Is New Orleans ready for a bike sharing program?, The Times-Picayune

Thursday, May 12, 2016

By Richard Rainey, | The Times-Picayune

Alexander Fleming awakes each morning to a dispiriting routine: Another report, another bicycle stolen somewhere in New Orleans.

Through the course of his work as president of Stolen Bikes NOLA, it’s sometimes half a dozen bikes a day he’s trying to track down. And he fears that will only get worse should the city welcome a bike-sharing program.

“I’ve gotten into a huge argument with my vice president over this,” Fleming said. “If any of those get stolen, I don’t want to go looking for them. I don’t want to be the ‘I told you so.’”
Fleming admits he is a lonely voice denouncing what other biking advocates

herald as a signal of a city’s urban renewal, a move toward mending an inequitable transit network or simply rising conscientiousness about how people should get around.

He has fought with friends and colleagues alike. But Fleming’s skepticism that a bike share program would work in New Orleans has remained firm.

“From the bottom of my swollen butt who rides my bike every day, this city is not ready for this,” he said.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu sparked this latest debate over a bike-share program when he asked last month for pitches from private companies and nonprofit groups willing to construct such a service from scratch without any financial support from City Hall. Those proposals are due June 1.

“No public dollars will be spent on the implementation, operation or maintenance of the system,” according to a statement from Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration.

New Orleans has witnessed a surge in two-wheeled commuters. Between 2000 and 2014, the percentage of bicyclists has nearly tripled, and New Orleans ranks high among American biking cities, according to a 2014 report by the League of American Cyclists.

Bike-share advocates see a program adding to those numbers, but also as a cog in a larger and increasingly diverse transportation system. New Orleans has added more than 100 miles of bike lanes in the past decade. The Regional Transit Authority has expanded its service hours to shorten wait times and run 24 hours. A new streetcar line on North Rampart Street and St. Claude Avenue is slated to open in September. Ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft have become popular. Pedicabs weave in and out of traffic around the French Quarter and the Central Business District.

“Bike share is part of that larger equation,” said Kate Fillin-Yeh, of the National Association of City Transportation Officials. “It’s an option to help grow biking and make it easier to get around.”

Loosely defined, a bike-sharing program is a stable of bicycles dedicated to a network of stations strategically placed around a city or town. Bikes can be ridden from one station and to another, often for a fee.

It can connect people to the spots they buy essentials and spend money. It can connect them to jobs, too.

But Fleming doesn’t see the bright side as long as his worries persist that a bike-sharing program could promote theft, neglect poor residents for tourists and contribute to gentrification.

“I could see this thing happening in maybe a couple years, but not now. It’s hell to ride a bike in this city. It’s just complete hell,” he said.

The Landrieu administration and biking advocates disagree, describing the growing network of bike lanes, paths, and stands as a ripe opportunity.

“I think the bike share will offer another opportunity that the people want, but it’s a complicated thing,” said Naomi Doerner with the advocacy group Alliance for Biking & Walking. “I don’t find that the concerns are unfounded, but I think there are ways to mitigate some of the inequities that were present in some of the early bike-share systems.”

At the core of Fleming’s misgivings are the basic safety problems New Orleans presents. Its pothole-ridden streets pop tires, bend spokes, and cripple frames. Motorists are often callous toward cyclists, an attitude evident in the city’s high rate of deadly crashes between bikes and vehicles.

The answer to that is more bikes, said Dan Favre, executive director of the New Orleans Bike Easy. A “critical mass” of cyclists on the road would drive up motorists’ awareness and prompt public policy decision-makers to take them into account.

“Bike share means more people biking, which means safer biking, which means more transit options, which means improved economy, improved health,” Favre said.

Fleming has devoted much of his free time to hound-dogging bike thieves, making theft his prime example of an Achilles’ heel for a New Orleans bike-sharing program. He is worried that unscrupulous scrap dealers will simply buy up the contraband.

“Look, man, you’re dealing with addicts. … If there’s a way to get a bike, they will get the bike. They’re ingenious,” he said. “As a mayor of city in turmoil, (Landrieu would) be better off looking for private companies to come in and do drug rehab.”

Previous bike shares have been devastated by high rates of theft. Paris in 2012 lost 9,000 bikes to burglars and vandals. Baltimore suffered the one-time loss of four dozen bikes in 2014 that crippled its donation-dependent Ride Around the Reservoir system.

But bike-sharing programs have learned from previous mistakes, Favre said. Bikes are now custom-made with heavy materials and one-of-kind locking systems that make their parts useless on other bicycle models. Washington, D.C.‘s program recorded 100 stolen custom bikes between 2010 and 2014, according to The Washington Post. All but 16 of them were eventually recovered. And much like department stores dealing with shoplifting, bike-sharing companies sometimes account for a certain percentage of theft in their annual bottom lines.

“Cities all around the country have faced bike theft as well,” Favre said. “When it comes to theft, I think bike-share companies have figured it out or just taken that into account in their business models.”

Beyond its crime rate, New Orleans remains a poor city and the debate over equitable access to resources has bubbled up in conversations about nearly every facet of living here. Bike sharing is no different.

More than one in three kids in New Orleans lives in poverty, according to the Census Bureau. Almost 28 percent of the overall population is below that income line. In 2014, Bloomberg ranked New Orleans as the second-worst American city behind Atlanta for the size of its income gap.

Suffice to say, the cost of the program could all but dictate who will use it, Fleming said. “The only way I can see this thing helping the poor is if you can rent these suckers for cheaper than bus fare.”

Some cities have done just that. Boston’s Hubway bike-sharing program lets low-income residents buy an annual membership for $5 — an $80 discount.
New Orleans’ tourism industry could create a similar scenario, Favre said. Visitors’ daily bike rentals could subsidize a membership program that targets the city’s poorer residents, he said.

When Philadelphia launched its Indego program a year ago, equity was a primary goal. It lets users pay in cash for monthly passes to eliminate the innate exclusivity of a credit card-only service.

It also opened 20 kiosks in low-income neighborhoods, a deliberate move toward reaching marginalized populations. A similar goal is implied in the parameters Landrieu’s request: Any program in New Orleans must have at least 700 bikes and must provide service to the Claiborne Avenue corridor and the blocks around the new hospitals in Mid-City.

Those bike-docking stations, however, also give Fleming pause. He resists using the term “bike share” to describe them. Instead, they are “bike rental kiosks,” he said.

His reasoning is economic. He worries that a kiosk in a low-income neighborhood would give landlords with properties nearby license to label that block “up-and-coming” and raise rents.

In other words, he sees a bike-sharing program as a harbinger of gentrification and its unsavory cousin: the displacement of the poor.

“If one of these pops up in quote-unquote transitional neighborhoods, it’s an open excuse to raise the rent,” Fleming said. “New Orleans right now is having a huge housing crisis, and if this becomes an aid to gentrification, a lot of poor people are going to be pushed out by something I love: bicycles.”

The effects of gentrification are real and exigent dilemmas for a growing New Orleans, Favre said. But to link bike-sharing programs as a major contributor to social and economic strife “grossly oversimplifies” the larger problem.

“Bike share is not going to be the thing that determines whether New Orleans is going to get more affordable housing,” Favre said. “But people are going to need transportation, too.”

Fleming remains unpersuaded, but part of him is also optimistic that he adheres to the minority opinion for a good reason.

“I am the odd man out and I have accepted it, and I hope I’m wrong,” he said. “I hope to God I’m wrong.”

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