A while back, I applied to be a Lime Electric Scooter charger. This would’ve involved finding publicly shared scooters, transporting them home, charging them up, then placing them back where found. Fortunately for the backseat of my car, Lime’s plans have been halted after city and state officials pulled out of an agreement. It’s possible we’ll see a return to the table for all parties, but hopefully not before certain rules and riding paths have been outlined.
Bike Uneasy is a local watchdog group that documents the dangers towards bicycle riders in New Orleans, from parked cars impeding their traffic to dangerous road conditions to other related infractions that could potentially cost lives.
The following interview with Bike Uneasy founder Charles Schully covers his thoughts on city governance, the origins of the group, and what the future may hold for riding infrastructure in the region:
Bill Arceneaux: How has the Cantrell Administration taken to bike safety laws, regulations, and awareness?
Charles Schully: I think bike lanes have improved in their quality under her administration – as we have seen green paint and increased bollards separating bike lanes from traffic – and her stated plan to implement 70+ miles of protected bikeways is certainly impressive. We haven’t seen too many new bike lanes in her first year, although I am hopeful that will change soon. I appreciate that the administration created a transportation director, but we haven’t really seen much from that office yet.
However, I am not as pleased with how the administration has maintained our infrastructure – any cyclist regularly encounters debris and large piles of sand in our bike lanes, which is why we have initiated our own bike lane clean up events.
I am very unsatisfied with the NOPD. Last week there were three car crashes with cyclists, two of which were hit and runs, and one was pretty awful. Many of us, including a witness who gave a statement to an officer, have reached out to the 2nd District to follow up with additional facts and see the status of the investigation of the worst one. They have completely ignored our emails, phone calls, even tweets. I don’t think they even check the crime cameras. The police park in bike lanes at their leisure and I’ve even had a few near-misses with them on my bike. They need to do better.
BA: How did Bike Uneasy start exactly?
CS: I actually created the group while I was in the ER waiting room after a former partner was hit by a car on her bike. We had recently had a “Ghost Bike” memorial for a cyclist who was killed near my house around that time, and I was already on edge. This was late 2014 to 2015. By the way, later that year that same ex got hit by another car. She was riding in the bike lane on Broad. The driver stopped his car, rolled down his window, called her a bitch, and drove off. Nothing ever happened to that guy.
I made the group because I wanted to harness the anger of every person who rides a bike in this city, because we’ve had such similarly harrowing experiences. I thought maybe, if enough of us are together talking about our experiences biking in New Orleans, we could create some changes.
Since then we have grown from being a small community where we shared our biking/walking frustrations to a group of over 1000, where we channel our experiences, knowledge, and skills to push for changes in the city’s infrastructure. And when those efforts fail, we use direct action to show how the city could make meaningful changes for bike safety.
I was born and raised in New Orleans, and as soon as my training wheels came off I was riding as far as I could go. When I started using the roads after age 13, as the law requires, I started to get the occasional heckler, but it wasn’t until I started using my bike for transportation that I began to realize that my life was not respected by a lot of drivers on the road.
BA: I read recently of a statistic that New Orleans drivers pay little/no mind to bike paths. From your experience, how true is this? What should drivers know to better handle themselves?
CS: I do not doubt that, but I don’t think it’s because drivers here are inherently worse drivers or less caring than other places. I believe that this represents a failure of engineering by the city. Around 2010-11, Mayor Landrieu’s administration shoe-horned a bunch of shoddy bike lanes around town, demarcated only by a single stripe. I really think that for the city to carry their weight and bring these paths to our collective attention, they need to help make it clear that bike lanes are for bikes only – by using adequate signage, paint, public meetings, enforcement, and education campaigns.
Drivers should know exactly that: bike lanes are NEVER for parking, and you should only drive your car in a bike lane if you are entering/exiting a driveway, parking, or moving for an emergency vehicle. That does not mean you can swerve into the bike lane to pass a car making a left turn. Try to keep your car as far from the bike lane as possible, and know that usually, when a cyclist is not in the bike lane, it’s for good reason (there’s a pothole, debris, or a parked car too close).
BA: Has there been any political pushback towards your advocacy group?
CS: You’re always going to have people who think that bike advocacy is some tool for gentrification, or just a white people issue, and I really, really take issue with that idea. That goes completely against the socioeconomic realities of people who cannot afford cars in New Orleans, it ignores the identities of the people who have been killed on their bikes (they are almost always working-class individuals), and it ignores the fact that New Orleans has been a major bike city since, like 1890. Some members of the group created a “myths versus reality” fact sheet to show that safer biking/walking infrastructure improves traffic, lessens taxpayer burdens, and improves quality of life. (I can send that if y’all want).
BA: What are your thoughts on shared electric scooters?
CS: I don’t really care about them. I would rather not see Uber and Lyft increase its economic footprint in New Orleans, but I also appreciate increasing alternatives to driving. I don’t trust these companies to actually offer these alternatives in an equitable manner.
BA: If you could advance just one regulation in the legislature, what would it be and how far do you feel it would go in saving lives?
CS: A very pragmatic action that the DOTD could probably take, as an administrative agency, is to update the driver’s education policies to really educate new drivers about 3 feet laws for passing cyclists, stopping for pedestrians in all crosswalks, and just sharing the road. And we need to integrate a check in our licensing requirements every so often; a lot of the issues we have are with older drivers who are completely uninformed about protections for vulnerable road users. Many people got their licenses at times when we didn’t have three-feet laws, or bike boxes, or HAWK crossing signals, and they don’t know what any of it means.
I would like to see a statewide commitment to complete streets, using best engineering practices for bike lanes and crosswalks. This means designing every street to be accessible to every mode of transit – driving, biking, walking, and public transit. That means physical separation of bike lanes wherever possible. And safer, signalized crosswalks. The State DOTD doesn’t even use high-visibility “zebra” crosswalks on our highways (try to cross the street on Elysian Fields), and for bike lanes, they just shoe-horn a white stripe onto a road and call it a bike lane. That’s better than nothing, but a white line didn’t stop the drunk driver from killing two cyclists on Endymion night, and it won’t stop the next one either.
Bike Uneasy is on Facebook. Their public-facing page is facebook.com/bikeuneasy, and they have a group for discussion called “Bike Uneasy Discussion.” They are also on Instagram at @bike_uneasy and Twitter at @bikeuneasy.
Bill Arceneaux has been an independent writer and film critic in the New Orleans area since 2011, working with outlets like Film Threat, DIG Baton Rouge, Crosstown Conversations, and Occupy. He is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association and is Rotten Tomatoes approved. Follow him on Twitter: @billreviews