Mar 5, 2024 - News

Bike safety in New Orleans 5 years after the deadly Mardi Gras crash

Photo shows a white "ghost" bike on the neutral  ground on Esplanade Avenue.

A ghost bike marks the site on Esplanade Avenue of the 2019 fatal bike crash. A survivor in the crash notes that the memorial bike has been hit by vehicles and is "beaten down from road tragedy." Photo: Carlie Kollath Wells/Axios

A bicyclist who survived being hit by a drunken driver at Mardi Gras five years ago is calling on the city to prioritize safety for everyone on the roads.

Why it matters: New Orleans has the highest rate of fatal bicyclist crashes per capita among major U.S. metros, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The big picture: New Orleans marked the fifth anniversary over the weekend of the fatal crash on Esplanade Avenue in which a driver drunkenly ran into bicyclists, killing two and injuring seven more.

  • Nellie Catzen, who was injured in the crash, tells Axios she still has chronic pain and PTSD. She rarely rides her bike.
  • She's been a vocal advocate over the years for improving safety for cyclists, pedestrians and public transportation riders. Being a part of finding a transit solution has "brought me a lot of peace," she says.
  • "Everybody deserves to get to where they are going regardless of the perils," says Catzen, who is co-chair of the New Orleans Complete Streets Coalition.

The crash spurred attention for bike safety, and a few months later, city officials unveiled a plan for "equitable transportation."

  • It included a bikeway blueprint that serves as the longterm vision for a comprehensive network of 75 miles of new bike lanes. So far, 35 miles of those miles have been completed, according to a statement from the Department of Public Works.
  • The work on the lanes has slowed recently, the statement said, because officials have focused on upgrading existing bike infrastructure instead of adding new bikeways.
  • The pandemic also slowed momentum, says Allene La Spina, executive director of advocacy group Bike Easy.

Friction point: The bike lane efforts haven't been embraced by everyone.

  • In 2022, 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.

By the numbers: Today, New Orleans has about 145 miles of bikeways, Public Works says. Most are on-street bikeways.

  • About 12 miles are protected bike lanes.
  • The problem, La Spina says, is the network is not connected in the current state and it is hard for people like her, who use their bike exclusively, to get around the city.

And, people are still dying. Just last week, a man walking with his bike was killed in a hit-and-run, New Orleans police say.

  • La Spina says she's also hearing more reports of nonfatal hit-and-run crashes involving bicyclists.
Bicyclist fatalities in major U.S. cities
Data: The League of American Bicyclists via NHTSA; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

State of play: 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, writes Axios' Alex Fitzpatrick.

  • "This is a really dumb way to lose people," Catzen said, sharing memories of her friends Sharree Walls and David Hynes who were killed in the Endymion crash. "It's highly preventable. We don't have to imagine it from scratch. Other countries are doing it."

What's next: La Spina with Bike Easy is testing a pilot program called the Purple Way to temporarily slow streets near festivals and parades in hopes of improving safety for bicyclists and pedestrians while also making it easier for emergency vehicles to move through the city.

  • The idea started after the Endymion crash when Catzen said the ambulances had difficulty reaching the injured cyclists.
  • Bike Easy tested it during the most recent Mardi Gras, La Spina said, and she's in talks with other festival organizers, who she says have been receptive.
  • She hopes to have separate temporary biking infrastructure in place for Mardi Gras within 10 years.

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