Meg Arceneaux, owner of Hub City Cycles, sounds out of breath when she answers my call at her bike shop in mid-May.
“We’re slammed,” she says. “People are dusting off their bikes, buying new bikes, getting family members bikes.” She estimates that if the pace of business that’s been buffeting the shop for the past two months continues, she’ll sell more bikes this spring than in the entirety of 2019.
“People are rediscovering it,” Arceneaux says, covering the receiver of the phone to tell a customer, “I’ll be right with you.”
Arceneaux is not the only bike shop owner currently in the crush. Across the nation, stir-crazy and exercise-starved folks are buying bicycles in huge numbers. Less traffic on city streets has given cycling a temporary edge on other forms of fitness and recreation. And although many businesses across the state plan to begin reopening over the next several weeks, fear of a second wave of COVID-19 is liable to keep people wary of heading to the gym for their workouts for some time. Amid the uncertainty surrounding what our city might look like on the other side of the pandemic, some members of the Lafayette bicycling community are nevertheless feeling cautiously optimistic that this recent surge in riders could lead to more permanent improvements in the city’s overall bicycling infrastructure.
Mark DeClouet, a Lafayette recreational cyclist, has been enjoying the temperate weather as he teaches his own young children how to ride in their neighborhood off of West Bayou Parkway. However, he doesn’t see rider demand outstripping political will, especially during such precarious times.
“Given the lens of the pandemic and the woes of the city right now, it would be a tall order” to ask city officials to consider striping new bike lanes or otherwise investing in more bicycle-friendly roadways, he says.
In DeClouet’s estimation, cycling is a politically polarized issue in Lafayette. “Bikes are very reflective of the progressive left,” he says.
This political dynamic lent a charge to the 2016 conflict over the bike lanes that run alongside much of West Bayou Parkway. Opponents of the bike lanes penned a petition to have them removed, citing safety concerns and the underuse of the lanes by bicyclists relative to the amount of vehicular traffic on the street. Lafayette’s cycling community responded with a petition of its own and a large public ride to defend the lanes.
DeClouet was one voice among 2,400 in favor of retaining the lanes; the dissenting petition had less than 500 signatures. And although the city decided, in the end, to keep the bike lanes where they are, DeClouet suggests the intensity of the conflict could be a preview of the kind of opposition that would rise up against cycling initiatives in the coming years.
Disclosure: Mark DeClouet contributed to The Current in 2018. See our donor list here.
Matt Holland, the secretary/treasurer of Bike Lafayette as well as the chair of its advocacy committee, has a slightly more optimistic view. First, he’s heartened by the number of people like DeClouet using their time at home to teach their children how to ride. “That whole generation is going to be more likely to ride in the future,” he says, “because they had this formative experience where they were younger and riding a lot.”
Holland also points out that the number of adult cyclists hitting the road for exercise is not likely to decrease any time soon. “A lot of people have been cycling as a form of fitness because their normal routine has been upended,” he says. And while he admits that some might “go back to their old habits” as the state begins to reopen, he also thinks it will be some time before people feel comfortable going to the gym again.
Like others with Bike Lafayette, Holland sees these different factors as “catalysts to do work with the city and with the Acadiana Planning Commission to see if we can energize some movement when it comes to infrastructure improvements.”
DeClouet also believes there might be some momentum to be gained at this time of increased cycling around the city. The streets in his neighborhood, he says, “are flooded with people walking, running, families on bikes. Five o’clock hits and it’s like the roads become these rivers of public discourse.”
Not everyone living off of West Bayou Parkway shares this perspective. Randy Moity, one of the co-authors of the petition to remove the bike lanes on West Bayou Parkway, tells me in a brief phone interview that he hasn’t noticed any particular preponderance of bikers in his neighborhood in the past two months. And while he clarifies that he’s not against bike lanes in other parts of the city, noting he would support striping more if there was funding for it, his opinion remains unchanged about the ones on West Bayou Parkway.
Considering the “income level in this neighborhood,” he offers, he thinks it’s unlikely that biking, even recreationally, would take a firm hold with residents once the stay-home order lifts and more folks go back to work. “I don’t see it,” he says.
Wanting to get to the bottom of these conflicting views, I head to West Bayou Parkway myself around 5:20 on a Wednesday afternoon in May to check out the neighborhood bike action. It’s a balmy 80 degrees, with cloud cover that suggested rain on the way.
Nonetheless, bikers are out and about on many of the streets around West Bayou Parkway. “Flooded” would be a bit hyperbolic for this day, but so too would Moity’s account of the overall lack of cyclists, especially those using the bike lanes on either side of the Parkway. In just half an hour, I count 14 different cyclists whizzing down the bike lanes in both directions, plus a dozen kids and their parents cruising the side streets in tight little flocks past the very large houses that comprise the majority of residences in the area.
Taking in the sweep of semi-circular driveways, detached guest houses and pristinely manicured lawns, it occurs to me that Moity was probably right about his neighbors not becoming big-time bikers in the near future. Once the mercury starts to rise here in earnest, summertime will likely have those with access to climate-controlled means of transportation clamoring into the AC for their drive to the store.
However, bike lanes aren’t striped for the exclusive use of those who happen to live near them. They’re connectors, helping to conduct folks safely to and from different parts of the city. As regional unemployment continues to rise, it’s not unrealistic to assume that a portion of Lafayette’s population may find themselves unable to afford the luxury of a vehicle. In a city that ranks 14th in the nation for its rate of bike fatalities, that means these folks will find themselves disproportionately at risk of injury or death as they attempt to go to work or buy groceries.
“Most people see bicycle infrastructure as a luxury, or as a secondary goal to main transportation planning,” Holland says. But people who commute exclusively by bicycle “don’t have another choice. If they need to get from one place to another, that’s how they’re doing it. If we want to make this city more inclusive, cycling infrastructure is one of the easiest ways we can do that.”
For those cyclists who can, Holland recommends tracking their routes about town using a mapping application called Strava that they can download on their phones. In addition to tracking a user’s mileage and giving them a sense of what routes other cyclists around town prefer, the data that this application gathers is accessible by local city transportation planners and used to gauge the bicycling volume on different streets. Ultimately, this information is invaluable to planners regarding the need for various improvement measures.
Holland says all bikers, whether newly on the streets or longtime enthusiasts, are going to have to call their council representatives and the mayor’s office if they want to see increased safety measures around town. “Small things like better lighting at night, better signage and striping at intersections to make cyclists more visible to vehicles,” he suggests. “These changes are not just going to happen on their own.”
No matter how flat and bikeable Lafayette may be geographically, says Holland, when it comes to making substantive changes in infrastructure, “it’s definitely an uphill battle.”