Biking on the rise outside N.O.

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- A cyclist zips down the bike lane Friday on St. Claude Avenue. Cycling in New Orleans has surged in recent years. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- A cyclist zips down the bike lane Friday on St. Claude Avenue. Cycling in New Orleans has surged in recent years.

City’s success a template

“Orleans is definitely ahead of the curve, but I don’t think that Jefferson Parish or any of the other surrounding parishes are that far behind.” Jamie Wine, executive director of Bike Easy,  a local bicycling advocacy group

Bicycles are everywhere in New Orleans. From downtown to City Park to Riverbend and all points in between, there has been a surge in bicycle usage that’s both obvious to the naked eye and buttressed by empirical studies.

The city’s decision to invest in creating more than 37 miles of dedicated bike lanes and shared-use roadways after Hurricane Katrina has resulted in a marked increase in bicycling based on both national and local data.

A recent study by Tulane University’s School of Public Heath and Tropical Medicine found usage of South Carrollton Avenue by bicyclists has increased by more than 200 percent since a new bike lane was striped by the city.

The bicycling surge hasn’t escaped the notice of the city’s neighbors in Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes, particularly as those areas compete with New Orleans to position themselves as attractive destinations for young professionals and businesses.

Jefferson Parish commissioned a $250,000 bicycle master plan last year that is expected to be completed this summer.

St. Bernard Parish is hoping to finally complete a Mississippi River bike path from Chalmette to Violet, said Dan Jatres, the pedestrian and bicycling program manager for the Regional Planning Commission.

Increased bicycle usage has documented health and economic benefits for communities, and what New Orleans has done is catching everyone else’s attention, Jatres said.

“Jefferson and St. Bernard are really starting to notice what the city is doing,” he said. “Anytime the city can promote a more active lifestyle … it helps the city’s goals of a more healthy and active populace.”

In Jefferson Parish, the bicycle push is a shift in philosophy as the parish tries to position itself as the go-to destination for young professionals and their families.

For example, in 2009, a proposal to add bike paths to east bank neighborhoods and increase biking in parish parks received serious pushback from politicians. Concerns were raised about increased crime and injuries, and the parish ultimately decided to focus on trails on Mississippi River levees.

But bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly communities are popular among young professionals, and Parish President John Young has called attracting that demographic crucial to the parish’s future strength. He’s said new housing and amenities in Jefferson Parish should incorporate pedestrian and bicycle access, and that’s a key component of the parish’s ongoing redevelopment of the Fat City community.

But duplicating New Orleans’ success presents some challenges for a suburban area like Jefferson Parish. New Orleans is a city that originally was designed with walking and cycling as normal modes of transportation, while Jefferson Parish developed more along the post-World War II model with vehicles as the primary means of travel, Jatres said.

Not only has commercial development in Jefferson Parish been driven by vehicle access, but many of the parish’s neighborhoods have barriers like canals, major thoroughfares and other impediments that make them difficult to connect to by bike or foot.

“There’s a lot of areas in Jefferson Parish where it’s easy to use a bike in a confined area. … But then you have the barriers that you have to figure out how to get across,” Jatres said. “Obviously, there are a lot of retail organizations concentrated in areas that are very vehicle-focused.”

In addition, Jefferson Parish has to change its mindset about what type of bicycle usage should be the focus for parish residents, Jatres said.

Traditionally, the parish has focused on biking simply as a recreational activity for residents but not as a mode of transportation to businesses or events, he said.

Parish Councilman Ricky Templet recently announced plans for restriping along Leo Kerner Parkway that would make it easier for residents to ride their bicycles to the new Parc des Familles. The $90,000 project received funding from the state and from Templet’s discretionary account.

Templet said he is interested in a new bicycle trail that would connect existing Mississippi River trails in Waggaman and Gretna, and another trail that would stretch from the levee to Lafitte.

“One of the things I’m hoping for is that you would certainly see a true bike path on the West Bank,” Templet said. “Biking has been around for generations and generations, and more people are trying to find alternative ways to travel.”

But bike paths like the Mississippi River trail can have pricetags in the millions of dollars. That’s a tough sell given the parish’s tight budgets, an issue Templet acknowledged.

Jatres said the path New Orleans took, which included striping and signage, can be completed at a fraction of the cost, and it caters to a more than strictly recreational usage.

Many people associate non-recreational bicycling with the idea of riding to work, and that doesn’t translate well to Jefferson Parish given the distance residents travel to work and the streets they use.

But Jatres said that while “bicycle commuters” are part of the picture, another component is encouraging residents to use bicycles to make trips to drugstores, restaurants or community events.

He said studies have shown that customers who travel by bicycle spend more money at businesses because they may make more frequent visits. The master plan will look at all of those issues, he said.

“There will be a variety of options,” said Jatres, who is involved in public meetings to get input from residents. “The parish will just have to look at their options.

Jamie Wine is the executive director of Bike Easy, a local bicycling advocacy group, and he said it’s important that Jefferson Parish’s plan not focus on any single group.

Bicyclists are a varied group with varied needs, and any plan needs to incorporate what commuters, recreational users and once-a-year Carnival riders need, he said.

“There is no type of person who is a bicycle rider,” Wine said. “There is no ‘bicyclist.’ There are just people who ride bicycles.”

He imagines that Jefferson’s plan will incorporate the idea of “nodes” of bicycle activity in different areas of the parish.

New Orleans has the advantage of being an urban center with a higher population density, but that doesn’t mean Jefferson Parish can’t duplicate certain aspects of what the city has done.

For example, Wine said that although Veterans Boulevard impedes bicycle travel, there are residential communities near the roadway that are ripe for more bike lanes that would link with commercial areas.

Jefferson Parish officials must create a framework for parish departments to collaborate on roadwork and plans so that biking becomes a concern when work is done.

“Orleans is definitely ahead of the curve, but I don’t think that Jefferson Parish or any of the other surrounding parishes are that far behind,” Wine said.