From Pontiac Point to Rotary Point: Lafayette’s ambitious bike plan

Bike riders in Downtown Lafayette
Leslie Bradford and Cameron Holcomb ride to meet friends at a Downtown restaurant, Tuesday, May 31, 2022. Photo by Robin May

Biking in Lafayette is not easy. The city’s network is disconnected and unsafe, local bike advocates say. Unveiled in draft form in May, Lafayette’s bicycle master plan would change that.

It draws up 50 miles of biking and walking trails built for recreation, commuting and, crucially, reconnection. The network’s spine loops from Pontiac Point to Rotary Point, a symbol in its own right: connecting Northside and Southside and 17 neighborhoods in between. With sufficient funding and commitment, it could remake how Lafayette gets around.

For now, it’s just a plan. Set to be released for public comment this summer, the document sets Lafayette up for pursuing federal and state grants. Like other plans underway, it’s a guide for how Lafayette will invest in safer, more accessible transportation infrastructure over the long haul.

“It’s a tool for the elected officials to better make informed decisions based on a plan that was data-driven and public-input driven,” says architect Stephen Ortego of SO Studio, who was contracted to develop the plan, sourcing precedents around the globe and producing a draft plan that would rival bike and pedestrian infrastructure in bike capitals like Copenhagen and Amsterdam.

Mayor-President Josh Guillory has staked it out as a way to put Lafayette on the map as #FunCapitalOfTheWorld, and he put $14.5 million into LCG’s five-year capital outlay. Pieces are already underway. The first spur completes a connection between Moncus Park and Girard Park.

Developed rapidly over the last year, the plan has so far been well-received among a skeptical bike community. As a candidate, the mayor-president advocated against expanding Lafayette’s bike network, saying that money was better used elsewhere. In a Facebook post announcing the plan, Guillory credited his wife, an avid cyclist, with inspiring his push on the project. The plan began as a bid to copy recreational trails like what she saw in St. Tammany Parish. Once it hit planning, the vision expanded to adopt a different set of goals, among them accessibility for commuters.

The draft maps detail seven routes that crisscross the city from trailhead to trailhead in a bright swath of transit-inspired color. Live in East Bayou and want to get to the Oil Center? Take the Jaune Route to the Rose Spur, hang a right onto the Véloop at Rotary Point and you’re there in a flash. Color-coding was chosen as a clearer way of communicating the network’s “loop and spoke” design.

“When you look at the existing bike routes, it's pretty pitiful. It's disconnected. No one's using them, or very few people use them because it's so disconnected,” Ortego says.

Another reason ridership is low? People don’t feel safe. This plan aims to fix that with widespread use of protected lanes, buffering cyclists and pedestrians from motor vehicle traffic. Studies consistently show that most people are bike-curious and would bike more if they felt safer. Today, Lafayette’s fragmented bike network, shouldering up to busy streets, intimidates most casual riders with what researchers call “high stress” routes.

While the full network could be years in the making, the administration has pushed its bike and pedestrian team to stand up the Véloop, the network’s core, as soon as possible. On its own, the Véloop would be transformative. It wraps a belt around Lafayette’s neighborhoods and imagines an express route bisecting the loop along Coulee St. John. Using coulees as a trail network has kicked around planning circles for years; this is the first time the concept has made a public document.

“The loop was drawn with implementation in mind: what projects, what low hanging fruit and what routes are most implementable,” says LCG bike and pedestrian coordinator Nick Hernandez. “Because you create these plans throughout the years, but it's always unfinished.”

As of now, LCG is working to get the Véloop moving. Hernandez and LCG Planning Manager Cathie Gilbert say about 50% of the Véloop runs on existing projects. The m-p wants a connection between Girard Park and Moncus Park done quickly.

“He wants to see boots on the ground, stuff built quick,” says Gilbert. Planning staff had to slow the m-p down to get a plan done, working at lightning speed. “We were like, ‘please give us a few months.’ Stephen really worked fast. Our public outreach piece was fast, too.”

Completing connections is a big part of the strategy, and work on the Véloop is already underway, built in effect on top of projects funded by LCG’s Evangeline Corridor Initiative, University Avenue Corridor and a spur on West Bayou Parkway, an area that was once the site of a very public battle over bike lanes in the Robideaux administration.

These connections rub up against decades of sprawled and disjointed planning in a city that grew up around cars. It’s not just the Evangeline Thruway that divided historic neighborhoods. High-volume thoroughfares like University Avenue, Pinhook Road, Willow Street and more carved yawning gaps between neighborhoods.

It’s a disconnect that’s killing people. Lafayette Parish recorded 25 pedestrian fatalities since 2020, according to research compiled by LSU. And many of the city’s hotspots for collisions are on the Thruway, Pinhook and University corridors. In a city built for cars, many people in the neighborhoods that line those streets don’t have them. Some 20% of households in the blocks that cover McComb-Veazey, Fightinville and Truman have no cars, according to data collected for the bike plan. Generally, Black cyclists have collision fatality rates that are 20-30% higher than white cyclists, and the disparity holds for lower-income cyclists, too.

Nureaka Ross watched her mom walk miles to one of four jobs near her childhood home in McComb-Veazey. Having lost friends to collisions, she became an advocate for transportation access as she watched more and more people suffer grievous injuries or death on Carmel Drive near her home.

“We had to walk to the grocery store, to go to the laundromat. Only transportation I had was my two feet,” she says. “To this day, there are people who live this way. People have to work. People need transportation. And one of the most reliable types of transportation is bicycles. It’s low maintenance.”

Embracing bike infrastructure as a community need would mark a paradigm shift not just for the mayor-president but for Lafayette as whole. Over the last decade, bike lanes and sidewalks have been striped as afterthoughts to regular traffic work. That approach has been successful in adding lane miles over the years with low-hanging fruit, but it’s left the network virtually unusable for those who want to move around the city.

“A lot of people ride their bikes in this city,” says Matt Holland of Bike Lafayette. “The reason some people might not ride their bike is because they don’t have the infrastructure that makes them feel like they could. Johnston Street: it’s a high-speed road. The lane isn’t protected. There are a lot of driveways coming in and out of the street. For someone who isn’t a hard-core, avid cyclist, and even if for someone who is, it’s not a comfortable street to ride.”

That view is corroborated by data LCG’s bike planners collected over the last few months. In public meetings with neighbor coteries, a bike charette and through online surveys, residents reported they felt comfortable moving within neighborhoods — walking Downtown, for instance, where walk scores are high — but not moving between them.

And that’s problematic for economic mobility and access. People who walk and bike to work, like Nureaka’s mom did, struggle to get to the grocery store, much less to a better job in another part of town. As Lafayette has sprawled, that’s flung opportunity out of reach for many in the urban core, a fact underscored by the area’s deflating population and increasing rates of poverty.

Planners took that data into account, along with traffic counts and the crash numbers, to inform plans for major crossings of roadways, and those same considerations will help shape prioritization of the plan’s implementation.

Of course, a plan stays a plan until it gets built. And there’s still much to work out, both through a forthcoming public comment period and in dealing with Lafayette’s other looming ambition: completing I-49 South via the Lafayette Connector.

Cars on Evangeline Thruway
A sidewalk squeezes next to the Evangeline Thruway.

Segments of the bike plan include work funded through the Evangeline Corridor Initiative, a city initiative set up to help neighborhoods in the Connector’s path adapt for its arrival. Aided by record sales tax receipts and a flush of federal cash, Guillory has put several million dollars into ECI projects.

“We haven't had any money to do any of this stuff,” Gilbert says. “The mayor-president funded all ECI requests last year, and we've put in a follow up request this year. That's significant.” 

Having a master plan puts LCG on stronger footing in talks with state transportation officials. Once adopted, it would represent Lafayette’s official vision for what to do with crossings once the Connector becomes an elevated interstate. For the time being, that means LCG is working with wet clay as the Department of Transportation and Development wraps up its latest planning effort on the decades-old freeway project. DOTD intends to have a design up for federal approval by early 2023.

Bike lanes have not been good politics in Lafayette for some time, and building for cyclists and pedestrians this way would represent a sea change in how the city plans for getting around. Pushback is to be expected.

The network traverses two areas, Moss Street and West Bayou, that resisted bike plans in the past. The Coulee St. John spoke, planned mostly along public right of way, has already spooked some residents, Gilbert says. 

Funding, of course, remains a big question, especially to achieve the plan’s full ambition. The $14.5 million commitment represents a big chunk of change, the most allocated for bike infrastructure in recent memory, but it’s still “a start” for BikeLafayette’s Holland. Real change would be a routine line item for bike infrastructure in LCG’s budgeting.

“I love a plan. It’s a great plan,” Holland says. “Until the plan becomes a reality, we’re still stuck with the situation that we have on the street.”