3rd January 2012
By Ariella Cohen
Byron Orlando Sandoval Lopez, 42, was cycling home on the St. Claude Avenue Bridge when a minivan hit him from behind, flinging him into the moving traffic that took his life. Kory Schenck, 26, was walking his bicycle across the Seabrook Bridge when a car fatally struck him. William Eddington, 64, was biking across Broad Street on Ursulines Avenue, moving against oncoming traffic, when a collision killed him.
In all three instances, drivers told police they didn’t see the cyclists until it was too late.
These three New Orleans deaths provide a window into one of the city’s more insistent — and overlooked — safety hazards: Dangerous traffic conditions for bicyclists. Bike down most streets in New Orleans and chances are you will dodge unlit intersections, potholes big enough to eat a tire, wheel-tripping horizontal grates and designated bike lanes several inches too narrow for safe passage. Even the most map-savvy travelers have a tough time finding bike-friendly streets to carry them all the way across town. And if you’re bicycling after dark and have to cross a bridge, as Lopez and Schenck tried to do, you’re facing the most high-risk scenario of all.
In 2011, the dangers translated into the death of one biker and another 121 bicycle-related injuries in Orleans Parish, state records show. The prior year, the death toll was three cyclists with another 102 injured.
The numbers are small, but the patterns persistent. In the five years between1996 and 2001, crashes took the lives of 12 bicyclists in the city and injured 135 others, according to Charity Hospital data compiled by the Regional Planning Commission in a 2006 plan. All but two killed were Black males and 78 percent of the crashes occurred in or within a quarter mile of a high-poverty census tract, the data shows.
In 2002, the city’s fatality rate won New Orleans the dubious distinction of being the most dangerous biking city in the country’s third most lethal state for biking. In fact, Orleans Parish accounted for 49 percent of all bicycle crashes statewide, federal highway data shows.
“There’s a lot of ways to get hurt out there,” cyclist Tommy Gremillion, 55, said.
He should know. Several years back, he hit a cyclist while driving a FedEx truck in the French Quarter. The cyclist was riding the wrong way on a one-way street, Gremillion said, and suffered only minimal injuries, but the experience still haunts him.
“That’s why I quit driving,” Gremillion said. “You have to be cautious out there if you want to avoid injury, and not everyone is.
The issue crosses class and race lines. Despite a media focus on young, white and preternaturally hip pedalers, the data show that the majority of the city’s cyclists are men of color who don’t have cars and rely on bikes to get around. And the injury rate tracks that: Of the injuries reported between 1996 and 2001, 44 were sustained by Black males under 18, but only two in the same age group were white males, the Regional Planning Commission states in its New Orleans Metropolitan Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan, the most recent study of biking fatalities in the city.
“You can’t attribute the popularity of bikes to the influx of new people and the fact that people are all green,” Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer. “It is the fact that we are a poor city. People cannot afford to have cars and they get around on bikes.”
“This has always been the case and now we are becoming more conscious of it,” she said. “It’s an equity issue. People should be able to get to work, school or the store safely, affordably, and in a way that is healthy to them and the community.”
The movement to make streets safer for bikers is beginning to bear fruit in New Orleans. Unlike in other cities where designated bike lanes and other such amenities have been met with resistance from territorial drivers, there has been virtually zero public opposition here. Pre-Katrina, the city had 11 miles of bikeways. Now the city has 43.9 miles of bikeways constructed, including bike lanes, shared lanes, and off-street paths, with another 4.2 miles are currently in construction and approximately 15 additional miles in planning.
In September, the League of American Bicyclists recognized the city’s progress by designating it as a Bicycle-Friendly Community. The advocacy group, which awarded the city a bronze designation, commended New Orleans for its expanding bikeway network and growing biking population.
Yet even as the political stars align for the urban bicycling movement, significant challenges remain.
Earlier last month, Palmer, an avid pedaler herself, won unanimous approval from the City Council for an ordinance that establishes a “Complete Streets” program at City Hall. Complete Streets is a national movement to encourage road design that prioritizes the needs of cyclists, pedestrians, transit users and people with disabilities. Much like Complete Streets regulations passed in cities such as Charlotte, N.C., Tupelo, Miss., and Rockville, Md., the Palmer-authored ordinance requires the city’s Public Works Department to work with the City Planning Commission to create design standards and policies that promote walking, biking and transit usage and that comply fully with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under the ordinance, planners must consider amenities such as bike lanes, crosswalks, traffic-calming measures, curb cuts, street and sidewalk lighting and other “targeted pedestrian and bicycle safety improvements.”
New Orleans is the first city in Louisiana to adopt such a policy, though the state itself enacted a similar statute in 2010.
Advocates, including Mayor Mitch Landrieu, say the policy is nothing short of a paradigm shift, one that contravenes decades of planning exclusively for cars and other passenger vehicles.
“Up until now, making streets safer has been done in an ad-hoc way,” said Matt Rufo, program manager for the KidsWalk Coalition, a project of the Prevention Research Center at Tulane University. “This will make it happen as a matter of policy, as the rule rather than the exception.”
This article was originally published in the January 2, 2012 edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper