A projected 2016 bike-sharing program. The formation of the bicycle advocacy group Bike Walk Louisiana and its impending Louisiana State Bike Summit in Baton Rouge in November. A nearly three-mile greenway path through downtown, the LSU Lakes, City Park and Southdowns neighborhoods. Additional bike racks installed around the city.
The signs are there: Baton Rouge is making strides to become more of a bike-friendly city.
But hot, humid and stormy summers, poorly marked bike lanes and heavy traffic deter most from using their bikes to commute to work. In fact, less than 1% of all Baton Rouge residents bike to work, according to data from The Alliance for Biking and Walking.
Then there’s the safety issue. In August, a cyclist was killed while trying to cross Goodwood Boulevard near the new Main Library. And according to data released in August by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Baton Rouge ranked third in the nation for bicycle fatalities between 2008 and 2012. Florida ranked first and Delaware second.
We spoke to the rare Capital City cyclists who choose to brave the commute to work on their bikes instead of in their cars. They offered tips for staying cool in the summer heat, avoiding impatient drivers and heavily traveled roads and staying safe in a city where most people choose to grip a steering wheel instead of handlebars.
Marcel Dupré, 48
Retirement plan consultant and attorney, NFP
Home: Off Highland Road near Kenilworth Parkway
Work: One American Place, downtown Baton Rouge
The bike: Scott Commuter bike
Years commuting: 1
Commute time: 45 minutes
What began as a Facebook challenge to run, bike or horseback 1,000 miles in one year turned into a lifestyle change for Marcel Dupré, a retirement plan consultant and attorney for NFP Retirement.
“I started as a runner to try to reach the 1,000 miles and then started riding my bike,” says Dupré, 48. “And then I rode my bike to work, and it was so much easier than parking my car downtown and more fun, too.”
Dupré rides about 10 miles each way, from his home off Highland Road near Kenilworth Parkway to his office, located at One American Place. It’s a 45-minute commute, and he rides different routes to change up his scenery and experience older neighborhoods, the LSU lakes and the levee.
“Physically, I’m in much better shape for riding,” Dupré says. “It’s no problem to get on a bike and do a 50-mile ride on the weekends. It’s more relaxing than driving a car and less stress, too.”
He says the heat doesn’t bother him, and most of the time he works alone in his office.
“When I have to meet with a client, I will use the shower at the YMCA [on Third Street],” Dupré says.
His commute allows him to smile and wave at people as they walk or ride by, see the horses on the levee, photograph birds when the Mississippi River is high and often take pictures of Interstate traffic and post to Facebook for all of his motorist friends to see. He says most drivers are friendly and wave to him, but he did experience one very close call.
“I was almost hit by a concrete truck,” Dupré says. “I don’t know if he didn’t see me or there just wasn’t enough space, but he was within one inch of knocking me into a ditch.”
Dupré says while Baton Rouge has made strides to paint bike lanes on streets, motorists need to pay more attention to the bike lanes. He added that infrastructure improvements are needed in the southern end of town, especially Highland and Perkins roads. He is also an advocate for narrowing streets instead of widening them to encourage more biking and discourage driving.
“We rely way too much on automobiles,” he says. “We need more sidewalks, more crosswalks—especially at major intersections like Perkins and Essen. We have the potential to have more bikers and less drivers with some improvements.”
Pat Arbour-Reily, 61
Research associate, LSU Life Sciences
Home: Mid City
The bike: Trek Woman’s Step Thru
Years commuting: 4
Commute time: 15 minutes
When Pat Arbour-Reily was 6 years old, she rode her bike to school. In the early ’70s, as a LSU student, she rode her bike to college, and now the married mom of one and research assistant at LSU rides her bike to work.
“Why did I start commuting on my bike again?” asks Reily, 61. “It’s simple. Because I could.”
Many people think they cannot survive without an automobile, but Reily’s family literally could not survive without a car. Reily’s son, Brian, was born with complex congenital heart defects, meaning he was born with only half of his heart. Because of his condition, he often needed to seek medical attention quickly. That life or death need required his Reily and her husband Larry to have a quick mode of transportation.
“When you have a child at any moment who has to go to the hospital, you’re in a car,” Reily says. “It’s as simple as that.”
However, now that her son is grown—and a car accident four years ago totaled her car—Reily got back on her bike. “It had been a while and we were doing fine with my son and we were down to one car because a woman pulled out in front of me and T-boned and wrecked my car,” she says. “I said, ‘Here’s my opportunity to ride,’ and I never looked back.”
Reily says some of her co-workers are shocked she rides her bike to work—and if it’s dark, hot or raining, she receives numerous offers for rides home.
“Baton Rouge is a car town,” Reily says. “And people will see me leaving and it will be dark and they say, ‘How will you see in the dark?’ And I say, ‘Have you ever heard of Thomas Edison? Do you have lights on your car? I have lights on my bike!’”
She loves biking in the cooler months but says the heat does not bother her. She simply packs a change of clothes if it’s particularly hot, or dabs on a bit of patchouli oil.
Reily’s bicycle route to work is a three-mile leisurely ride through tree-lined, old Baton Rouge neighborhood streets. She is a slow cyclist, preferring flowy, cool clothing to the skin-tight racer gear. “I’m a woman,” she says. “I don’t dress in skin-tight stuff, and I’m older. Some people think I’m a bag lady, and I think sometimes people feel sorry for me and tend to avoid me, but that’s OK, because I’ve never had any close calls.”
Her flexible work schedule allows her to leave the house around 9 a.m., enjoy the flowers and the fish hopping in the LSU lakes before arriving at her lab.
She repeats the refrain of many cyclists: Baton Rouge needs to improve the condition of the roads and motorists need to be more aware. Infrastructure and distracted drivers are two of her biggest challenges.
“I’ve seen people reading, shaving their legs and reaching into the backseat to slap their children,” she says. “And texting is a huge problem.”
When she was a college student riding to school, she says “some idiot guys” pushed her into the lake near City Park. “I got pushed into that lake three times,” she says. “I’m serious. I had long hair and that was in the early ’70s and I saw very few bikes then, but my hairbrush got duckweed in it. That was a pain to get out.”
Larry Reily, 66
Part-time Genealogy Department technician, East Baton Rouge Parish Main Library
Home: Mid City
Work: Main Library, Goodwood Boulevard
The bike: Surly Cyclocross
Years commuting: 6
Commute time: 20 minutes
Larry Reily got into a car accident in 2009. He was about to retire and decided he did not want to buy a new truck. Instead, he took his bike out of storage, dusted it off and began riding socially with others in the bike community and his family. His wife, Pat, and son, Brian, also ride to work and school.
“I decided I liked it, and I was already busing around and sharing a car with my wife, and I managed to do just fine,” Reily says. “I used a bike as a basic transportation when I was a kid so I decided to stay with it. I like the exercises aspect of it and it keeps me fit for an old man and it’s a lot of fun. But there are some drawbacks.”
Those include distracted and grumpy drivers frustrated at having to share the road with bicyclers, he says.
“I’ve had things thrown at me and horns honked at me,” he says. “I’ve been hit with a cup of ice left over from a drink. People get frantic in their cars. It’s a contest to see who can get to the red lights first, and they can’t stand being behind a bicycle.”
He works part-time at the library and enjoys his ride to work, normally stretching the 20-minute ride to 40 or 45 minutes to slow down and enjoy the scenery.
“I notice everything on a bike because you’re in it. In a car, you have the radio on, the air conditioning on, you can’t hear anything. On a bike, you’re in tune with the whole world around you. There’s lovely things to see,” he says. “Kids playing. Squirrels bouncing around in the front yard. We have some lovely gardens. Azaleas. I never even see that stuff when I’m in my car.”
When he is not biking to work, he is riding it to buy groceries, go to the bank and post office. Anytime he travels downtown, he rides his bike. Like so many of his biking comrades, he hopes Baton Rouge will create protected bike lanes, isolated from traffic.
“And we need the lanes to carry us in major directions,” he says. “Biking through neighborhoods is real easy. Neighborhood streets are not heavily trafficked. Crossing those big arterials is tough for me.”
Mark Martin, 61
Photo archivist, LSU Memorial Library
Home: Spanish Town
The bike: Surly Disc Trucker
Years commuting: 10
Commute time: 30 minutes
When Mark Martin finished graduate school 24 years ago, he couldn’t afford a car, so he didn’t buy one. Instead, he hopped on a bicycle and has been riding ever since.
He commutes from his Spanish Town home to LSU’s Memorial Library. His shortest route is just under four miles and takes him about 20 minutes. But most days, he chooses the long way, with less traffic and more scenery.
“You hear that phrase all the time of getting from A to B as if there’s nothing between A and B,” he says. “When you’re in your car, you’re in your own little cocoon so it may feel like there’s nothing else there. On a bike it’s entirely different; you’re experiencing the entire trip. It’s pleasurable. Why make it quicker? Why not make it last longer? I could take a more direct route, but it wouldn’t be enjoyable and it wouldn’t last as long.”
And he says riding is an instant stress relief.
“Mentally, it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than some kind of maintenance drug,” he says. “If I have a bad day at work, by the time I’m 10 minutes into my ride, I’m no longer thinking about work. It’s really difficult to be upset when riding and really easy to be calm and happy.”
He said summer heat and distracted drivers are two challenges for riding in Baton Rouge. To combat sweltering summer temperatures, Martin drinks plenty of water and sports drinks, and changes his clothes at work once he has cooled off. As for the drivers, he avoids them, choosing instead the less-traveled neighborhood streets, the LSU lakes and the Baton Rouge Levee Bike Path. He is in awe of the city’s beauty, the trees at the end of Steele Boulevard near Webb Park and the bird migration patterns around the lakes.
“It’s a beautiful city to bike in, and my preference would be that something is done with the infrastructure to improve biking,” Martin says.
Martin is passionate about the issue. He recommends a protected bike lane and high-intensity activated crosswalk beacons at major intersections like Acadian Thruway and Foster Drive. These traffic control devices would help stop road traffic and allow bicyclers to utilize more city streets—and perhaps change perceptions about bicyclists, he says.
“We’re deeply, deeply embedded in a car culture that’s been going on for 100 years,” Martin says. “To undo a culture like that, you need to do more than just ride a bike. The perception is that when you ride a bike, you are one of three things: You’re a child, you’re a poor person who has no choice, or you’re a rich person with an obsession.”
Pam Volentine Rushing, 43
Official court reporter, 19th Judicial District Court
Home: Garden District
The bike: Workcycle, a Dutch bike
Years commuting: 1
Commute time: 15 minutes
About a year ago, Pam Volentine Rushing decided that saving time and money were two good reasons to give her car to her mom and ride her bike full-time.
Rushing works downtown, a two-and-half-mile and 15-minute bike ride from her Garden District home to her court reporter job at the 19th Judicial District Court. For years, Rushing drove to work, which took her the same amount of time because she also had to find a place to park.
“When I bike and drive, there’s no difference. It’s a tie in time,” she says. “To park the car and walk to work takes about 15 minutes. To bike and park the bike takes 15 minutes, but with the added health aspect.”
And then there are the economics of riding a bike instead of a car. She estimated that she saved a total of $650 per month in car payments, insurance, gas, downtown parking fees and a gym membership.
“If I can ride my bike to work and come out $650 ahead, I’m doing good,” she says. “And having a slower commute and slower pace of getting somewhere makes you notice things and feel more connected with the community.”
She says the biggest challenge commuting to work on a bike is finding comfortable and safe roads to ride on. Because some of the main roads lack separate bike routes, she rides through neighborhoods to avoid traffic. She says safety is especially important for women with children.
“Women are more cautious,” she says. “They are not going to risk their safety. When they are trying to get from point A to point B, they don’t want the extra stress of the ride. Protected and separated infrastructure is the only thing that will bring a big increase in getting people out on their bikes for a major form of transportation.”
She is cautious when riding, avoiding four-lane roads like Government Street, Perkins Road and Goodwood Boulevard.
“Any time you have a four-lane roadway, people treat it like it’s the interstate, they speed and cut back and forth,” Rushing says. “It’s too fast.”
She says she is a much more “alert, careful and slow” driver because of what she sees.
“It’s the texting and cellphone usage all the time, and it makes me crazy,” she says. “That little bit of inattention can kill someone.”
Rushing’s favorite season to ride is winter because of the cool temperatures, but she does not mind the heat or rain. “Once people find out I ride a bike to work, they are always like, ‘Did you ride your bike today?’ if it’s hot or there is severe weather. I get those questions a lot, but I do have a back-up plan. I plan for the weather.”
She packs jeans to wear if it rains; if she is sick or if freezing rain or snow is forecast, she will ride on the Garden District Trolley or ask her husband to drop her off at work and co-workers to drive her home.
Rushing says the best part about riding her bike is seeing nature and becoming more aware of her surroundings.
“You have time to really notice things when you’re at a bike pace. You’re smelling things,” she says. “Your senses are engaged. You’re not in a box, enclosed in glass. All of this fresh air and sunshine and physical activities are creating great endorphins.”