Mardi Gras and Walking Go Hand in Hand

Fat Tuesday and Other New Orleans Festivals Bring Out an Unusually Large Number of People on Foot, but as the Author Discovers, Public Policy Doesn’t Always Align With Public Practice in Keeping Foot-Bound Traffic Safe.

This post was written by our Communications Specialist and New Orleans resident, Emilie Bahr. It is a follow up to a post she wrote for the Project for Public Spaces.

New Orleans, you might have gathered, is a festival city. We recently wrapped up our most well-known of celebrations with the passage of Mardi Gras and will soon arrive upon the next phase with the French Quarter and New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festivals heralding the onset of a spring with few unscheduled weekends.

2These large public spectacles add to the litany of smaller-scale, more improvisational events like the secondlines that seem to pop up out of nowhere many a Sunday along the state highway that runs near my house, the beat of drums and the blare of tubas and whistles luring my family out on our front porch just in time to witness the flurry of dancers, feathers and umbrellas strutting by.

Beyond the food and music and dancing (and booze) that are staples of just about every New Orleans festival, there’s another phenomenon that stands out to the transportation planner in me that’s far less widely-recognized, and that’s our willingness to relegate efficiency and traffic flow to the back seat in the name of having a good time.

Walking and biking are increasingly commonplace as modes of transportation in New Orleans, a fact that isn’t terribly surprising given that we’re an old city, built out largely before the rise of the car and zoning rules that elsewhere in the country tend to ban things like corner grocery stores and bars from residential areas. We’re also a poor city in which a large proportion of the population can’t afford the costs of car ownership.

mardi gras day in the french quarterBut even with active transportation increasingly catching on, no time of year are we more apt to walk and bike to get places than at festival time, when throngs of people fill the streets, parking becomes exceedingly scare and expensive and cars that can otherwise serve as mechanisms of freedom start to feel like hulking liabilities.

As I wrote about this phenomenon in my book, I would argue that walking and biking to festivals has helped introduce many a New Orleanian to the advantages of getting around outside of cars and is perhaps an underappreciated factor that has helped to swell our walking and bicycling ranks in recent years.

It is in light of our public embrace of ceding our streets to people certain times of year and because it was my first Carnival season as a mother that I found a particular experience this Mardi Gras especially unnerving.

While I carve out some exceptions for the smaller-scale, often politically-themed marching parades that roll through the French Quarter and its environs, I’m not on the whole what you might call a parade person. I am, however, fond of the house parties inspired by the over-the-top mega parades involving massive floats and huge crowds.

The largest of these so-called super krewe parades, Endymion, runs through my neighborhood.  So the Saturday before Mardi Gras, my husband Beaux and I strapped our 10-month-old son Hudson into his Baby Bjorn and headed out on an especially beautiful February afternoon to wander around to a few parties being hosted by friends.  By the time the parade started to roll in the early evening, we headed back toward home, worrying that we wouldn’t be able to make it back to the other side of the parade route in time for Hudson’s bedtime.

We walked along Carrollton Avenue, in lanes usually filled with automobile traffic, watching the spectrum of humanity on display. And as we traded observations about various remarkable scenes, I mentioned to my husband how uncomfortable I was that cars were continuing to roll through, albeit slowly, with the throngs of people milling about on the side of the avenue unobstructed by floats.

Emilie and Hudson, Endymion 2017 (1)Eventually, we ran into some neighbors who also had their young son in tow and the six of us hung out for a bit as the floats streamed past, catching up and catching the occasional throw lobbed our way as my son fell asleep on my shoulder. Just after sunset, we decided it was time to leave and set off on an idyllic mile-long stroll along the moonlit Bayou St. John.

We were home, plopped on the couch after a long day, when I happened to check my phone. My brain didn’t fully register the headline I read at first, so I had to reread it. At around 6:45 p.m., someone had driven a pickup truck through rows of parade spectators. The incident occurred at Orleans and Carrollton avenues, right where my family and our friends had been standing ten minutes earlier. I turned on the TV to see if any more information was available and found a local news channel doing wall-to-wall coverage of the parade for those who preferred to participate from the comfort of their armchairs.

Eventually, I would learn that around 30 people were injured in the crash, the youngest just a year old.  I thought about the people I’d noticed standing next to us – the hugely pregnant woman, the guy who complimented my friend’s son’s jacket, the woman with whom my husband had traded jokes – and wondered if any of them had been hurt. I pulled my sleeping son from his crib under the guise that he seemed cold and squeezed him tightly to my chest, waking him up by yelling at the two ballgown-clad news anchors broadcasting from the big parade afterparty downtown. They interspersed commentary on the pomp and circumstance of the parade with updates on its grim turn, lamenting the crash as unfortunate but unpreventable and repeatedly referring to a man ingesting at least three times the legal alcohol limit before getting into his truck and plowing into a crowd as an “accident.” In the absence of other satisfying channels for my rage, I fired off a few angry tweets to @FOX8NOLA even though I don’t really even know how to use Twitter. The gist of my outrage was this: What happened was an imminently-avoidable tragedy related to an individual’s decision to drink and drive, certainly, but also to basic political decisions about how to use public space. These choices are especially pronounced in a region with a terrible record when it comes to the prioritizing safety of those moving around outside of vehicles and in a country in whose traffic-related fatalities are surging. 

Fortunately, at this point, it seems that all of the injured at Endymion this year will survive, though some of the victims are facing a tough road ahead. The 25-year-old man with an out-of-town address who caused the crash was arrested and is facing criminal charges. And New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu says the city will consider banning cars from both sides of the avenue during the parade next year.