Shannon Sims is a freelance journalist writing for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and CityLab. She earned her law degree at the University of Texas and is a former fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs.
The “crown jewel” of New Orleans’s cycling network isn’t just a way to get around town. It also promises a vibrant space to live, shop, and grab a drink.
In a city known for bar-hopping, endless festivals, and maybe even a little debauchery, a bike path isn’t the likeliest place for a budding social scene. But in a narrow strip of central New Orleans, the 2.6-mile Lafitte Greenway is poised to become a new hub of activity—a commuter path that’s a destination in its own right.
Historically a transportation corridor, the Lafitte Greenway cuts through neighborhoods rich and poor, linking several of New Orleans’s disparate yet adjacent communities. Since it officially opened in November 2015, the Lafitte Greenway has quickly become the central artery of New Orleans' bike culture. It’s also steadily attracting attention from developers looking to build apartments, offices, coffee shops, and even a place to grab a drink. In March, the city granted its first permit for a pathside bar, and in June officials outlined plans to add sports and art facilities, playgrounds, and more.
According to the latest Real Estate Market Analysis from the University of New Orleans, more than $100 million worth of projects along or near the greenway have been built or are in the works. Before long, the greenway may become a very New Orleans bike path, where cyclists stop to socialize as they make their way around town—whether they’re heading to festivals, to the French Quarter, or just on the way home from work.
It might seem surprising that one of America’s hottest, muggiest cities seems ready for a bustling two-wheeled social scene. Biking here can be a challenge. Even if you manage to dodge the mind-bogglingly large potholes and the roving packs of drunken tourists, the humidity will leave any cyclist drenched in sweat. Still, New Orleans has quickly gained a reputation as a surprisingly bikeable city. It’s small and flat, and residents are increasingly seeing little reason to drive. The city now ranks 10th in the U.S. in the percentage of residents who cycle to work each day, and a new bike-share system is slated to launch this fall.
The cycling community of New Orleans has had great success in facilitating a bike culture. Dan Favre, the executive director of the New Orleans nonprofit Bike Easy, notes that the city had 11 miles of bikeways when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. Since then, that number has multiplied tenfold, to 115 miles today. Though it’s just one piece of the puzzle, the Lafitte Greenway stands out for its contribution to the city's burgeoning bicycling infrastructure; Favre calls it “the crown jewel.”
The corridor carved out by the greenway is almost as old as the city itself. Cutting through the center of the city, it connects Bayou St. John and the Mississippi River. It has always been used for transport, whether via portage by the first settlers to the region, via canal in the 18th century, or via railroad in the 19th and 20th centuries. By the 1970s, rail transport in the city shifted to other lines; the ties were pulled out, and soon, this strip of land became a vacant, overgrown field. Then a guy named Bart Everson came along.
One year after Katrina, catalyzed by a desire to revive a destroyed city, Everson and friends bushwhacked their way through the path. That homegrown effort coincided with a sudden surge of federal funding aimed at rebuilding New Orleans, and—importantly—making it smarter, greener, and more sustainable. The city got on board with the idea of turning the old railway into a trailway, and even repurchased some of the land that had been sold. With funds from city coffers and private donations, in 2015, 10 years after Katrina, and under the guidance of a contractor, design workshop, and extensive planning process, the Lafitte Greenway opened.
Today the Lafitte Greenway is a 2.6-mile walking and biking trail connecting six diverse neighborhoods in the heart of New Orleans, from the French Quarter, where tourists congregate on Bourbon Street, to the city's bayous, where locals chill and host crawfish boils during the spring. Along the way, the greenway passes through the upper-middle-class streets of Mid-City, past a neighborhood made up of Section 8 public housing, past the historically African American music-drenched neighborhood Tremé, and finally, into the French Quarter.
It's that connectivity across socioeconomic lines that greenway supporters say helps Lafitte stand out from other bike paths around the country. Indeed, on any given day along the greenway, you can see hipsters on expensive fixed-gear bikes zoom past young musicians carrying instrument cases on their way to gigs in the Quarter. While in other cities some principal bike paths are geographically confined to well-off neighborhoods, in New Orleans the path runs through them all.
Lafitte Greenway supporters point to that layout when asked the question every urbanist wants to know: Is the Lafitte Greenway fueling gentrification? “I knew you were going to ask that,” says Sophie Harris, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of Lafitte Greenway, which aims to build the greenway into a space for the community and hosts yoga classes, community gardens, and more. She says she gets asked that question a lot. “Certainly there are concerns about the cost of living in New Orleans as a whole, as in many cities.”
In recent years, New Orleans has increasingly become an artsy rent-refuge for progressive Brooklynites, to the spurn of many locals who have seen their rents increase 14 percent in just the last year. And just in front of Harris’s office, facing the greenway, is an affordable housing development. “What we found is that the folks who live in this neighborhood are using the greenway and embracing it,” she says. She underlines her organization’s consciousness of the gentrification question by pointing out that Lafitte Greenway’s board includes the executive director of the group that’s designing a 10-year affordable housing plan for the city.
“From the beginning, some of the goals were to promote the investment in the surrounding neighborhoods,” says Vic Richard, the CEO of the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission, the city agency that maintains the greenway. “Once the greenway is fully returned to commerce,” he says, “it will boost economic development and provide recreational opportunities for all citizens.”
And while many agree with Harris and Richard, some still have concerns. Kareem Rush lives a block off the greenway, sandwiched between a Whole Foods and an area that’s known for gang activity. On one recent hot afternoon, tucked under the shade of his porch with a few neighbors, Rush said he's not totally sure that the greenway benefits everyone the same way.
“The little old lady whose taxes are going up might end up with problems in finding affordable housing,” he says, as neighbors nod along in agreement. “And there's the question of whether the money that went to the greenway should have gone to the local schools, for example, instead.” But despite those concerns, and despite the fact that he doesn't use the path, Rush says the greenway is still “a nice amenity to the neighborhood.”
“It's just nice to see the increased police presence along the path,” he adds. “And on weekends, it's great to see the kids out biking on a safe path.” And increasingly, on any given weekend, fest-goers with bikes blinged out with Mardi Gras beads and wheel lights will be cruising past the kids to one of many stops at the new businesses popping up along their route.