By Quinn Welsch
“You have a city of 200,000 people in Baton Rouge. How do you know what the network looks like, how could people help each other, how could innovation prosper? I think transportation is a wonderful example of where the network could really benefit.”
Transportation options have increased, but residents in East Baton Rouge Parish still overwhelmingly rely on their vehicles to get work.
A new poll shows that alternative transportation (such as public transit, bicycling and walking) accounts for less than 10 percent of transportation used by EBR residents to get to work. About 91 percent of the parish’s workers drive to their place of business, most of whom drive alone, according to the 2013 American Community Survey.
But those numbers do a disservice to anyone familiar with the gridlock of Baton Rouge rush-hour. The city is ranked first in congestion in mid-sized cities in the United States, according to a 2013 progress report for FutureBR, the city’s 20-year land-use plan. Transportation is listed as one of the plan’s top priorities.
To help find a solution, Baton Rouge was selected as one of the IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge grant recipients, along with 16 other cities across the world. The grant brings six consultants with various expertise into the city for a three-week period to make transportation recommendations. Such a project would normally cost about $500,000.
The team was formally introduced by Mayor Melvin “Kip” Holden in the Metropolitan Council Chamber on Monday, Sept. 29. They will present their recommendations to the city on Oct. 17.
The team brings a broad range of expertise to help tackle the traffic issue, from communications and marketing, to civil engineering. For instance, Marie Wallace, an IBM analytic strategist, is looking at social data.
“When I think of transportation I think, ‘How can social information help to get me from A to B more effectively?’” Wallace said.
As an analytic strategist, Wallace works to make IBM’s approximately 400,000 worldwide employees more interconnected. The same concept of interconnection can apply to a city, she said.
“You have a city of 200,000 people in Baton Rouge. How do you know what the network looks like, how could people help each other, how could innovation prosper?” Wallace said. “I think transportation is a wonderful example of where the network could really benefit.”
More Options, Less Congestion
Networking alternative transportation routes with each other will also help relieve traffic, said Gilles Morin, a planning project coordinator with the City-Parish Planning Commission. For example, new trails, sidewalks and bike lanes might connect to bus lines or streetcars.
A number of different transportation projects are attempting to make interconnectivity a reality, Morin said. The effort comes from various local agencies, such as BREC and the Downtown Development District, he said. Many of these projects, like the Downtown Greenway project, are all meant to decrease traffic congestion on the road while simultaneously promoting convenience, sustainability and the environment.
FutureBR states that “[w]alking and biking need to be treated as serious transportation alternatives, and deserve equal consideration in transportation plans.”
Only 48 percent of the streets within city limits have sidewalks, according to a 2008 audit by the City-Parish Department of Public Works. About 15 miles of bike lanes and 7.5 miles of bike paths exist in the parish, the audit found.
The push for alternative transportation didn’t begin until the implementation of the city’s previous land use plan, which spanned from 1992-2012, Morin said.
“Just from looking around, I think it’s changed,” Morin said. “The younger generation is a little more receptive.”
Each city is unique in its own issues, said Anne McNeill, a program manager for IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge. The benefit of coming up with solutions in Baton Rouge is that it may serve as a model for the many mid-sized U.S. cities with similar transportation problems, she said.
Mayor Holden recognized the city’s growth as one of the major factors in traffic congestion at the meeting. FutureBR lists economic development, sprawl and a lack of transportation planning in the 60s and 70s that make today’s goals all the more challenging.
Percentages of transportation use in EBR – per American Community Survey:
81 percent drove alone in a car truck, or van
10 percent carpooled
2 percent used public transportation
.1 percent drove a motorcycle
.7 percent used a bicycle
1.5 percent walked
.5 used other means
3 percent worked at home
Stay up to date on the Smarter Cities Challenge by visiting the team’s blog: smartercitieschallenge.wordpress.com.