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“Laissez les bons temps rouler” is something of a cliché in New Orleans, but today it is apt, as the good times will quite literally roll on this ride through the heart of the city.
“Laissez les bons temps rouler” is something of a cliché in New Orleans, but today it is apt, as the good times will quite literally roll on my 20-mile (32 km) loop through the heart of the city. Biking this flat, compact city has always made sense to many locals – particularly the 20 percent or so of us who don’t own cars – but lately, the cycling scene has truly exploded.
I begin this ride from Lafayette Square in the Central Business District (CBD), where several miles of new bike lanes and sharrows have been installed and where Where Ya’ Rack? has been furiously installing bike racks to keep up with the growing demand. Wednesday evenings, this park comes alive with live music and free bicycle valet parking provided by Bike Easy, a bike advocacy organization.
Once you cross Canal Street into the French Quarter, a bike is the fastest way to navigate the neighborhood. Parking is scarce here for all vehicles, but locals have no trouble finding a way to stop at the Quarter’s infinite eateries or unique shops. Bike lanes are forthcoming on some streets, but since traffic generally moves at horse-and-buggy pace, the biggest safety concern is dodging pedestrians who have stumbled off Bourbon Street, hurricane in hand.
Further downriver, I cross into the Faubourg Marigny, and then the Bywater. In these 19th century neighborhoods, bicycles seem to outnumber cars most of the time. Bicycle mode share for work commutes was only about 2 percent in 2010 citywide, but in downtown neighborhoods like these it appears much higher. Cyclists down here are a diverse bunch: I’m almost as likely to pass professionals in suits and heels as I am to pass one of many street performers in full costume, making their way to Jackson Square.
Nearby Saint Claude Avenue is home to the city’s first bike lane, installed in 2008 and stretching into the Lower 9th Ward – a critical link through several working-class neighborhoods for which bikes provide essential affordable transport – but I usually take Chartres or Burgundy Street instead, as these are smooth, scenic and comfortable. Soon, a new riverfront park will open with a shared-use path spanning this length as well.
Along the way I stop in at the New Orleans Healing Center, a hub of fresh foods, handicrafts, yoga, voodoo and more. A young dad with a trailer for groceries and a rear-mounted, Cookie Monster-shaped seat for his toddler locks up beside me. Nearby on Franklin Avenue, a cluster of cafés and bars are overrun with mustachioed hipsters on cruisers and fixies. A little farther down on Dauphine, Satsuma Café is an ideal stop for fresh juice and brunch on the lovely patio, and the thrift stores next door are a great place for Mardi Gras costume finds. This is where you’re likely to see the most unusual bicycles: tall bikes, bikes with stereo systems, or cargo bikes manned by roving popsicle or tamale sellers peddling treats.
Looping back upriver, I turn up Esplanade Avenue, one of the city’s loveliest, shadiest streets. Even with no bike facilities, it’s already one of the city’s most popular bike routes, and it’s about to get a complete makeover with bike lanes and fresh pavement, making it a perfect connector from downtown to Mid City. If you’re lucky enough to be here during Jazzfest, you’ll see literally thousands of cyclists, many of them graying and bedecked in straw hats and Hawaiian shirts, making their way to the fairgrounds for our annual pilgrimage to this food and music mecca with secure bike parking and freebies for cyclists.
I take Esplanade all the way to City Park, one of the largest urban parks in the country, for several miles of winding trails through live oaks and to trace the beautiful Bayou St. John on the Wisner bike path. You’re likely to meet up with riders from NOLA Social Ride here, a growing group of cyclists who meet for fast-paced races in the park on Wednesdays, and slower, novice-friendly rides in a new neighborhood each Thursday. After looping the park I follow the bayou all the way to the Jefferson Davis Parkway Trail, which goes by Bayou Bicycles, a great place to pick up fun accessories or shop for a new ride. I might stop in at Parkway Bakery and Tavern across the Bayou for one of the best po’boys in town – possibly the perfect fuel for a long ride – or take a short detour to Finn McCool’s Irish Pub for fish and chips and a pint.
The Jeff Davis Trail provides a safe way across the interstate and into uptown, so I cut over to South Carrollton Avenue. There’s a new bike lane here, and since it was installed, bike traffic has increased by over 200 percent. Carrollton connects to Oak Street, the city’s first “Complete Streets” project, and there are several new bike racks on every block of restaurants, shops and cafés. The city passed a Complete Streets ordinance in late 2011 thanks to the Sustainable Transportation Advisory Committee.
To get back downtown, I take Freret Street past the lush campus of Tulane University and through another newly revitalized neighborhood corridor that caters to cyclists. Stop in at Dat Dog and grab a serious frankfurter or snag a fresh, healthy take on the city’s iconic snowball at Beaucoup Juice nearby, next to The Bike Shop. Uptown, the cyclists include a mix of college kids, families en route to car-free fun rides in Audubon Park or on the Mississippi River Levee Trail.
Finally, I cut down to Saint Charles Avenue and race a streetcar down the city’s most famous boulevard. Recent counts conducted by the University of New Orleans found that on some corridors leading to the CBD from uptown, bikes constitute upwards of 20 percent of all daily traffic, and ridership is growing rapidly every year. As my ride ends, I can’t help but reflect that there has never been a better time to be a bicyclist in New Orleans.
Tara Tolford is a nine-year NOLA devotee and an urban planner at the University of New Orleans Transportation Institute. She currently manages the Pedestrian Bicycle Resource Initiative, and rides her trusty Schwinn to restaurants, festivals, and Bicycle Second Lines all over the city. @PBRI_NewsFeed