June 14th, 2023
Last night I watched another cyclist die in front of me. I was standing in front of Siberia on St. Claude, and a speeding automobile (though I saw it happen, I can’t remember anything about the car or truck) smashed into a cyclist at a sickening velocity, sending this person’s body flying more than half a block and landing in a twisted heap. I knew immediately that the impact was not survivable, and only hoped he would die quickly with little pain. It was an utterly horrible thing to see, and I lay awake for hours, replaying it in my mind, thinking about the man’s parents, etc. getting that shattering phone call. Unfortunately, I have seen this more than once in the 12 years I have lived in New Orleans. I have even been hit myself, head on, while waiting at a stop sign, by an SUV driver obliviously driving on the wrong side of the road. Very luckily for me, I was thrown to the side and her front tire missed my head by inches as she crushed my bike into a steel pretzel and sped off without stopping to see if I needed help.
New Orleans leads the nation in cyclist deaths per capita, according to the League of American Bicyclists. This fact will surprise no one who rides here regularly. It is the inevitable result of a perfect storm of terrible cycling infrastructure and a near total absence of any traffic enforcement. Drivers were bad here already. I’ve never encountered quite the confluence of aggression, ignorance, and intoxication that is the typical New Orleans driver anywhere else. But the fact that they are now permitted to do virtually anything – speed, run red lights and stop signs, pass in the bike lane, not have license plates, etc. – without fear of consequences has made these America’s deadliest streets for the rest of us.
But what about all the bad cyclists? Every time another cyclist is hit, an inevitable torrent ofvictim blaming results. To be clear, I, personally, observe traffic laws, use turn signals, wear a helmet, and have lights on my bike. I get annoyed when I see cyclists riding the wrong way, on the sidewalk, or generally behaving unpredictably. That said, there can be no equivalency whatsoever between reckless driving and cycling. One type of vehicle is deadly weapon that kills over 40,000 people in the US every year – 1.3 million globally – and leaves many more with life-altering injuries. The other is a danger to virtually no one except the operator. Cyclists do not bear anywhere near the same level of moral responsibility as drivers. The world’s worst cyclist will always be less dangerous than the world’s best driver.
The fact that we are the most deadly city for cyclists in the US is a policy choice. It’s a choice to refuse to build protected bike lanes, as many cities around the world have done, rather than a line painted on the street for drivers to use as a passing lane and open their parked car doors into, or the ridiculous “sharrows” that encourage drivers to share the road with cyclists, which everyone completely ignores. It’s a choice city council made when it voted unanimously to tear up some of the only semi-protected bike lanes we have in the city, because some homeowners thought they were an eyesore. It’s a choice to refuse to ticket cars parked in bike lanes. I, personally, have reported (I estimate) 7,000-10,000 cars parked in bike lanes to the Dept. of Public Works, which is in charge of parking enforcement, over the past 7 years. To my knowledge, none of these reports has resulted in anyone getting a ticket (though I can’t be certain). A few years back, the city raised the fine for parking in a bike lane from $40 to $300, but it remains largely unenforced. Not ticketing drivers for blatantly illegal behavior is a choice. How many times have I watched multiple cars speed through a red light in full view of a cop, confident in the knowledge no penalty will result? If drivers and elected officials cannot be made to care about the lives of cyclists, perhaps they will at least care about the ballooning insurance rates that result from the automotive anarchy in which we currently live? Meanwhile, cyclists will continue to be maimed and killed on a predictably regular basis until, as a society, we decide it might be nice to a have safe, non-polluting, inexpensive, traffic-reducing, and healthful means of transportation.
We are grateful for David Symons insight, and want y’all to know that we will continue to strive to make biking easy, SAFE, and fun for everyone in Greater New Orleans.
The Bike Easy Team