By Colleen King
Popular opinion has always been that Baton Rouge is a driving town. Just going to the grocery store down the street is a killer in the baking summer heat, but even on the chillier days (few though they may be) habits will prevail. It is just too easy to come up with the miniscule excuses that justify driving even the smallest distances.
Being stuck for hours on Dalrymple during contraflow is one all-too frequent reminder of the problem we have all created with our street-crowding vehicles. But perhaps an even bigger part of the problem is the way our city is mapped out.
Baton Rouge Business Report recently published a report that our city has worse than the national average commuter time—and that time is expected to rise with the rising population. The current situation is arguably even less sustainable for those who choose or are forced to use alternative transportation like biking, walking, or CATS. This is a town where a day’s commute is less of a straight shot and more of a tangled web. BR is often branded as a congested, confusing, and unsafe maze of disconnected streets. There are people hard at work, however, who are trying to change that.
The Office of the Planning Commission (OPC) is trying to keep BR connected in more ways than one. In 2011, they adopted FuturEBR—at once a blueprint, implementation plan, and vision for the growth and development of Baton Rouge.
The project’s Planning Director Frank Duke says that city codes are in need of updating, something that he has been working on in the past year since coming to BR. According to the Director, use of land in the City needs to operate under a “Unified Development Code.’ Current codes still reflect the suburban-oriented trends of the 1980s and do not account for what Duke calls the “importance of place.”
“I have been a big advocate—at every locality in which I’ve worked—and have tried to rewrite development codes to reflect the importance of place,” Duke said.
But doing that will require cooperation from local government not only in terms of zoning but also in its method of public outreach. While the OPC publishes an annual Progress Report and staff reports online, Duke says there is currently no policy system in place for the use of social media, a tool that is more increasingly dominant in the way everyone communicates. In order to figure out what changes to infrastructure are needed, public opinion and even an understanding of public behavior are required.
An exciting aspect of FuturEBR—and one that will rely heavily on a data about public behavior- is the Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan (BPMP). The BPMP will show existing, proposed, and potential routes for cyclists that are being developed through various city and parish agencies: the Mayor’s Office, Downtown Development District, Department of Public Works (including the OPC), BREC, and the Capital Region Planning Commission. In order to determine where paths should be constructed, the city will work in conjunction with groups such as BikeBR to collect “representative but not comprehensive data” on how people move through the city using smartphone/web applications such as MapMyRide.com.
Gilles Morin, Planning Project Coordinator at the OPC, is the point-person on this Master Plan and is an advocate of keeping the public up-to-date.
“We haven’t done a master plan since the 90s,” says Morin. When asked if the plan will encourage commuters to drive less, Morin responds, “Sure. Congestion relief, air quality benefits, health benefits…We’d like to increase the number of people that use their bikes for commute, at least in spring and fall.”
The Master Plan will show projects like the proposed Medical Loop at the Pennington Biomedical Research Facility (Perkins and Kenilworth). Perkins is a key road that connects the various “corridors” of BR, but it is a death-defying bike ride. Morin explains that Perkins was originally built with a wider outside lane to allow for bikers, but that the high speeds of today’s driving commuters keep cyclists away. The Medical Loop will connect the Southdowns area to a bike path behind Pennington that continues on to Kenilworth and the BREC park there.
Ted Jack, Assistant Superintendent over Planning Operations and Resources at BREC, says that making the city more biking and walking friendly is also about recreation.
“The goal is to develop a system where a family can go ride their bikes together and not feel… that they are putting their kids in danger,” Jack said, with an emphasis on off-street trails.
he latest conceptual map that has been approved by the Commission has 155 miles of total trails in the Baton Rouge region, but approval of concepts seems to be the first step in a rather long process.
The FuturEBR team will update their vision significantly at the 5-year mark next year, but when asked what those updates might include, Duke says it is “too early to say.” Detailed timelines seem to be considered ambitious by city planners, yet Gilles Morin says he hopes that projects like the Medical Loop can be finished by 2017.
Tom Stephens, Chief Design Engineer at OPC oversees implementation and says the biggest challenge to renovating our city is existing infrastructure. This includes everything from parking lots and road shoulders to grazing cattle, surprisingly enough. In order to build a bicycle levee multi-use path downtown, the city will have to build on private land that currently is occupied by cattle.
“When we get to these cattle crossings we’re going to have to build a gate and a bypass route so that someone, say, in a wheelchair could get through, and the gate will be self-closing so that the cattle can’t get out,” Stephens said.
One can’t help but consider that the challenges of “existing infrastructure” refer to both the physical and bureaucratic aspects of FuturEBR’s vision. While it is comforting for many locals to know that there are many agencies attempting to create some kind of unity (despite the cattle), some feel the city must pick up the pace in bringing the BR into the future. The 21st century moves quickly, and if Baton Rouge is going to be a city of our era, it will have to get connected and stay connected, and do so as quickly as the government.