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.
Road closures and parade-related barricades make the Crescent City’s Carnival season an urban traffic challenge.
Around 6 p.m. on Saturday, the median of Carrollton Avenue was the most densely crowded place in New Orleans. A flood of Mardi Gras revelers had overtaken the wide street to watch the city’s most massive parade: Endymion, a “super krewe” that processes all the way through Mid-City to the Superdome on Samedi Gras (the Saturday before Fat Tuesday). Weeks before the parade itself, families had spray-painted their names on the grass of the median, trying to claim viewing areas. By the time the sun began to set after a day of perfect Mardi Gras weather, the median was a dense maze of coolers and tents and grills and humans.
All eyes were focused on the floats passing by when 25-year-old Neilson Rizzuto, stuck in traffic on the avenue after, police believe, a day of heavy drinking, revved the engine of his gray pickup and hit the gas. Rizzuto slammed into the two cars in front of him, propelling them diagonally onto the sidewalk, as he gunned his truck up over the median curb and into the crowds. A total of 32 people were injured, and 23 were hospitalized, several critically; remarkably, no one was killed.
The incident immediately drew criticism from city residents over the fact that automotive traffic was allowed to pass alongside the crowded median in the middle of a parade. But it also put a spotlight on a long-simmering issue in New Orleans: the challenges of getting around by car when the city is under revelry lockdown during the weeks of Mardi Gras.
During the month-long celebration, the population of the city triples. So does, it seems, the number of traffic barricades, which suddenly appear at every turn, blocking off residential streets to cars. Mardi Gras creates a unique set of logistical challenges for city residents who need to get around town during Carnival, as New Orleans is forced to reconfigure itself for the annual event. The big question: Are you “inside the box” or “outside the box”?
The parade routes that slice across town effectively create a square around a massive portion of the city. The main parade route—along which the majority of the city’s parades run throughout Carnival—occupies St. Charles Avenue for several miles, turning right before the French Quarter and ending near the Mississippi River. Those who live between St. Charles and the river find themselves “boxed in,” unable to cross over to the French Quarter or out to the freeway. Even if a parade starts at 2 p.m., you can count on the street being blocked off by 8 that morning, with chairs and coolers and speakers showing up shortly thereafter.
Longtime New Orleans residents like Tulane professor Annie Gibson know this phenomenon well. “One time I was kicked out of a Carnival dance group because I was stuck outside the box and the rehearsal was inside the box,” she says. “I just couldn’t get there.”
Navigating any urban mega-event can often be a nightmare: Just ask the residents of Rio de Janeiro, the recent Olympic host city, or the folks who needed to cross town in D.C. or Los Angeles when the Women’s March went down last month. But it is rare for a city to have to reorient traffic for such an extended amount of time. In New Orleans, Carnival season comprises dozens of parades that snarl traffic and re-route mass transit for multiple weeks each winter. The iconic streetcars that run along St. Charles Avenue shorten their journeys, stopping at the start of the parade routes and returning whence they came. City buses only operate in unaffected parts of the city. Parade attendees often arrive by bike or on foot, some walking miles, dragging coolers behind them.
Unsurprisingly, many people opt to leave the car at home and summon an Uber or Lyft. For the second year, Uber has explicitly oriented their Mardi Gras-season business in New Orleans around the “box” system. “The first year we faced this really big problem during Mardi Gras, where tons of drivers and riders on the road would have to work around the parades and the closures,” says Miceh Cumpian, general manager of Uber New Orleans. “It is really tough to get out and get in to the box, which is by design, because the parades are supposed to be running free and clear,” he says, referring to the idea that parade routes should not be interrupted by crossing traffic.
As a result, Cumpian’s team came up with a guide for riders and drivers to direct them to walk outside the box to get a ride. The company has issued similar guides during the Super Bowl in Houston and the Kentucky Derby in Louisville. Around New Orleans this weekend, groups of riders could be seen walking, mobile phones in hand, for blocks so that they could meet their Uber driver.
Despite the overflow crowds of tourists, many businesses along parade routes simply give up—unable to field enough staff, they simply close during the prime Mardi Gras days. Residents, too, often flee for the duration, especially during the climactic final day of season, when city offices are shuttered and few commuters make it into work. “Some people will just straight up leave,” says New Orleans native Monique Labat. “The hassle is too much and they will opt out altogether.” One friend, she says, takes her family to Disney World every year: “They will even take the busyness of Disney World over Mardi Gras.”