycle in New Orleans crashed into a cyclist on St. Claude Avenue and Mandeville Street. The injuries sustained in that crash were being assessed.
New Orleans 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.
On Sunday (July 2), New Orleans Ghost Bikes — which places memorials at sites of fatal bicycle accidents — held a dedication for Strom, the latest fatality, at the intersection where he was killed.
Strom was from Trumansburg — a small village of about 1,700 people in upstate New York — and had been traveling around the country in a camper van. He had been in New Orleans since February. His obituary, which La Spina read at the dedication, said Strom “was working to check things off his ‘New Orleans must-do list’—still not complete after four months—before heading back north to Trumansburg.”
David Symons, a fellow bicyclist who witnessed the fatal crash, attended the dedication. The day after Strom died, Bike Easy posted Symons’ account of the accident on its blog.
In an interview, Symons described his close calls with drivers on the roads in the city. He said he had been knocked off his bike by a motorist who drove off and that even though he recorded the license plate and reported the incident, nothing was done. He said he reports cars parked in bike lanes often and has not learned of any enforcement. (The fee for that violation increased from at least $40 to a minimum of $300 in 2019 after a drunk motorist drove into the bike lane on Esplanade Avenue, plowing through cyclists and killing two people and injuring seven.)
“An imaginary $300 is the same as an imaginary $40,” Symons said.
Symons said a combination of infrastructure improvements, education and enforcement would work to make the streets safe for cyclists and other users.
“I feel like a lot of us feel invisible to the city,” La Spina said in an interview.
She said if the city wanted to make safe streets for all users a priority, officials would take action on the plans they’ve created, like the “Complete Streets” initiative — originally launched under former Mayor Mitch Landrieu and later updated by Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration — which is intended to “to create a more comprehensive and integrated transportation network that balances the needs of all users traveling in the public right-of-way, including people walking, bicycling, driving, and using transit.”
“They are focused on making new plans, but they just keep leaving implementation on the side,” La Spina said.
Beyond the slow pace of implementation, the city has even taken action to roll back new bike-friendly infrastructure it had installed. Last year, the New Orleans City Council voted unanimously to remove 2.2 miles of bike infrastructure in the Algiers neighborhood.
“The issue I have with this is that this is going to set a precedent,” she said.
In an email to Verite, Councilmember Freddie King III, who sponsored the bike-lane removal ordinance, said he did receive emails regarding bike safety from New Orleans residents. He invited a reporter from Verite to walk the Algiers bike lanes with him and his staff.
Councilmember Joseph Giarusso said he received between 20 and 30 emails regarding bike safety last Wednesday, Bike Easy’s day of action.
“I have spoken on this topic a number of times,” Giarusso said. “My consistent and central message is that we should be mindful of and encourage the protection of all traffic modalities (pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists) and that streets that are put on road diets need to have community engagement and input.”
Councilmember Eugene Green received 16 emails about bike safety, according to his Chief of Staff Sandra Thomas.
“New Orleans is an old city and many of our roads require ample study and planning before bike lanes can be installed that are safe and utilitarian. In addition, enforcement is a major issue. The lack of enforcement can be attributed to a lack of manpower,” Thomas wrote. “The Councilmember thinks that a statement about improvements in the network of bike lanes and enforcement would be appropriate. However, we are a long way from reaching those milestones that would prompt such a statement.”
In a phone interview, Councilmember Oliver Thomas stressed the need for greater education for all road users. Along with his duties on the council, Thomas hosts “The Good Morning Show” on WBOK and said he has had guests from the bike advocacy community on his show numerous times.
He said he received comments from the public starting last Wednesday, but was unable to specify how many emails he received.
He said that New Orleans has always had a bicyclist community, but that safety education has long been missing.
“There has to be a campaign that shows people the future,” he said. “Otherwise we’re going to lead the nation in tragedy.”
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