Healthy Community, Healthy Economy: New Orleans Tourism reigns supreme in The Big Easy, and post-Katrina investments in recreation infrastructure are fueling the city’s economic recovery.

By Shauna Farnell

Thanks to a system of bike lanes and paths, visitors and their dollars are venturing beyond the French Quarter, and the quality of life in New Orleans is on the rise.

Historically, New Orleans isn’t what most of us think of as a cycling city. Rather, The Big Easy (also called The Crescent City—a reference to the bend in the Mississippi River) calls to mind rum drinks, Zydeco, hush puppies and Mardi Gras. And people who visit don’t usually venture much beyond the French Quarter. But all of that looks poised to change, thanks to a burgeoning system of bikeways connected in the wake of Hurricane Katrina that is helping NOLA’s economy not only recuperate but blossom and diversify after the storm.

Beyond Bourbon Street By Bike

The city’s social, economic and cultural recovery has sprung, largely, from a single, central project—the Lafitte Greenway.

“The space itself has a deep connection to New Orleans. It has followed the transportation history of our country,” says Friends of Lafitte Greenway Executive Director Sophie Harris Vorhoff. “It was first a canal built in the late 1700s, connecting what was then the French Quarter to Bayou St. John. Later on, a railroad was built alongside the canal. The railroad was decommissioned, and from the mid-1900s to 2015, this land that runs through New Orleans’ historic and culturally rich neighborhoods sat vacant and underutilized.” As such, the corridor that had once connected neighborhoods became a physical barrier between them. It cut adjacent pockets of the city off from one another.

Plans for a rails-to-trails project along the corridor were heating up just before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. The destruction and devastation of the storm left large portions of the city under water. The silver lining was that areas such as those surrounding the corridor were not only restored, but entirely re-imagined. The result was the Lafitte Greenway, a 2.6-mile recreation path that connects more than 100 miles of bike lanes and paths through and between major points of the city.

“We wanted to rebuild not just what we had before, but a community we wanted to live in,” Harris Vorhoff says. The idea was to transform a swath of land that had previously divided the community into a space that would enhance quality of life and connect people to each other and to nature and the outdoors. This was a former industrial corridor. There was a lot of vacancy in the area and real concern after the storm that these neighborhoods would not come back fully.”

The idea was to transform a swath of land that had previously divided the community into a space that would enhance quality of life and connect people to each other and to nature and the outdoors.

In addition to the brand new apartment complexes springing up along the greenway, there are also grocery stores, breweries, coffee shops, parks and fitness areas. New Orleans’ traditions and character have also been integrated into the trail, with family friendly celebrations like the annual Voodoo Festival, a Halloween party and bicycle-decorating for Mardi Gras. There are also plans for art installations and renovation of historic industrial relics along the route.

Photo courtesy of Blue Bikes NOLA

How Shifting Gears Shifted the Local Economy

“The greenway, what it is today, is really spectacular,” says Jay Nix, owner of Parkway Bakery and Tavern, arguably the most iconic and popular Po’ Boy shop in all of New Orleans. It’s now easily accessed via the greenway. “There were a lot of areas where you simply just would not go alone. Now the property adjacent to the greenway is in high demand. Not only do you have the visibility of a street corner were people are going by at 30 mph, your visibility is magnified when people are walking or riding by. I dare say before the end of the year there may be as many as three or four major apartment complexes—as many as 1,000 units—smack dab on the greenway. People want to build here. It’s a cool place to be.”

Read about New Orleans' growing bike culture.

The Parkway Bakery served a devout clientele from 1911 to 1993, when it fell on hard times and closed. Nix purchased the building in 1995 and reopened the business in its original location in 2005.

“People used to catch the street car to get here,” Nix says. “There was no other way to get here other than drive. The greenway is such a nice way to come here and to get around the city.”

< See the full map here

Two-Wheeled Tourism

Stroll by the Parkway on any given weekend, and you’ll see piles of bikes parked outside, a sight symbolizing not just the success of the Parkway and the greenway, but a cultural shift for the entire city.

“We have bike tours, which were not something that was ever done … 40 people chaining their bikes to the fence and coming in, then getting on their bikes and going down to the next spot. It’s not only for recreation, but for transportation to and from work. It changes your thinking. It changes the culture to see so many people biking and walking. It feels good,” Nix said.

Bike tour opportunities are springing up all over the city, from casual cruiser rides to culinary and cocktail tours. National cycling advocacy group People for Bikes has named NOLA an up-and-coming city for bike infrastructure and selected it as one of 10 cities (out of 80 contenders) for the Big Jump project, a three-year program helping communities overcome challenges faced in building new and improved cycling routes and corridors. Local nonprofit Bike Easy has spearheaded this effort over the last two years, focusing on Connect the Crescent, a “pop-up” network of protected bike lanes through the heart of New Orleans reaching from the French Quarter to the central business district.

Recreation might not be New Orleans biggest money-maker, but it’s becoming a much bigger part of life in the Big Easy.

“Most cities recognize that there’s a role for things like walking and biking, but they aren’t moving fast to change the way transportation works,” says People For Bikes Director of Local Innovation Kyle Wagenschutz.. “We’re working closely with 10 cities … to build complete bicycle networks.” He points out that the Big Jump project aims to complete these urban bike networks now, not over the course of, say, 30 years. “What stood out about New Orleans is the social culture that takes place in the streets. People live in the streets, they’re eating, hanging out, sitting outside. It lends itself to biking as a form of transportation.”

Two-Wheeled Transit

Besides the obvious draw for tourists, a complete bicycle network is also a critical resource for those who support the tourism industry—hospitality staff, restaurant and bar employees.

“The kinds of businesses that operate and flourish in New Orleans don’t operate on a 9-to-5 schedule,” Wagenschutz said. “The reality is there are a lot of people moving around at weird times of day, and transit is not operating on that schedule. A lot of people in New Orleans don’t have access to a car, so bicycling has become a very cost-effective way for people to get to and from their jobs. Simply put, the business economy in New Orleans can’t survive without taking care of its people.”

"A lot of people in New Orleans don’t have access to a car, so bicycling has become a very cost-effective way for people to get to and from their jobs. Simply put, the business economy in New Orleans can’t survive without taking care of its people.”

So as local businesses grow, the comprehensive bike network provides access for residents and visitors alike.

“As the city relies on tourism to create and grow its economy, bicycling has a part in growing tourism,” Wagenschutz says. “If millions of people are flocking to your city every year for a variety of cool things, you don’t want them to bring millions of cars with them. The Lafitte Greenway feeds directly into the Connect the Crescent corridors. So if you’re a family and you want to go down by the river to watch the jazz band play, you have the ability to exit the park-like setting of the Greenway to protected bike lanes to get down there. You never have to compromise your safety.”

Massey’s Professional Outfitters, a specialty retail outfit and fixture in New Orleans, is situated in prime position on the greenway. The greenway path, which is dotted with free repair stations equipped with tools and air pumps, has noticeably ramped up Massey’s bike business.

“We’re a community bike shop,” says Massey’s General Manager Gerry Fullington. “Our clientele is not the highfalutin racer guys. We cater to locals who use their bikes to commute to work or get exercise around town. It’s down and dirty, usually bikes that are older than you and I and people that are keeping them running. The cultural diversity in our bike shop is amazing. There’s a large swath of the community whose main mode of transportation is their bike. For them, the bike shop has become a godsend and the greenway is their I-10. It’s breaking down the barriers between all of the people out there. It’s symbiotic. People get to use the greenway more and businesses get to open up in an area that would otherwise be fairly desolate.”

According to Vorhoff, one in 30 New Orleans residents bikes to work, and of major U.S. cities, NOLA has the sixth-highest number of bicycle commuters. According to recent data from the League of American Bicyclists, since 2000, bike commuting has gone up by 292 percent.

Read: "The Country's Newest Biking Boomtown, New Orleans, Looks to the Next Level"

Louisiana's neighbor to the north, Arkansas, has seen similar benefits from bike infrastructure. Read more about it in "Bentonville: Where Bikes Boost The Bottom Line"

Courtesy of bikeleague.org

Before Katrina, there were only about 10 miles of bikeway throughout the entire city, and now there are well over 100 miles. The city also launched a Blue Bikes bikeshare program in late 2017, which has proven incredibly popular. One of the stations is situated outside of Massey’s, and Fullington says it is constantly empty, indicating that travel by bicycle has become a hit among visitors as well as locals.

“If we can get people to hop on a bike and patronize businesses outside of the tourist-heavy parts of the city, largely the French quarter, the benefits of tourism can be more equally spread around instead of benefitting only a small subset of the city,” says Dan Jatres, New Orleans Regional Planning Commission Pedestrian and Bicycle Program Manager. “Experiencing New Orleans on a bike, catching a whiff of a crawfish boil in the spring, pedaling through the oak tree canopy … I can’t think of a better way to enjoy New Orleans.”

Read the other stories from our series: Healthy Communities, Healthy Economies

Healthy Communities, Healthy Economies

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