Thursday, July 23, 2015

Vicious cycle


They're doing some kind of activity at the City Hall today.
Four cyclists have died this year in collisions with automobiles on the streets of New Orleans, spreading fear and outrage through the cycling community, which feels that the city treats them as second class citizens when it comes to traffic safety and infrastructure spending.

To remind the city's politicians and the driving public what's at stake, Pool and a group of his fellow cyclists are staging a "die-in" at City Hall on Thursday.

Modeled after the sit-ins of Civil Rights movement, cyclists in several cities have taken to staging events in which they lie down en masse, as if slain, to protest what they see as shoddy treatment by officials and motorists. Such die-ins are typically held in the middle of crowded, busy streets, grinding traffic to a halt.
Ok, look. This is not the Civil Rights movement. Stop making that comparison. It doesn't help anyone. But this is a serious safety issue. People have been killed in these accidents. Unfortunately it's not an issue that city leaders are taking seriously. Or, at least, they aren't handling it honestly.

Instead, they've deployed an array of  PR and "data" calibrated to facilitate the PR intended to demonstrate that  New Orleans is becoming a "bike friendly" city.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu has made bicycle friendliness a priority since taking office in 2010. He has promised that New Orleans will have 100 miles of "bikeway" infrastructure by the end of the year. Before Hurricane Katrina, the city had just 5 miles of bikeways.

As of Nov. 6, the city had 37 miles of dedicated, on-street bike lanes and 16 and 1/2 miles of off-street paths. New Orleans has 40 miles of road designated "shared," meaning there is no protected infrastructure for cyclists but there are on-street "sharrows" to remind motorists to share the road.
They've installed bike lanes. They've celebrated "Bike To Work Day" (Presented By Entergy) events.  They've encouraged NOPD to issue citations for bicyclists who glide through stop signs or ride against one way traffic.  Mileage of bike lanes installed, like the number of tickets written is a measurable data point. It's easy to haul out and recite whenever someone asked what you're doing to make the streets safer. But, as the cycling activists point out, just slapping down some bike lanes isn't necessarily making anyone safer.
Where there is infrastructure, it can be poorly designed and misunderstood, or outright flouted, by drivers unused to sharing the road with cyclists, Roe said.

He pointed to the death of Philip Geeck, who was killed in a wreck at the corner of Elysian Fields and St. Claude Avenue in 2014. Although Geeck had been traveling St. Claude in a bike lane, which ends abruptly at the intersection, a semi-truck turned across his path, crushing him beneath the trailer's wheels.
A lot of these, then, are bike lanes in name only. They're not thoroughly planned to work with vehicle traffic. Many of them are just "shared lanes" meaning we draw a little picture of a bike in the road and leave it to cyclists and drivers to work it out on their own.  But the intersections are the worst.

Here's more coverage of the Philip Geeck accident including a diagram of the confusing intersection that led to a man's death. Other intersections around town are as bad or worse. Often a bike lane will end altogether at a busy intersection leaving a cyclist to make adjustments to confused right-of-ways  on the fly.  Busy intersections are by far the most dangerous places for bicyclists and they are precisely the spots where the infrastructure fails them.   There are smarter, safer ways to do this. No one talking about implementing those solutions, though.

Instead, they're just shoehorning more bike lanes in everywhere regardless of whether they are safe or even desired. At a Corps of Engineers public meeting last month, officials unveiled plans for the redesigned post-SELA Napoleon Avenue. Among the public's many concerns with the design, bike lanes.
While the walking path on Napoleon Avenue is something residents have long sought, the narrowing of the neutral ground for the creation of bike lanes proved controversial among those at the meeting.

Faye Lieder said the last meeting on the landscaping in October gave residents no idea that narrowing the neutral ground was under consideration, leaving them “blindsided” and “stunned” when the plans were revealed Thursday.

“Bike lanes may prevent some rear-end collisions but create problems at intersections,” Lieder wrote in an email to Uptown Messenger after the meeting. “Aside from the questionable wisdom of bike lanes, why would the city (just who made this decision anyway?) want to shrink green space on this beautiful oak-lined avenue, already two lanes each way, where families gather on the median to watch Mardi Gras parades?”

Resident Richard Dimitry said at the meeting that the placement of the bike lanes next to the parking lanes would put younger riders in particular in danger of being hit by motorists opening their doors to get out of their vehicles.

“I can’t see that for the kids,” Dimitry said. “It’s not necessary to put them in danger.”
Does the bike lane work on Napoleon? Is it designed in a way that makes people more or less safe? None of this is really the point. The point is striping more mileage of bike lane so the mayor can cite statistics that impress people when next he is in Aspen.

This also explains the now infamous "pilot program" on Baronne Street where a lane installed (despite the objections of the city's traffic engineer) has caused nothing but headaches for motorists and cyclists alike.
Between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m., more than 40 cars drive down the bike lane. Two Regional Transit Authority (RTA) buses turn it into a bus lane for several blocks. Two taxicabs roll lazily down the bike lane. A Budget rental truck parks with its warning lights on in the middle of the bike lane for 35 minutes. A cyclist is forced to swerve around the truck and into traffic, then swerve back into the bike lane.

Within the same hour, one police officer drives by. No one gets a ticket.

Mike and Abby, who work at a hair salon on Baronne Street, say they've seen this scene every day since December, when the city took out one lane of vehicular traffic to create the dedicated bike lane.

"We see cars using it a lot," says Mike (like Abby, he didn't want to give his last name). "We see people riding down the wrong way sometimes. We see people on bikes still using the sidewalk or car lane. ... I'd say it's about 50 percent taxis using the bike lane, surprisingly. We haven't seen anything being enforced.

"I'd like to add," Mike says, "that the people who do ride bikes are extremely hostile."
It has definitely gotten hostile out there.
A driver bobbed his head peacefully to the reggae tune emanating from his luxury vehicle on a recent afternoon in the Central Business District, but the good vibrations did not extend to those in the car next to him, furious that he was skipping the traffic line by driving through a bike lane.

The scene was captured on a recent trip down Baronne Street, where officials replaced one of two auto lanes with a dedicated bike lane for a six-month trial period meant to assess the impact on vehicle traffic and cyclist use.
The Baronne pilot program is due for review by the end of this month.  It's hard to imagine there's any way the city will decide to remove precious bike lane mileage despite the less than stellar results. Also the grant funding for the program only paid to install the lane. The city would have to find the money to take it out. Meanwhile nobody can say with any certainty that we're doing anything to actually make the streets safer.

Instead it appears, for the time being, we are caught in a vicious cycle. First the city builds crappy unsafe bike lanes everywhere. Fatal accidents ensue.  Bicyclists stage protests. So the city builds more crappy unsafe bike lanes. Everyone is "taking action." But is anything really accomplished?

Update: Here's how the die-in went. No casualties reported.

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