In a blow to local advocates for bike safety, the city of New Orleans has begun removing 2.2 miles of bicycle lane infrastructure in Algiers, the result of a City Council vote last fall.  

The work, which started Monday, will take 52 days, Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office confirmed. 

The bike lanes, now in place along MacArthur Boulevard and Newton Street, are protected by posts, also called bollards, barricading them from motorized vehicular traffic. The infrastructure is relatively new. It was installed along the streets in 2020 and 2021 as part of the city’s Moving New Orleans Bikes plan. 

But in September, the New Orleans City Council voted unanimously to remove them after complaints from motorists. The ordinance, sponsored by District C Council member Freddie King III, prohibits “bollards or similar traffic control features for the exclusive use of bicycles or other non-motorized vehicles” on sections of MacArthur Boulevard and Newton Street. 

Advocates for safer bike infrastructure are frustrated by the council’s actions. 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

“These bike lanes not only affect the people who live in these areas, but also the people who are connecting to these areas. This is part of a bigger network. [It’s] how we all are getting around in a safe way,” said Allene La Spina, the executive director of the nonprofit Bike Easy. “The slow down of building the network makes it harder for people to understand how this is part of a network.”

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. As of May 1, about 32 miles of that were complete, including the soon-to-be-removed 2.2 miles in Algiers. 

But King, whose district includes Algiers, said his ordinance was filed in response to complaints from motorists that the bollards slowed traffic and made parking more difficult. King said that few residents in the area use the protected bike lanes, and the city did not listen to neighborhood concerns before installing them. King said he is in favor of more protected bike lanes in the East Bank neighborhoods in his district, such as the French Quarter, Treme, Faubourg Marigny and Bywater. 

“The people that put me in the office…they were very loud and clear in this community,” King said. “This was rushed. It was a bad design and we didn’t have input, and we want that and I think they deserve that.”

King’s ordinance called for the removal to be complete within 60 days, but the project was not immediately funded. In December, as it was finalizing the city’s 2023 budget, the City Council allocated $300,000 for Algiers bike lane removal. 

In an emailed statement last week, the Mayor’s Office criticized the expenditure, saying the bike lanes have made the streets safer by slowing traffic. 

“With the contractor scheduled to begin removal next week, it is counterproductive to the stated goals of this administration and the Council to spend approximately $300,000 of taxpayer dollars making our roads more dangerous and removing transportation options for our residents,” the statement said.

‘They were not given a voice’ 

Reginald Tollett and Veronica Robinson pump up a bike tire on Newton Street near LB Landry Avenue. Credit: Bobbi-Jeanne Misick / Verite

King, whose law office is located along a stretch of Newton Street with bike lanes, said he was “shocked” when he noticed the installation of the protected bike lane features in 2020.

“I left work on Friday and came back on Monday, and there were protected lanes,” he said. “I went from safely, comfortably parking in front of my office, and safely and comfortably getting my toddlers out of the car seat, to being anxious from cars going 30 miles, 40 miles an hour down the street.”

During King’s run for office in 2021, he promised to prioritize his constituents’ concerns about the new bike lanes. He said business owners on Newton Street complained that the new configuration forced customers to park further away from their establishments and interfered with business and their clients’ safety. 

On Thursday (July 20), a handful of people could be seen riding their bicycles up and down Newton Street. Reginald Tollett, 63, stopped his friend Veronica Robinson, 54, to borrow her bike pump. Neither of them knew there had been a vote in September to take the bollards and other protected features of the bike lanes down. But they said they use the bike lanes every day. They commute to and from work in the Central Business District by bike, bus and ferry.  

Both said they like having the protection in Algiers. 

“It’s safer for us,” Robinson said. “In a regular bike lane [drivers will] ride way over here [into the bike lane] and they’re supposed to be over there [in the street].

Earlier that day, at roughly 5 p.m. at the intersection of MacArthur Boulevard and Holiday Drive, only one cyclist was spotted in 20 minutes. Barely any cars were parked in the parking spaces that separated the bike lane from the road. Most homes had cars parked in the driveways.

Phyllis Waiters-Locure, 76, who lives near the protected bike lanes on MacArthur Boulevard, said she and other residents have “tolerated” the new bike lane configuration most of the time, but some are “infuriated” at the problems they can cause motorists. She said that one of the issues that residents have with the city’s design is that, when cars are parked on the outside of the bike lanes, it is difficult for people backing out of nearby driveways to see oncoming traffic.

She also said the new design — which reduced MacArthur from two vehicular lanes to one — slowed traffic. 

Waiters-Locure is the former vice president of the Huntlee Village Neighborhood Association. She said canvassing by the neighborhood group found residents did not feel that the city engaged with them enough before the new design was put in place.

“They were not given a voice and I think that’s important,” the neighborhood association’s president, Christy Lynch, said. “Government should bubble up from the people up and not be imposed on them based upon lack of input.” 

‘The timing cannot be overstated’

La Spina of Bike Easy rejected the idea that neighborhood residents weren’t given enough opportunity to provide input on the bike lanes. 

The group worked as part of the New Orleans Complete Streets Coalition to gather community input on bike lanes being placed in neighborhoods. 

Bike Easy also conducted 10 community engagement activities in Algiers from Jan. 2020 to July 2021, according to a list La Spina provided. But La Spina suspects many non-bicyclists who received meeting notices disregarded them, she said.

“And then when the bike lanes are getting put on the ground they’re like, ‘Nobody told me anything,’” she said.  

However, many of those meetings coincided with the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, creating additional challenges to getting the word out. 

“The timing of this cannot be overstated enough,” said Nellie Catzen, now co-chair of the Complete Streets Coalition. All of the community meetings were held on Zoom, creating a potential barrier for some residents who may lack easy access to high-speed internet at home, she noted. 

Former City Council member Kristin Gisleson Palmer, who sponsored the city’s 2011 Complete Streets Ordinance, said she thought the bike lane on MacArthur made sense because it connected schools, a public library, a park and a grocery store. Palmer is“passionate” about putting the bike lanes in Algiers first because “Algiers has been left out of a lot of infrastructure,” she said. 

But she agreed with critics that the Cantrell administration did not do enough to gather input from residents. 

“There wasn’t enough outreach from the administration side,” Palmer said. “When there started to be an uproar, the administration was slow to respond.”

City officials acknowledged more outreach could have been done. In its written statement, the Mayor’s Office said the city would continue to pursue its Moving New Orleans bike infrastructure plans. 

“We call on the City Council to join the Administration on these efforts and more as we move forward together swiftly and resolutely in addressing our roadway safety crisis,” the statement read. 

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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...