The Big Easy’s intermittent bike boom

Posted by Emilie on July 11, 2013 in Advocacy, Bicycle Safety

Why is it that bicycling is booming in certain parts of the city while in others bicyclists are virtually non-existent?

As anyone reading this post probably knows, more and more New Orleanians are hopping on their bicycles to get around. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, close to 2 percent of city residents count the bike as their primary mode of commuting to work, an estimate that marks a more than 50 percent increase over year-2000 figures. New Orleans is now positioned among the national leaders in bike commuting and stands apart in the car-dependent South in particular. Yet experience and ACS journey-to-work data suggest that transportation bicycling is not catching on across New Orleans uniformly.

In general, the highest rates of bike commuting, according to ACS estimates*, are concentrated along the river in the city’s oldest neighborhoods, and also in Mid City, adjacent to City Park and near Bayou St. John. By contrast, bicycle commuting is virtually non-existent across much of New Orleans’ post World War II landscape, with a few important exceptions.

This variation in bicycling activity served as the foundation of the masters’ thesis** I recently completed toward my urban planning degree. I wanted to explore some of the reasons behind the substantial discrepancies in transportation bicycling found across the city – a territory seemingly confronted with nearly identical terrain, weather and policies.

My research was structured around two neighborhoods that fall on opposite ends of the bike-commute spectrum. Bywater, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, boasts one of the highest bike mode shares in the city per the ACS, with an estimated 7 to 11 percent of residents commuting to work by bike, depending on how the district’s boundaries are defined. In Navarre, a section of more suburban Lakeview that took off after the rise of the personal automobile, an estimated 2.5 percent of residents get to work by bike.

I went into this project expecting that those places abuzz with bicyclists were those with physical environments better-suited to the activity – where bike lanes and bike parking were in abundant supply and everyday needs were available in relatively close reach. This assumption was not disproven.
As much of the pre-existing research has found and this project reinforces, there are important correlations between the shape of the physical environment and transportation behavior.

Bicycling tends to be most alluring in places with ample and well-connected bikeways, where the bike offers a convenient way to avoid traffic congestion and parking hassles, and where there are plenty of places to bicycle to – stores, jobs, and other destinations – within close range.

Bywater is such a neighborhood. It is characterized by a mix of commercial and residential uses. By virtue of its early origins, it has narrow, well-connected, low-speed streets and limited off-street parking. Bywater also benefits from some dedicated bicycling infrastructure.

Navarre, by contrast, is almost exclusively residential. Off-street parking is in abundant supply, and high-speed automobile infrastructure – I-610 and the Pontchartrain Expressway form two of the neighborhood’s boundaries – make it easy to get between Navarre and most parts of the city by car. At present, there are no dedicated bicycle facilities located within the neighborhood, though several nearby bikeways help to connect the area with other parts of New Orleans.

The differences between the two neighborhoods certainly extend beyond the physical. There are also substantial discrepancies in household composition. For example, rates of car ownership and income are higher in Navarre as compared with Bywater. Access to a car, for obvious reasons, tends to reduce the chance that a person will use a bike for transportation purposes in this country. Higher income makes it more likely that a person is able to afford the costs of automobile ownership.

Differences in demographics and the shape of the built environment undoubtedly help to explain the spatial variation in bicycling activity. But over the course of my research, I became increasingly convinced of the complexity of bicycling behavior and intrigued by the more difficult-to-measure reasons why people might or might not opt for the mode. In particular, I was interested in the strong role that social forces appear to play in this decision.

“It makes me feel like an asshole, living in Bywater and driving,” a 36-year-old woman I’ll call Donna told me one evening over drinks at a wine bar on St. Claude Avenue. We sat in a window fronting the avenue, watching as a steady stream of bicyclists whizzed by on the bike lane installed along three miles of the corridor in 2008. She explained that she had long been accustomed to driving most places, but after recently relocating to Bywater, she suddenly felt self-conscious about her transportation habits in light of the bicyclists she encountered in her new neighborhood with great frequency.

By contrast, a 32-year-old woman living in Navarre (I’ll call her Emma) told me that she never thought twice about jumping in her car to get everywhere she needed to go. Emma struggled to recall a time when she, her husband and their small child had gotten anywhere by some means other than driving, the occasional walk around the block for exercise notwithstanding. Driving presented the most convenient and safest option, Emma told me, thanks in no small part to the ease with which she was able to drive and park in and around her neighborhood. She also noted the dearth of destinations within close range, though she admitted that even if there were a greater number of stores or restaurants nearby, she probably wouldn’t bike to them.

It struck me that Emma’s transportation behavior might be rooted as much in the cultural environment of her neighborhood as was Donna’s self-consciousness about driving through hers. Surrounded mostly by people who grab their car keys every time they head out the door, she wasn’t likely to feel compelled to consider other options.

After all, it isn’t as though bicycling from Navarre requires some Herculean effort. To test the ease of bicycling from each of the neighborhoods, I mapped and bicycled a route roughly from the center of Bywater and Navarre to a spot near the center of New Orleans’ Central Business District, the site of one of highest concentrations of jobs in the region. To my surprise, the trip from Navarre was only about a mile longer than the trip from Bywater. By some measures, it was a more enjoyable ride.

A study I came across over the course of this project lends support to the importance of peer pressure in shaping transportation behavior. Portland-based researchers Jennifer Dill and Kim Voros concluded in their 2007 analysis that the bicycling behavior of neighbors, coworkers and friends exerts substantial sway over a person’s bicycling interest and habits. If a place is teeming with cyclists, bicycling may be more readily perceived as viable, safe and socially-acceptable. In places where little bicycling occurs, the opposite perception likely holds true.

By no means do I intend to minimize the importance of the built environment in fueling or dampening transportation bicycling interest. I just returned from Houston, where signs caution pedestrians to watch out for cars and where the only place I felt comfortable bicycling was on the well-protected greenway running along a bayou downtown. Over four days in the city, I didn’t encounter a single bike lane. The few transportation bicyclists I saw improvised bikeways using sidewalks and parking lots to avoid sprawling, high-traffic roadways.

What I am suggesting is that there seems to be an element of contagiousness involved in transportation behavior. And that by providing a physical environment more conducive to bicycling – one with proper infrastructure, education, and compatible land use and parking policies – it is likely that policy makers can help to create the conditions in which bicycling is likely to thrive.

*It should be noted that small sampling size and large margins of error are among the drawbacks of using ACS data, and these limitations grow more pronounced the smaller the area of analysis. Additionally, work-related trips are estimated to represent just 20 to 30 percent of a person’s overall travel behavior, but high rates of bike commuting tend to be positively associated with higher rates of bicycling for all transportation purposes.

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