Bike-share is coming to New Orleans. The city released a request for proposal in April and would-be system operators will be submitting their bids on June 1. The city hopes the operator will launch a privately funded, 700-bike system sometime next year.
According to Naomi Doerner, a New Orleans bike advocate and former program director at the Alliance for Biking and Walking, advocates have been pushing for bike-share since 2010 when the city released its master plan. The effort kicked off in earnest in 2012 when local advocacy organization Bike Easy produced the first bike-share feasibility study. In 2014, the New Orleans Regional Planning Commission funded a more robust feasibility study that determined the city could potentially support a bike-share system without investing public dollars.
The city has visions of a system that serves both New Orleans’ robust tourism industry and acts as a new form of transportation for residents.
“Bike-share will be a really powerful addition to the public transportation landscape in New Orleans. We’ve struggled to get bus service back to where it was before Katrina,” says Bike Easy Executive Director Dan Favre.
Doerner expects the primary riders will be a mix of existing, self-identified cyclists, white-collar workers in the downtown business district and tourists.
But she also thinks bike-share has potential to serve as a piece of the transportation network for low-income communities with less transit access.
“It’s really critical that we are thinking about this entire system as a whole and how it’s complementing and filling gaps as it’s being built,” she explains. “Hopefully whoever the operator is, they’re thinking of low-income communities of color who are unbanked, really thinking about healthy active lifestyles and have a need for good transportation.”
The fact that the bike-share system will be built and operated without public funding has raised some question about how much it can do to subsidize usage or operate outside of high-density, high-traffic areas. But, the city’s RFP requires that the system be both “an international model for equitable bicycle sharing programs” and “operate in a fiscally sustainable manner.”
The city’s equity requirements include online, mobile and cash payment options to better serve unbanked residents; reduced-cost annual passes for low-income users; and kiosks that operate in English, Spanish and Vietnamese.
“As much as we’ve been pushing for bike-share and felt an urgency to get it sooner, I think we’ve learned some lessons from other cities by waiting,” says Favre. “We’re really excited to see bike-share come online and hope to be able to balance the need for equitable service as well as tourism economy.”
Because there won’t be public subsidies, Doerner thinks it will be all the more important that the city and the bike-share operator work with existing community organizations to accomplish their equity goals.
“The operator should be looking at the Better Bike Share Partnership and some of the things they’ve done to connect community-based organizations that are focused on active, healthy lifestyles,” she says. “Particularly in underserved neighborhoods and thinking about how they could use bike-share to complement that kind of work they’re doing.”
Favre says New Orleans has one geographic advantage that many cities don’t have that could help serve the city’s equity goals.
“We have a pretty compact core area of the city that encompasses a huge range of incomes,” he says. “From the French Quarter with some of the highest real estate values, then a mile-and-a-half away median household income can be less than $30,000. It’s a checkerboard mix of income demographics.”
Though he notes that there are many low-income neighborhoods outside of the city core, Favre thinks the mixed-income city center will make it easier to serve lower-income communities than in cities where low-income residents have been pushed to the edges.
Beyond equitable system access, Doerner also hopes the city is considering equitable workforce development opportunities. The RFP requires the operator to maximize local hiring to fill job openings.
She says, “It would be smart to set criteria around exactly what percentage of jobs they want to fill with low-income priority hires. It’s not enough to say ‘these jobs are available.’ There has to be training, identifying who you’re going to work with, workforce development programs.”
In general, Favre is excited about what bike-share could do to bolster bicycling and bike advocacy efforts in New Orleans.
“I think bike-share will do a lot to increase visibility around bicycling in general,” he says. “It will help build public and political desire to build a network of high-quality bike infrastructure.”
New Orleans recently built its first protected bike lane and its bike infrastructure network recently crossed the 100-mile mark, though Doerner points out the majority of that mileage is sharrows.
The city plans to make its final operator selection by the end of June.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Josh Cohen is a freelance writer in Seattle. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Pacific Standard and Vice.