By Nick BeJeaux and Matt Bennett
Cycling is taking off across Louisiana and especially in Baton Rouge, but as the city tries to embrace the resurgence of biking some question if BR is moving too slowly.
Since January of this year, three non-motorists have been killed by vehicular collisions. While that may not sound like a lot, far more cyclists have been hit and survived, though not without injury. Local programs like the “Complete Streets” ordinance passed by the Metro Council last year, and the Mayor Kip Holden’s Future BR program have started Baton Rouge down the path to being bike-friendly, but they are years away from completion.
Some in the cyclist community have taken matters into their own hands to find an immediate solution. Pamela Volentine Rushing is a court reporter, cycling enthusiast and community activist who founded Baton Rouge Moms Demand Safe Streets – a group dedicated to making BR biking safer.
“We need to change hearts, minds, and ingrained poor driving habits,” she said. “We need to start thinking in terms of physically separating bike infrastructure, [like] protected or buffered bike lanes and more off-street paths that connect so people can get to their destinations safely.”
For a city its size BR has insane traffic, which encourages more people to use bikes and other less conventional means of transportation to get where they need to go. But many hold back from biking because of safety concerns.
“As traffic congestion increases, people are going to want alternatives to get to destinations within five miles,” said Rushing. “A lot of people already do bike to their close destinations, but in order to make this an attractive option to all ages and abilities, we need separated and protected infrastructure. It has worked in other cities, and it can work here.”
BRMDSS hosted their first Kidical Mass bike ride event, where the mothers in the group showed their kids how to navigate their bikes around town safely. Jessica Stroope was one of the many parents there
“My daughter’s school is one mile from our house and I’m hoping we’ll get to the point where she can bike through the residential streets no major streets but even then I want her to be more comfortable and confident because it’s just not a friendly environment,” she said. “But it makes me sad that living one mile with all residential streets that it’s not just a no brainer that you might bike.”
One of the cyclists riding with BRMDSS was Mika Torkkola, a native of Australia and avid biker. Torkkola especially had his reasons for being there after he and two friends where hit by a truck while cycling at night on May 3 of this year. Despite their collective experience and considerable level of taken safety precautions, they were still hit.
“We’re all very experienced bicyclists – Justin has been a bicycle mechanic his entire life and Matt has been riding longer than I’ve been alive, and I’m a certified instructor,” he said. “We had been riding maybe 45 minutes and were on Nicholson, hanging out in the left lane to turn onto GSRI Avenue when a guy hit us from behind and took all of us out.”
Torkkola had been in front of his friends, Justin Weber and Matthew Bartol, and suffered only a few bumps and scrapes. Bartol was a little worse for wear, but Weber was eventually taken to Our Lady of the Lake for treatment of a head injury. Perhaps the worse part is that the driver had no intention of helping them.
“When I got to my feet he started pulling away with one of our bikes still underneath his truck – after I banged on the side of his window did he stop and say he was trying to get out of traffic,” said Torkkola. “I stood in front of his truck to make sure he didn’t leave. I went to go see to my friend who was seriously injured and at some point in the commotion, he got in his truck and left.”
Torkkola concedes that Baton Rouge is a very dangerous place for cyclists. It lacks complete infrastructure, motorists are not trained to share the road with cyclists, and he believes that traffic laws are not enforced, as they should be. But, perhaps counterintuitively, he still thinks the positives outweigh the risks.
“Even in a place as dangerous as Baton Rouge, the benefits out-weigh the risks by ten to one,” he said. “Studies even show this; that the physical and mental benefits are greater than your chance of getting hit.”
Like many bike enthusiasts, Torkkola feels that the proposed changes to BR’s biking infrastructure will greatly improve the problems cyclists face here. However, he is worried that they are coming too slowly, if they come at all.
“All of those are fantastic, but the one thing that I would caution is that BR has had a lot of fantastic ideas in the past, and they don’t always come to fruition,” he said. “I have a good feeling about what is on paper, and if it turns out anything like that it will be fantastic.”