By Kasey Bubnash, Mid-City Messenger
City officials are rethinking a plan to install protected bike lanes on a half-mile stretch of Bienville Street in Mid-City after neighborhood residents and business owners complained that the lane would take up much-needed parking spots and require extensive maintenance.
The bike lanes, part of a project funded by the state’s Department of Transportation and Development, are planned for the short but heavily traveled section of Bienville between North Carrollton Avenue and Norman C. Francis Parkway.
Instead of the more intensively protected bike lanes originally proposed, the city recently decided to install traditional bike lanes between the traffic lane and parked cars.
Daniel Jatres, policy and program manager with the Mayor’s Office of Transportation, announced the update at the Aug. 9 Mid-City Neighborhood Organization meeting.
“It still provides us our safety benefits that we get around traffic calming and shortening pedestrian distances,” Jatres said at the meeting, “and helping to further complete the network in the area of bikeways, serving as the connection between the existing trail on Norman C. Francis Parkway and the existing bikeways on Bienville on the lake side of Carrollton.”
The bike lane proposed for Bienville is part of the Department of Public Works’ Moving New Orleans Bikes project, which operates in tandem with the street repair programs and aims to construct a 75-mile bicycle network throughout the city.
The Moving New Orleans Bikes planning project kicked off in 2019 with citywide public meetings, culminating in a bike path blueprint that shows areas where the city hopes to install protected bike lanes.
Bienville is one of those targeted streets. It is considered an important connector between the Success Prep @ Thurgood Marshall school on Canal Street and the bike paths on the Lafitte Greenway and parkway neutral ground. For that reason, Jatres said, the seven-block Bienville lanes are being funded by the state’s Safe Routes to School program.
Initially, the city had proposed the installation of protected bike lanes in both directions on Bienville. While a traditional bike lane is separated from passing vehicles by painted lines, protected lanes are separated by bollards, medians or a lane of parked cars.
On Bienville, the bike lanes would have run adjacent to the curb with bollards and parking spots between the bicycle and vehicle traffic.
Although a 2020 survey conducted by AGL Research found that a majority of New Orleanians favored protected bike lanes even if that means reducing some travel lanes, the Bienville protected bike lanes turned out to be controversial.
They would have reduced the number of on-street parking spots to allow for safe sight distances at driveways on the street. Plus, protected lanes can require more maintenance than traditional bike lanes.
Community members at the August MCNO meeting asked who would maintain the protected bike lane once installed and complained that they hadn’t been adequately informed of the looming structural changes to their street.
A few asked why the city wouldn’t first attend to basic street maintenance — like repaving roadways and filling potholes — before adding more infrastructure in need of care.
After considering various community complaints, especially over the loss of on-street parking, city officials reconsidered. Now, Jatres said, the city plans to install traditional bike lanes. While the road will still be reduced from its current two lanes of traffic in each direction to just one, parking will be much less impacted.
Mary Mysing-Gubala, an MCNO board member and cyclist, said she was elated when she heard that the plan for the Bienville bike lanes had changed. She received messages from several other locals who shared her feelings, she said.
“You know, it’s like they actually listened,” she said. “It was just amazing. Just amazing.”
In the Mid-City area, she said, many residences lack driveways and most businesses don’t have their own designated parking lots.
“So they’re desperate for their spot on their street, and taking away even a few parking places is a major issue because many of our residents are elderly,” Mysing-Gubala said. “There are people with walkers, people in wheelchairs. Well, not only that, but young people with little kids. It’s an issue to not be able to have access in front of your house.”
According to the Data Center, census data shows that about 16 percent of New Orleanians have no access to a vehicle. Mysing-Gubala, however, pointed to a 2014 American Community Survey that suggested only around 4 percent of New Orleanians use bikes for their daily commutes.
Mysing-Gubala said she finds the disparity between the popularity of biking in New Orleans and the expansion of biking infrastructure to be disconcerting.
“To be putting in these protected bike lanes that restrict access to people’s homes, that restrict access to automobile traffic, for such a small percentage of the population — it doesn’t seem just,” she said.
Dan Favre, executive director of Bike Easy, an organization dedicated to making biking more accessible in New Orleans, said improved biking infrastructure benefits everyone, including motorists and pedestrians.
More New Orleanians would likely commute via bike, he said, if they felt more comfortable doing so. “The reason more people aren’t biking is because the infrastructure to support safe and comfortable biking is still coming online,” he said.
If more people used bikes for their daily commutes, Favre said, the demand for parking wouldn’t be as great. There wouldn’t be as much vehicle traffic or pollution, and it would lend a hand in creating a healthier population.
“Those are things that benefit the population as a whole,” he said.
While Favre said he hasn’t heard about the updated plans for conventional lanes on Bienville, he said protected bike lanes are generally considered to be the gold standard. They prevent collisions and allow newer cyclists to get more comfortable riding in roadways. Protected lanes also allow motorists to focus on driving safely without having to worry much about what cyclists are doing and where they’re going, he said.
Jennifer Ruley, manager of the Moving New Orleans Bikes project, gave another reason for the change. She said the traditional bike lanes will align with the existing bike lanes on connecting streets.
The protected bike lanes would have created a choppy transition, from bike paths to protected lanes to traditional lanes, for cyclists and drivers alike.
“So from our perspective,” Ruley said, “doing the conventional bike lane now provides that connectivity between lanes.”
Reporter Kasey Bubnash can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.