When Mayor Mitch Landrieu brought his annual city-budget listening session to KIPP Central City Academy on Thursday evening, nobody really wanted to talk to him about the problems most traditionally associated with New Orleans. No one asked about crime rates, police staffing or officer misconduct. No one talked about potholes, property taxes, bad roads, blighted houses or street flooding. No one even mentioned Confederate statues.
Instead, the residents of City Council District B mostly wanted to talk about bicycle transportation and housing issues like AirBnB.
Several of the 17 people who asked questions of the mayor on Thursday complained that the relationship between bicyclists and drivers remains fraught with danger and uncertainty, even after the city has created 100 miles of bicycle lanes. Some specifically asked for more details about the plans for a bicycle lane on Napoleon Avenue, and others urged more efforts to teach both drivers and cyclists to share the road.
The new bike lanes don’t fully serve the bicycling public, said Uptown resident Clark Thompson, because they remain too dangerously close to traffic for many riders to be safe on. Thompson said he wouldn’t want either his father or his children trying to bicycle anywhere on Napoleon Avenue, for example — and suggested that converting some interior streets into “bike boulevards” would solve the problem more completely.
In reply, Landrieu affirmed the “bicycle boulevard” idea is under active consideration by administration officials, specifically soon-to-be-departing Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin.
“Dedicated streets for bikes is a pretty good idea, I think,” Landrieu said. “I just don’t know whether or not we can do that at this time. … It’s something that we’re thinking about, and we’re trying to do.”
A bicycle boulevard is not a total conversion of a street into a bicycle-only thoroughfare, Kopplin explained after the meeting concluded. Instead, the bicycle lane becomes the primary lane, and traffic calming measures are used to discourage motorists from using the street for anything other than local traffic to and from individual homes.
For example, Kopplin said, the bicycle boulevard might force cars to turn off every few blocks, making it unattractive to drivers. Meanwhile, the increased safety might draw bicyclists to use that route instead of the busier main streets.
“If you live on a bike boulevard, you can get to your house and park in front of it just like you do now,” Kopplin said. “But it makes it difficult for it to be a through-street. … Because it changes traffic patterns, it’s a more disruptive piece of bike infrastructure than just a bike lane.”
“And every biker we have on the street is one less car,” said city spokesman Hayne Rainey.
A Google search for “bike boulevard” shows that Portland, Ore., has experimented with the concept, among other cities. Kopplin said the idea is still in the discussion phase within the city, and that no streets are currently being considered for conversion into bicycle boulevards at the moment.
“It does disrupt traffic patterns, so it takes a lot of analysis to determine whether it’s going to be a good idea,” Kopplin said. “But for low-traveled streets, it may be appropriate.”
A number of speakers also challenged Landrieu on housing issues. Several supported the idea of a rental registry, to ensure that rental units are held to higher standards, while others worried that whole-home rentals through sites like AirBnB are taking up too many rental units in the city and driving prices up for those remaining.
Landrieu said described those housing issues — including how best to regulate AirBnB and the exact form a rental registry should take — as questions facing cities nationwide. New Orleans in the 1960s hit a peak population of 680,000, however, so it should have ample room to find places for everyone to live today with 40 percent fewer people.
But the housing issues are also too complex to be solved in a single year’s budget or with a single policy, Landrieu said. For example, while residents at the District B meeting are describing the need for more affordable housing, residents of New Orleans East at the recent District E budget meeting were overwhelmingly vocal against more affordable housing near them.
“Not everyone is excited about having more affordable housing,” Landrieu said.
The district-level budget meeting was the 39th of Landrieu’s seven years as mayor, the final session for 2016, and perhaps the final one he ever conducts, since next summer will be embroiled in city elections. It was also the shortest he could recall, he said, with fewer than 40 minutes of questions compared to some nights that have gone on for hours.
To read our live coverage of all the issues raised, see below.