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Cycling New Orleans: Decatur repaving project fails to include bike or turning lanes

Workers prepare to repave the river side of North Peters Street, which, if plans stand, will include no bike lane or turning lane.

Most local commuters are all too aware of the on-going road work in the downtown area and have plenty of personal horror stories about the grid-locked traffic flow going to and from work in the CBD and French Quarter that seems to have become the norm. What they may not realize, however, is Department of Public Works (DPW) Director Mark Jernigan, PE, PMP, Lt. Col. (Ret) and Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant finalized a decision last week that will affect French Quarter traffic flow, and the safety of New Orleanians, long after the current projects are complete.

After a week of re-evaluating the traffic lane arrangement on the portion of North Peters/Decatur Street that is to be repaved as part of the Paths to Progress roadway improvement program, the DPW and Mayor’s Office have reached the conclusion that all of the streets in the Quarter, including North Peters/Decatur, are to be repaved and then restriped as they have been in the past. The only changes in striping will be the addition of marked bike lanes on Decatur Street from St. Louis to St. Peter. Sharrows are to be installed along the rest of North Peters/Decatur.

For most of the streets to be repaved, the existing streetscape layouts are appropriate for their current levels of traffic and were never questioned in terms of the Complete Streets Policy that was unanimously supported by the New Orleans City Council in December 2011. However, North Peters/Decatur is a wider thoroughfare that generally has a higher volume of traffic than the others. For cyclists and pedestrians in particular, traffic increased by 19.6 percent in 2010 and 30.6 percent in 2011, according to the UNO Count Report for 2010-2011, making North Peters/Decatur Street one of the most heavily cycled avenues in the study.

In conjunction with the increase in traffic, the rate of bicycle and pedestrian crashes also increased on North Peters/Decatur in that time period. Based on the New Orleans Regional Pedestrian and Bicycle Crash Report 2009-2012, Decatur Street near Jackson Square is currently at the center of what is referred to as a bicycle crash cluster – a location with a concentrated number of bicycle-related accidents.

With the above in mind, the DPW initially requested that the Regional Planning Commission (RPC) have a traffic flow study performed to determine if usability and safety could be improved on the North Peters/Decatur Street corridor by redesigning the traffic lane arrangement. The results of the RPC are not available publicly. However, based on reports from meetings between Bike Easy and the DPW, the study concluded that service, and more importantly safety, for all users – motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians alike -- could be improved by incorporating one bicycle lane and one car lane per each direction of travel with a turning lane in the middle of North Peters and Decatur St.

In addition to the traffic flow study’s findings, public sentiment expressed during environmental scoping meetings in the early stages of the project, as well as support from Councilwoman Kristen Gisleson Palmer, who represents District C including the French Quarter, showed that residents are also overwhelmingly in favor of the addition of bicycle lanes for the length of the North Peters/Decatur Street corridor.

In spite of the apparently high levels of public support and the reported merits of the traffic lane arrangement recommended by the RPC-commissioned traffic study, the DPW still elected to repave North Peters/Decatur Street with two car lanes per each direction of travel, Sharrows in each of the right lanes (except for two blocks of bike lanes from St. Louis to St. Peter Street), and no turning lane in the middle for motorists to move out of the flow of traffic as they wait to make a left turn.

Alarmed at the inaction taken by DPW, the cycling community, led by Bike Easy, threatened to protest last Friday as repaving of North Peters/Decatur Street was set to begin. It was only after the outcry and an agreement that Bike Easy call off its protest that the DPW decided to re-evaluate the design of the streetscape. Yet, after a week of meetings with Bike Easy, members of the RPC, and Councilwoman Palmer, Jernigan and Grant still did not incorporate the design improvements recommended by the traffic study and supported by many New Orleanians.

The reasoning for their decision according to Bike Easy after the meetings: There was not enough public support for the addition of marked bicycle lanes.

Upon news of the Department of Public Works’ decision, the public, again led by Bike Easy, has re-organized a protest to support making North Peters/Decatur Street a “Complete Street.” The Rally is now scheduled for 3 to 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 20, at the originally planned location of Washington Artillery Park in front of Jackson Square.

In the meantime, concerned citizens may sign Bike Easy’s Petition to make North Peters/Decatur Street a “Complete Street.” They may also call 311, ask for the Mayor’s Office, and voice their opinions on the course of action that has been taken by the DPW.

At the time this article was published, the DPW had not returned a request for comment on its decision to exclude full bike lanes and a turning lane from the streetscape design of N.orth Peters and Decatur Street.

M.T. Hinson writes about the bicycling community of New Orleans for NolaVie.