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The Hub: A guide to bicycle infrastructure

Editor’s Note: New Orleans is getting more bike lanes. And it's no coincidence. Folks here care about bikes, talk about bikes and are definitely riding bikes. THE HUB is a new collaborative space for bike enthusiasts of every type -- from racers to tricksters, explorers to commuters. Each month, a HUB contributor will take the mic and talk bike. Here you'll get information on events, new stylings, local biker profiles, and commentary on the two-wheel life.

Today, we hear from Anneka Olsen about a public meeting (happening tonight, 9/17) to discuss the future of a Baronne Street Bikeway in the CBD between Canal and Calliope.  The City Department of Public Works is proposing a buffered bike lane on Baronne, and are seeking public comment on this addition to our bicycle network.  

BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME

When many of us hear the word “bicyclist” or “cyclist,” we think of a spandex-clad racer on a road bike, or a diehard urban messenger weaving in and out of traffic on downtown streets.

But there is a much larger and more inclusive definition of “bicyclists” - anyone who rides a bike, whether it is a kid riding on a neighborhood street; a service industry worker biking home from the CBD after a long shift; grandparents and grandkids riding together at City Park; or someone hopping on a bike to get back in shape.

Similarly, there are several different types of bicycle infrastructure - sharrows, bike lanes, neighborhood greenways, shared use trails, etc. - and each serves a different purpose to the end of creating a connected network of streets that are safe and comfortable for bicyclists.  The kind of infrastructure that gets installed also tends to limit who we can expect to ride on our streets.

Isabella. Photo credit: People for Bikes

Isabella. Photo credit: People for Bikes

Recently, an announcement by national advocacy group People for Bikes illustrated this connection between infrastructure and riders.  The  “Build it for Isabella” campaign is focused on a fictional 12-year-old girl named Isabella, who wants to go all sorts of places - the park, library, school and the ice cream shop - on her bike.

The idea is that we need to think more comprehensively about who could - and would - use a bike for transportation, if only our roads allowed it.  Building it for Isabella means that we have a new standard for safety and comfort when we build new bike lanes.  If we are building it for Isabella - “a low-stress, connected network” - it will work “beautifully” for the rest of us, too.

So, why does this national conversation matter for New Orleans?  What does this mean for the progress of bike lanes and paths here in our City?  I’d argue that this is a conversation we have, in different ways, every time we pave a new road or re-paint a street in New Orleans.   At the heart of this discussion is the question: “Who is bicycling for?”

EXPANDING THE NETWORK

We have compiled a glossary, of sorts, of the kinds of bicycle infrastructure that you can expect to see on New Orleans streets and the infrastructure that we may be missing.  (The glossary follows this article at the bottom of the page.)

All of these kinds of infrastructure have a place and a reason, and all are part of the toolbox required to retrofit our cities as we work to create a more connected bicycle network.   But some of these pieces of infrastructure do a better job of accommodating riders of all skill levels.  Shared use paths, for instance, or protected lanes, are going to be more inviting for a parent riding with young children than a sharrow down a high-speed arterial.  And what this doesn’t capture is the qualitative difference of biking down a street where you feel prioritized, welcome, and secure, versus a street where it feels that an irritated or distracted motorist could make a bad choice and influence the course of your life forever.

Though there are of course always concessions and challenges to building an ideal network - streets not wide enough; potholes; and limited funding - we need to be thinking more comprehensively about how the choices we’re making may limit who will use a bike in our city.  By installing more of the same, those already biking may be safer and more comfortable, but without considering these new users, we won’t be able to expand the definition of who bicycling is for. (For more on this, see recent research about how people responded to traditional, paint-on-the ground bike lanes versus physically separated infrastructure.)

ACCESSIBLE AND LIVABLE STREETS

It’s not as if New Orleans is an awful place to ride a bicycle - by the end of 2014, the City is anticipating that we’ll have almost 100 miles of bikeways.  We have the 8th highest rate of bicycle commuters nationwide, with around 2.5% of residents riding a bicycle every morning to get to work; we just jumped from 41st to 22nd in the national rankings of great cities to ride a bike in Bicycling Magazine.  Plus, with the Lafitte Greenway projected to open in 2015, we’ll have a comfortable and safe place for families to walk and bike through the heart of our City.

Still, riding a bike - for transportation, fitness, competition or fun - still feels a long way off for many folks.  There are barriers, such as access to affordable bikes, distance to destinations such as work or school - and also, it rains a lot in New Orleans.

However, our roadways (and how they accommodate bicyclists) do not need to be one of these seemingly insurmountable barriers.  Kids should be able to bike from home to school on safe infrastructure.  Seniors should be able to grocery shop or attend a doctor’s visit by bike.   Teenagers should be able to get to an after-school job using our network.

According to our City’s Complete Streets Ordinance, these users must be considered whenever roadways are repaved or restriped.  And every time that we’re not taking them into account, we’re missing an opportunity to make our city more livable, accessible, and equitable for the people who live here.

Especially as Federal repaving dollars are tapering off following Katrina, these opportunities are fewer and farther between.  When we have a chance to make a change, we should take it - and it’s not just future generations who will thank us, since these are positive changes that we can see on-the-ground immediately.  These changes are for the Isabellas in our City, but they’re also for everyone else.

The City of New Orleans’ public meeting to discuss a Baronne Street Bikeway will be held Wednesday, September 17th at 6pm at the Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp Street.  The City will be considering a buffered bike lane on Baronne Street between Canal and Calliope.  For more information, click here; to learn more about Bike Easy's stance, click here

---- A GLOSSARY OF BIKE TERMS ----

What follows is a menu of the kinds of infrastructure that we have seen - or hope to see - on our streets.

-Sharrows (aka shared use lanes, or the “bike in the house”) are used to identify routes that are frequented by bicyclists; to help bicyclists with correct lane placement; and to let motorists know that they should expect to find bicyclists in these lanes.  This is an ideal treatment for narrow, lower-traffic streets without space for a dedicated bike lane, especially while connecting a network.  However, sharrows are often overused on high-traffic, high-speed streets in place of dedicated bike lanes.

Sharrow on Orleans Ave.  Photo by Daniel Paschall.

Sharrow on Orleans Ave. Photo by Daniel Paschall.

-Bike lanes (aka dedicated lanes) are used to “designate an exclusive space for bicyclists through the use of pavement markings and signage.”  This is the classic paint-on-the-ground bike lane, creating a space for bicyclists within a street’s traffic patterns.

 Bike Lane on S Carrollton Ave.  Photo by Bike Easy


Bike Lane on S Carrollton Ave. Photo by Bike Easy

-Bicycle boulevards (aka neighborhood greenways) are low-traffic neighborhood streets that are optimized for bicycle usage.  Usually designated by sharrows and signage and running parallel to higher-traffic streets, they help connect bicyclists to destinations on low-volume, low-stress routes, and often have reduced speed limits for motorists.

-Buffered bike lanes are traditional bike lanes with additional space on one or both sides of for bicyclists - separating bicyclists from parked cars (and the dreaded “door zone” - drivers opening their doors into bike lanes) and/or a lane of travel.  When there is space, buffered bike lanes are a great solution to provide extra comfort and safety.   New Orleans already has several, on St. Bernard Ave, Nashville Ave, and Gentilly Boulevard.

Buffered bike lane on Gentilly Boulevard.  Photo by Bike Easy

Buffered bike lane on Gentilly Boulevard. Photo by Bike Easy

-Protected bike lanes (aka cycle tracks or green lanes) are physically separated bike lanes on major arterials, with from lanes of travel, usually in the form of plastic bollards, jersey barriers, or parked cars.  Particularly in cases where traffic is heavy, protected bike lanes are an ideal solution to create safe riding conditions for people of all ages.  They also provide connectivity in cases where there is only room for a bike lane on one side of the road - in many of these situations, a two-way cycle track will provide space for riders going in both directions.

-Bike trails (aka shared-use paths, linear parks, or bicycle super-highways) are what most folks think of when they think of an ideal place to ride.  These are physically separated, bicycle and pedestrian-only, and and often cut through open spaces.  The levee trail connecting Audubon Park to Kenner is an example; so is Jeff Davis Parkway.  These trails often offer the best that bicycling has to offer - for transportation and recreational riders alike.


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Anneka Olson is a bicycle advocate, mechanic, and commuter.  In her capacity as Community EducationManager at local bicycle advocacy organization Bike Easy, she gets to work with people of all ages to educate them to be safer, smarter, and more confident bicyclists.