By Quinn Welsch @quinnwelsch
“It’s a big change for us, not because it’s going to guarantee bike lanes or magically put crosswalks across every street, but because it’s going to start changing the paradigm in Baton Rouge.”
It could be the beginning of the end for many of Baton Rouge’s traffic woes, thanks the city’s long overdue adoption of a Complete Streets policy last week that looks to reduce road congestion with friendlier infrastructure for bikers and pedestrians.
In a unanimous vote last week – followed by ample applause from those in attendance – the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Council adopted the policy, which calls for improved pedestrian and bicycle paths and encourages active living, reduced fossil fuel usage and an increase in the quality of life in the city. Complete Streets is an old concept made new again, as more and more communities look to reduce traffic congestion, fuel emissions and promote healthier living.
The policy ensures that the East Baton Rouge Parish streets are developed (and redeveloped) with all intended users in mind, as opposed to only serving vehicles, according to the city’s 2014 Complete Streets “vision.” In the vision, the streets themselves are recognized as destinations, not just a means to them.
Though Complete Streets is aimed at benefiting cyclists and pedestrians, it also impacts vehicle transportation indirectly. Less congestion means more availability for public transportation and safer access for private vehicles.
“It’s a big change for us, not because it’s going to guarantee bike lanes or magically put crosswalks across every street, but because it’s going to start changing the paradigm in Baton Rouge,” said Beaux Jones, President of Bike Baton Rouge, one of the region’s leading groups in alternative transportation.
Jones is among other local leaders that have pushed for the Complete Streets policy for the past several years. A recommendation for the Complete Streets policy has been in the city’s land-use plan, FutureBR, since 2011. He also helped push a recent petition among local citizens supporting a Complete Streets ordinance that secured 669 signatures.
“We need to plan for all users,” Jones wrote on the petition. “That means the elderly, children, handicapped users, bikers, pedestrians, scooters, hover boards and yes[,] cars to[o]. Legislating positive change for all members of our community is not radical, it is the core function of our local government.”
There are some challenges with the policy’s implementation, as noted by John Price, an assistant chief administrative officer in the Mayor’s Office. Price said he was proud to see the policy’s adoption, but cautioned that the policy simply will not work on some problematic streets, such as on Government Street, he said.
“Not every street is going to have a sidewalk and a bike path or any of those things,” Price said. “There are certainly areas and opportunities in the parish where we can do a much better job. This policy will simply institutionalize that kind of thinking and require us to consider all these other [street] uses.”
To help institutionalize that thinking, two new committees – an expert-led “technical committee” and a resident-comprised “citizen’s advisory committee – will work together to ensure that projects are designed intelligently and with community input.
Similar Complete Streets policies have been enacted around the country after being spurred by the National Complete Streets Coalition (NCSC) in 2004, a program from Smart Growth America. The coalition boasts that more than 650 Complete Streets policies have been enacted by agencies at local, regional and state levels.
The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) enacted a Complete Streets policy in 2010, followed by the city of New Orleans in 2011, making the city of Baton Rouge the third agency in Louisiana to enact a Complete Streets policy. Plans are also in the works in Lafayette.
New Orleans scored a 70.8 and the DOTD scored 72 out of 100 possible points for the NCSC’s “Best Complete Streets Policies of 2013.” (Maybe that’s a C- grade, but at least it’s not like, Manitowoc, Wisconsin, which scored 5.6 points.)
Whatever Baton Rouge’s score, the parish is still a car-centric town. A 2013 poll from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that more than 90 percent of East Baton Rouge Parish workers relied on a single occupancy vehicle to get to work; 1.5 percent walked and .7 percent rode a bicycle.
“Without a doubt, we are a car centric city and it isn’t realistic to just abandon cars,” Jones told DIG in September. “Most trips that people need to take are under three miles. That is a long way to walk or even bike for beginners. Still, there are people who want to walk and bike to where they need to go, but there’s no infrastructure.”
The Complete Streets policy could begin to change that though, Jones said.
“It’s a huge step forward in the mind set for Baton Rouge,” he said.