May 19, 2023 - Transit

New Orleans leads country in bicyclist deaths per capita

Bicyclist fatalities in major U.S. metro areas
Data: League of American Bicyclists via NHTSA; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

New Orleans has the highest rate of fatal bicyclist crashes among major metro areas in the U.S.

  • There were on average 9.9 fatal bike crashes for every million residents here between 2017-2021, per data from the League of American Bicyclists via the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — up 11% from 2012-2016.
  • Nationally, the average was 2.7 fatal bicycle crashes per million residents during the same time frame.

Why it matters: Bicycle use exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving many cities scrambling to install new bike lanes and adopt other measures to keep riders safe and encourage cycling, Axios' Alex Fitzpatrick reports.

  • Such projects have gained renewed urgency as bike-sharing platforms have become popular options for quick A-to-B hops around cities.
  • Cycling is tied to myriad associated benefits for city residents, including cleaner air and better public health.

Zoom in: About one in five New Orleans households don't have access to a vehicle, according to U.S. Census data.

  • City officials in 2019 unveiled a plan for "equitable transportation," and it included a bikeway blueprint with 75 miles of bike lanes.
  • So far, only 32 miles have been built, according to Allene La Spina, executive director at bicyclist advocacy group Bike Easy.
  • La Spina blames the pandemic slowdown and the officials' attitudes for the lack of progress, especially on the East Bank.
  • Blue Bikes are also back after a pandemic pause. The goal is to have 2,500 bike share options in the city by 2025.

Yes, but: The bike lane efforts haven't been embraced by everyone in New Orleans.

  • Last year, City Council voted to remove 2.2 miles of new, protected bike lanes in Algiers after an uproar from residents who said the project reduced parking and snarled traffic.

Driving the news: At least three bicyclists have been injured or killed in hit-and-run crashes so far this year.

Flashback: One of the most recent high-profile fatal bike crashes was during Mardi Gras 2019, when a drunk driver hit a group of cyclists, killing two and injuring seven more.

By the numbers: Bicycle deaths are rising all over the U.S. The national average of 2.7 fatal crashes per million residents between 2017-2021 was up 5% from 2012-2016.

  • Our neighbors in Jackson, Mississippi, are No. 4 on the most deadly list this time around.
  • In 2021, seven people were killed in bike crashes in New Orleans, according to the city's newly launched New Orleans Transportation Safety Dashboard. Officers investigated 97 crashes that year.

The intrigue: Cities are grappling not just with an upswing in traditional bicycle use, but also a boom in e-bikes used by residents, tourists and delivery workers.

  • The challenge, however, is figuring out how to best integrate the zippier, pedal-assist bikes — do they belong in bike lanes with slower, traditional two-wheelers, or should they be among the cars and trucks, where Vespa-style scooters travel?

Reality check: Protected bike lanes and other measures designed to keep cyclists safe are often met with fierce pushback from urban drivers who lament the loss of any lanes or parking spots.

  • The biggest obstacle to making New Orleans safer for bicyclists is "people's attitudes to sharing the road with vulnerable users," La Spina said.
  • "People don't have a safe infrastructure to move around. It takes somebody to be in a crash for this to happen," she added.

What's next: Cities nationwide are applying for state and federal money — including some set aside as part of the 2021 infrastructure law — to further develop their bike trail networks and other cycling infrastructure.

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