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UC Co-op Student Helps New Orleans to Steer the City’s Streets by Bike

UC planning student Lauren Rae Sullivan is just back from a co-op spent working in New Orleans. While there, she’s established the NolaCycle project to provide residents with maps of the safest routes to travel the city by bicycle. It’s a project she’ll continue during her upcoming winter quarter co-op.

Date: 10/6/2008
By: Keith Rutowski
Photos By: Lisa Britton

New Orleans has a large cycling population – second only to Portland, Ore., in terms of the number of residents who routinely travel by bicycle.

But even three years after Hurricane Katrina, it’s difficult to navigate the city’s streets by bike.

But University of Cincinnati planning student Lauren Rae Sullivan is out to change that.

Lauren Rae Sullivan
Planning co-op student Lauren Rae Sullivan with her bike in front of UC's top-ranked College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning. On her recent co-op, she worked to develop a bike map for New Orleans. It's work she'll continue winter quarter.


Sullivan, 23, of Morrow, Ohio, is just back from New Orleans where she worked as part of her required cooperative education work quarters. (Co-op, as its known, had its global founding at UC in 1906, and it's where students alternate quarters or semesters in the classroom with quarters or semesters of paid, professional work related to their majors. UC's co-op program is ranked in the Top Ten by U.S. News & World Report.)

While working her paid co-op quarters at Concordia Architecture and Planning, Sullivan also worked on an independent effort – which she will use as her senior capstone project – to create updated, comprehensive cycling maps for use by the city’s residents.

  • View a video from the New Orleans Times-Picayune of Sullivan at work on her project.

In doing so, she’s combining her enthusiasm for cycling with the computer mapping tools and community organizing skills she’s gained as a student in UC’s top-ranked planning program, part of the internationally ranked College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP).

“When I first moved to New Orleans, I was pretty overwhelmed by the poor quality of the streets,” Sullivan says. “There is only one true bike lane in the city and some off-road paved trails are being planned or constructed. I thought to myself that New Orleans really needs a bike map to help people find good, well-paved routes.”

At the encouragement of a friend, Sullivan ran with the idea – or more precisely, rode with it. From her apartment in the historic Irish Channel neighborhood near the banks of the Mississippi River, Sullivan established the NolaCycle project.

The NolaCycle project utilizes ArcGIS—a computer program that UC urban planning students learn in the classroom. GIS stands for geographic information systems. It is used for locating resources, planning new infrastructure and assessing environmental conditions. Using pre-created or personalized data layers that include streets, water and schools, ArcGIS users are able to construct a basic geographic view of any given city. For NolaCycle, Sullivan uses a street layer created by the city of New Orleans and alters it in Adobe Illustrator.
The map, always in progress, contains data on pavement quality, lane width, car travel speed (New Orleans drivers tend to disregard the “speed limit”), and potentially dangerous intersections. It also marks cobblestone, brick roads, and railroad and streetcar track locations. The inclusion of such details will give riders a more comprehensive view of what to expect when traversing the city.

“By looking at all the roads and giving people the info they need to get across town, hopefully more people will take their bike for cross-town trips instead of a car,” Sullivan says. “I love to see those people get out of their cars and onto bikes.”

Sullivan stresses this important environmental benefit of NolaCycle, citing that New Orleans is strongly affected by global warming, specifically ocean temperature rise. “We need to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, and encouraging cycling is a great way to reduce global warming and cut pollution,” she says.  

The map will not only serve as a useful directional device and a means to cut pollution, it will also act as a helpful bicycle safety guide. The other side of the map displays safe cycling positions, location of lights and reflectors, bike theft prevention tips, a list of bike resources (shops, co-ops, etc.), and the state and local bike laws.

“Many people in New Orleans aren’t aware of their rights as cyclists and how to safely operate a bike. Older generations – which account for 50 percent of cyclists in the city—were taught to bike against traffic, which we now know is less safe,” Sullivan says. “As much as I want to create a useful map, I want to create a guide that will prompt safe cycling to those who bike every day and people just getting back on a bike for the first time since they were kids.” 

Sullivan has quite a bit of help accumulating and disseminating all of this information. In addition to dropping flyers off at businesses and attaching them to bikes, Sullivan and a group of volunteers gather on weekends with clip boards and markers to plot out various sections of the city. Tom Macom of Loyola University and Dan Jatres of the New Orleans Regional Planning Commission help organize the work. What started out as one person’s dream has now quickly expanded into a city-wide reality.

Of course, coordinating a project of this size has its limitations. “Since the community does all the data collection for the project, it can be challenging to get enough people out on certain days,” Sullivan says.  “If there is a Saints game, not many people show up. If it looks like it’s going to rain, not many people show up.” Sullivan says she’s not as bothered by this though when she thinks of all of the progress NolaCycle has made in three short months.

For Sullivan, working on NolaCycle has been an unforgettable life experience. “My favorite part of the project has been meeting people all over the city,” Sullivan says. “Inspiring people to get involved a deeper level than just simply biking is a good feeling, too. It’s been really rewarding when people in other cities hear about my project and say ‘Hey, I should do this in my city!” 

The NolaCycle project is scheduled to be completed in June of 2009. Sullivan says it’s difficult to tell what she’ll do after graduation and the project’s completion but she hopes it involves community engagement and environmental protection in some capacity. And if that means sticking around in New Orleans, that’s fine by her.

“I hope the skills I’ve learned [in school] in design, research and writing, environmental planning, transportation planning, and GIS will help me get a job working in the recovery of the city, and taking New Orleans into the 21st century with higher quality schools, parks, health facilities, and multi-modal transportation options than before the storm,” Sullivan says.

After working on the project in New Orleans for the last six months (while on co-op), Sullivan is back in school at UC this quarter. She’ll return to New Orleans for a final co-op quarter from January through March 2009, during which time she’ll continue work on the NolaCycle project.

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