Bikes, reclaimed streets, and Fat Tuesday go together like Purple, Green, and Gold.
Tuesday is Mardi Gras. And that doesn’t just mean parties, booze, glitter, feathers, wigs, wings, tutus, Big-Chiefs, spy-boys, flag-boys second liners and tutus. Carnival season turns New Orleans’ transportation-convenience paradigm on its head. Cars become useless, and miles of streets are taken over by kids playing, communities getting together, extravagant tail gates grand central medians — neutral grounds — lined with port-o-johns, stereo systems and complete sets of living room furniture. Space usually dominated by cars turns into a massive, rollicking street party, streets become places.
This special guest blog is an excerpt from Urban Revolutions — A woman’s guide to two-wheeled transportation by New Orleans local Emilie Bahr.
I sit down to write this the morning after the close of yet another Carnival season, a time when most people across New Orleans are pulling themselves out of bed still hazy with the fog that is the result of weeks of far too much alcohol and sugar and far too little sleep. They glint with the glitter of unknown provenance found in hair, nostrils, ears, that will continue, along with downy, brightly-hued feathers, to be found in cracks and crevices, in clothing, and in bed sheets for months to come. Many of us step over wigs, wings, and tutus that have yet to be stuffed back into costume boxes, that staple of New Orleans households, and finish off the remaining shreds of stale king cake left by a neighbor on the kitchen counter. There is a certain relief in the recognition that this is the last of the only-moderately-tasty-yet-impossible-to-resist-sugar-encrusted-pastry that will tempt with its sprinkles of purple, green, and gold until next year, even as the day is — for most of us — a lesson in the flip side of euphoria, a steep decent on the happiness rollercoaster that has been climbing for weeks. It is, quite possibly, the least productive day of the year.
Despite its reputation as an alcohol-fueled striptease, Mardi Gras is an increasingly rare intergenerational celebration commemorated in countless ways across the city, well beyond the bounds of Bourbon Street. Although it may not be clear to those living outside South Louisiana or Mobile or Brazil, Carnival is not limited to a single day, but is rather a weeks-long celebratory season beginning January 6th and culminating on Mardi Gras Day, which is, for observant Catholics anyway, the last hurrah before Ash Wednesday and the onset of Lent.
Certainly, there is alcohol involved. And sometimes there is nudity. But Carnival season is also spending weeks constructing clever costumes. It’s families coming together for parade parties and open houses. It’s camping overnight to secure spots along the parade route and hosting extravagant tailgates on neutral grounds lined with Port-o-Johns, stereo systems, and complete sets of living room furniture. It is, on one end of the spectrum, balls hosted by the city’s financial upper crust who, with little hint of irony, name kings and queens, dukes and maids, and parade around hotel ballrooms adorned in jewels and costumes that rival those of the Royal Family. On the other extreme, it is inner city black men who spend all year constructing resplendent feather-and-bead works of art debuted with their Indian tribes on Mardi Gras Day, spy boys and flag boys and big chiefs, in homage to the role native Americans played in aiding ancestors’ escape from slavery. It is astringent satire, poking fun at the many deserving politicians and other newsmakers with whom locals have an ax to grind. It is trees coated in shimmering strands of beads that hang down like colorful Spanish moss. It is grown women and men tripping over themselves to catch painted shoes and coconuts that will be prominently displayed on mantelpieces for years to come. It is more music in the streets and the clubs than any person can realistically take in. And, amid the bead-infused bacchanalia, it is people walking, biking and rolling around at a frequency I would hazard to guess surpasses any other time of year.
The rise in bicycling around Carnival time is not related to any particular citywide push or deep-seated environmental sensibility. (After all, an estimated 150 tons of trash were swept away from city streets upon the closing bell of Mardi Gras 2015.) Rather, I would submit that the growth in human-powered traffic this time of year is rooted squarely in the fact that walking and biking are, for those of us physically capable, simply the fastest and least frustrating ways to get around.
Bicycling for transportation is catching on in my city to the point where we now stand among the national leaders for the rate of people who get to work by bike. Even so, the automobile remains the prevailing mode of transport. For those with access to a car, for most of the year, driving is the easiest way to get around. But Mardi Gras turns the transportation-convenience paradigm on its head. As the parades start to roll and the streets fill with revelers, parking becomes scarce and expensive and automobile traffic — where it is allowed — grinds to a standstill, even miles from parade routes. Well before and after a parade, the space usually dominated by cars turns into a massive, rollicking street party. And cars that can otherwise feel like mechanisms of freedom start to feel like hulking, expensive liabilities.
Where driving and parking are difficult, people are more apt to consider alternatives. It’s a phenomenon that can be seen in places like New York, which boasts the highest share of non-car commuters in the nation. And it’s similarly evident in New Orleans this time of year when many city residents, some of whom never give second thought to hopping in their cars to get where they want to go, opt to leave their cars at home.
For some, it’s not just easier to get around outside a car at Mardi Gras — it’s also far more comfortable than at other times of year. Headed to or from the festivities, cars creep along at a snail’s pace, their slow speeds allowing bicyclists to whir easily past. And amid so many more bicyclists and pedestrians in the streets, drivers’ attitudes seem to shift. They navigate their vehicles more carefully, even apologetically, among the throngs who have taken over the public rights of way — as though this is borrowed space in which they don’t necessarily belong.
I don’t think it’s going too far to say that Mardi Gras is the gateway drug that has turned many a New Orleanian on to the possibility of two-wheeled transportation. This certainly was the case for me. Relatedly, it serves as our annual reminder that the streets are about far more than moving cars as quickly as possible, an idea that is gaining currency each year here, as it is in a growing number of cities around the world.
New Orleans is a culture, it has often been observed, in which efficiency routinely takes a back seat to pleasure, and it is this prevailing attitude that is perhaps this city’s greatest strength and weakness. Yet with another Carnival season in full swing, as I struggle to meet deadlines over the din of drums and trumpets blaring outside my window, I can’t help but think that cities everywhere would do well to encourage a bit more partying in their streets.
Enjoy that? Check out the book. Urban Revolutions — A woman’s guide to two-wheeled transportation