Usually the best way to explore any place is by bicycle. So last week when I found myself in New Orleans for the American Association for Justice’s Winter Convention, I had to carve out a few hours to rent a bike and ride aimlessly around the City. I even managed to drag some of the lawyers from the Bicycle Litigation Group along with me (it was not actually a tough sell).
Having gone to law school in New Orleans in the 1990s, I thought I knew what to expect. And yes, the stately mansions and Spanish moss still line St. Charles Avenue, the French Quarter is still an odd mix of drunk tourists and quirky residents depending on the block, and the food is still amazing. But what I did not expect was the astounding number of people riding bicycles! Now when you walk around the French Quarter, you’ll see a bicycle locked to almost every post. In the increasingly popular (and increasingly safe) Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods, I felt more likely to collide with a resident zooming along on a bicycle than someone in a motor vehicle.
Speaking of collisions, one sure sign that bicycles are really a way of life in New Orleans was how tolerant cars were when encountering them. Of course, it could be just the general relaxed attitude of the Big Easy but the prevalence of people obviously commuting by bicycles was surely a factor. Back in the early 90s, I lived in New Orleans as a student and rarely drove a car. My purple Giant Butte was my main mode of transportation (until it was stolen, right before I moved). Lots of other students also walked and rode bikes. But outside of the University area, bicycles didn’t seem very prevalent. It was hard to imagine bicycles fitting into New Orleans’ culture of gentility and old money mixed with voodoo, dark secrets, and political corruption. Today, the make-up of New Orleans feels very different. It is younger, hipper, and newer. There is an air of hope and entrepreneurship. According to a recent study the City did on the feasibility of installing a bike share program in 2000, New Orleans was 13th in the country in bicycle commuting; in 2009 it had risen to 6th.
During my 4 hours of riding, I had the opportunity to ponder the recipe for bicycling’s relatively recent success in New Orleans. What lessons could I bring to North Carolina? For one, I think that bicycling is a sign of progress, newness, and culture. Many North Carolina cities and their citizens are trying to bring this mentality home – Charlotte with BikeCharlotte and Raleigh with Bike First Friday, for example. One ingredient that New Orleans has plenty of, however, is a general inhospitality toward cars and a favorable environment for bicycling. Yes, there are bike lanes and shared lane markings. But what is most helpful is that everything in New Orleans is close and traffic everywhere is mostly quite slow. People don’t expect to get anywhere quickly so cars are more tolerant. A bicycle can be the quicker mode of transport. Parking is a nightmare, unless all you need is a post. Driving in New Orleans has always been a drag, so that part has always been there. All it needed was the right people to come in and take advantage of the opportunities. That’s what has happened since I left, and since Hurricane Katrina.
I believe North Carolina cities have similar opportunities. We have to strive to encourage bicycling by making it the easiest form of transportation. Motor vehicle drivers should expect to move quickly on highways but not on congested city streets. Bicyclists should be able to move quickly in congested areas without constant fear of being mowed over. There has to be a constant message that bikes belong, which is why the best (although not the only) way to increase bicycling is for people to just ride and keep riding