By Katherine Hart 

May 13, 2020

A ray of good news has appeared through the gloom of the coronavirus pandemic: More New Orleanians are getting on their bikes and enjoying local trails and greenspace.

It’s a phenomenon many have noticed since the stay-at-home restrictions began, whether they’re among those getting out to exercise or among those observing the world from their porch or front window . Now there’s data to support it. A sustained rise in biking and walking counts has been recorded throughout the stay-at-home order by the University of New Orleans Transportation Institute.

The institute records data on pedestrian and bicycle activity from permanent, continuous counters in key locations throughout the region .

“It appears that many people are discovering or rediscovering the bicycle during this time of significantly disrupted travel behaviors and traffic patterns,” said Tara Tolford, research associate and pedestrian and bicycle outreach coordinator at UNO Transportation Institute.

The number of bikers and walkers taking to the Wisner Trail, a scenic path to the lake along Bayou St. John and City Park, has Increased 255% since early March, the data shows .

Local trails used by commuters as well as recreational cyclists have also seen increases, although they’re not as dramatic as on the Wisner Trail. More people were biking and walking on the Jefferson Davis Trail, in the Jefferson Davis Parkway neutral ground, and on the Lafitte Greenway in early March than in any year from 2015 to 2018 (2019 data isn’t yet available) . The Esplanade Avenue bike lane has seen a 52% increase in cyclists from 2017.

One route, however, has seen a reduction: the Baronne Street bike lanes downtown, used primarily by people going to and from work. So the increases have occurred during a time when many daily bike commuters are either working from home or have lost their job, showing more people turning to cycling as a way to get out of the house for some air and exercise .

“While the data clearly suggests fewer people are biking to work, there are new patterns of riding during the shutdown and more people using trails and bikeways overall,” said UNO’s Tolford in a press release issued by the New Orleans Complete Streets Coalition.

The data is backed up by people with a clear view of the Lafitte Greenway, a route through Mid-City popular with commuters to the French Quarter or CBD and with recreational users .

“We’ve seen a huge amount of use on the Greenway,” said Sophie Harris Vorhoff, executive director of the Friends of Lafitte Greenway. “Folks are really turning to parks to stay healthy — and to stay happy.”

At Bayou Bicycles, situated on the Greenway, employees have noticed more people going by — as well as a greater demand for bikes and bike repairs . “Walkers, runners, cyclists — it’s all increased,” said Jesse Hutmaker, the shop’s sales floor manager. “We see someone every minute or so. It used to be every five or 10.”

Like other local bike shops, Bayou Bicycles has been selling out of just about everything, Hutmaker said .

The boom began during the weekend before St. Patrick’s Day as restrictions were enacted and has continued even while the shop is seeing customers by appointment only. Bike shops, like car repair shops, have been deemed essential businesses, remaining open with distancing guidelines in place.

“We are selling bikes faster than they can be built,” Hutmaker said . “Spring is usually a busy time, but this has elevated it to whole other level. It’s been crazy. ”

Not only are there more new bikes on the road, more bikes are being pulled out of sheds, dusted off, oiled up and put back into service. The Bayou Bicycles repair shop also has been busier than ever, Hutmaker said.

“We’ve seen bikes (in for tune-ups and repairs) that haven’t seen the light of day since Katrina,” he noted .

Cycling advocates are hoping officials will take note of the bike boom and make safe streets a greater priority. The New Orleans Complete Streets Coalition, a group working to improve the city’s roadways and safe transportation options, released the UNO data calling attention to the boom in two-wheeled and two-footed transportation, which is more vulnerable to the myriad hazards of New Orleans streets.

“As more people are experiencing the joy of biking, there’s more and more support for building protected and connected bikeways, good pedestrian crossings, and other treatments that will ensure streets remain safe and accessible,” said Dan Favre, executive director at Bike Easy, a member of the Complete Streets Coalition, in the group’s press release.

Joggers and cyclists now have priority on the downtown side of Moss Street along Bayou St. John. (Mayor’s Office photo)

The coalition also supports creating Slow Streets, an initiative the city recently put in place for Moss Street along Bayou St John. This initiative limits motor vehicle traffic to allow for safe, socially distanced biking and walking during the COVID-19 shutdown.

“With so many people walking and biking, the city is making welcome headway in bringing more safety and less stress for people on the New Orleans roadways — whether driving, biking, walking or taking transit,” Favre said. “This progress is the only thing I like to see speeding on the streets in New Orleans.”


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