There's a proven link between streets that safely accommodate bicycles and improved public health. Credit: Thomas Chapin

How people get around our city, or struggle to get around, affects so many aspects of life — a musician trying to get to and from a late-night gig when bus service is spotty, a family not allowing their child to walk to school across a busy intersection, even though the school is not far away.

We believe an essential element for a vibrant future in Greater New Orleans is making streets that can be shared by people biking and walking, as well as drivers and those of us who take public transit. It’s an approach, called “Complete Streets,” and it’s based on the premise that everybody, regardless of who we are, where we live, or how we choose to get around, should be able to do so safely, conveniently, and affordably.

Bike Easy, a local advocacy group, has just released a report titled “Complete Streets for Health Equity.” In it we detail how New Orleans and Jefferson Parish can maximize biking and walking investments to reduce health disparities and help create a thriving metro area.

The benefits of Complete Streets are many. In Louisiana about two-thirds of adults and children don’t meet national guidelines for physical activity. Complete Streets encourage regular physical activity, both for recreation and for traveling to the places where we learn, shop, and work.

With meaningful community engagement, Complete Streets can be of special benefit to low-income areas and communities of color that historically have been neglected or underserved by City Hall.

The Tulane Prevention Research Center has studied the use of bicycle lanes in New Orleans and finds that they significantly increase the number of people pedaling throughout the city. Similarly, creating a walkway on the St. Roch Avenue neutral ground has led to an upsurge in pedestrians and, more generally, in physical activity throughout the neighborhood. Results like these are contributing to improved health outcomes in communities across the city.

Complete Streets are also safer. Bike lanes and other low-cost modifications — high-visibility crosswalks are a similarly important upgrade — increase safety for all road users. In the case of the South Carrollton Avenue bike lane, the number of cyclists traveling in the correct direction (with vehicle traffic) increased after the lanes were installed.

With meaningful community engagement, Complete Streets can be of special benefit to low-income areas and communities of color that historically have been neglected or underserved by City Hall. People in these neighborhoods are at higher risk of being struck and killed by cars while walking and are less likely to own a car.

To maximize impact of the Complete Streets idea, two priorities should be observed:

1) High-poverty neighborhoods should get special attention. The report found that in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish, 36 percent of residents live in high-poverty census tracts, yet 67 percent of crashes in these areas involve people walking and biking. That means our city’s most vulnerable residents are twice as likely to be struck while walking or biking.  Black people in New Orleans are underrepresented in bike ridership but overrepresented in crashes between bicycles and motorized vehicles. Similarly, in Jefferson Parish, black people are about 26 percent of the population but comprise over 40 percent of those injured or killed while bicycling.

2) We need to track work toward Complete Streets by measuring its impact on both public safety and health equity. The report lays out recommended steps for doing this evaluation. It’s vital not just to collect the data but to share it with the public. Robust data collection and a commitment to improving community engagement will better inform decisions on where and what kind of transportation investments are needed.

The greater New Orleans region is in position to reap the benefits of more active communities if we do the work to expand, connect, and evaluate our investments in streets built to share. We look forward to working with decision-makers and leaders throughout the region to create Complete Streets programs that continue to move us down the road towards a healthy, prosperous, and equitable future for all of us in Greater New Orleans.

Dan Favre is executive director of Bike Easy. Jeanette Gustat, PhD, is with Tulane University’s  Prevention Research Center. Both are avid bicyclists.

Views expressed in the Opinion section are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.