By Quinn Welsch
It’s been said again and again: Baton Rouge is on the verge of an economic boom.
But how – and to what end – the predicted boom takes shape is another matter, particularly along the city’s roads.
Bicyclists, pedestrians, and proponents for sustainable energy scored a win in November when the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Council agreed to adopt a Complete Streets policy, a guideline that instructs planning officials to develop more bike and pedestrian-friendly streets while at the same time reducing congestion, connecting neighborhoods, and improving environmental health.
The Center for Planning Excellence (CPEX) showcased some of these benefits this fall during its Street Smart Demonstration and Park(ing) Day events. Both events temporarily renovated public space downtown and in Mid City to focus on pedestrians and bicyclists instead of vehicles.
City Parish Planning Commission director Frank Duke will meet with planners in the next couple months to decide what neighborhoods will benefit from the policy’s effects. Typically, the policy will be implemented where a road project is already planned or funded, he said.
“One of the other things we need to begin doing as a planning commission is looking at those communities that are beginning to lag behind and that are not doing as well as some of our more successful neighborhoods,” he said. “We have a long way to go.”
Many Complete Street advocates see the policy as an opportunity to attract millennials and to boost development in suburban areas. However, the policy could potentially benefit neighborhoods with high concentrations of low-income families and individuals.
A Tale of Two Cities
Before the city council voted on the Complete Streets policy, Logan Anderson of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber spoke during the public comment period to advocate for the policy.
“The Complete Streets policy, sensibly implemented, is a pretty common sense way to both benefit the citizens and residents of Baton Rouge and our local economy and the Baton Rouge Chamber stands in favor of it,” Anderson told the council members.
Similar words are used in the city’s Complete Streets Vision, which states that a survey of 15 real estate markets nationwide found that minor improvements on WalkScore.com could increase home values from as much as $700 to $3,000. CPEX officials have rung the same bell.
As enticing as these prospects are, council member Tara Wicker reminded officials and policy proponents that the city has a responsibility to all of its citizens – not just young homeowners.
“I want to make sure that when we’re looking at the Complete Streets policies that the urban communities are not overlooked,” she said. “We want to make sure that we take those [people] that may not be able to show up to a neighborhood meeting into consideration because those are the individuals that you are going to see walking to get to work.”
LSU Law professor Chris Tyson holds the same belief.
Tyson, a candidate for Louisiana Secretary of State, focuses on real estate and urban development. While Complete Streets could benefit middle-to-upper class families in the city, it’s the underprivileged who should see the biggest benefits, he said.
“Our problem here is one of two cities: One that is very prosperous and one that is lagging behind,” Tyson said.
Government Street acts as an imaginary border, he said, splitting north and south Baton Rouge.
“Baton Rouge is growing southwards and doesn’t seek to reclaim the other parts of the city,” he said.
North and south Baton Rouge have both essentially developed their own social and economic identities. The median income for many neighborhoods in the southern part of the city are on the plus side of the state’s median income ($38,593), while regions in the northern part of the city are often far below that (sometimes even less than half), according to U.S. Census data.
By providing more transportation options to underprivileged areas, the city can provide its residents with “leverage” to reduce poverty and even crime, Tyson said.
Traversing the gap
Imagine two tribes separated by a river. As long as they live in isolation, they will despise each other. But if the river did not exist, the tribes would likely learn to coexist.
This illustration, suggested by LSU civil engineering professor Chester Wilmot, is similar to what is occurring in Baton Rouge.
“The more isolated societies are, the more antagonistic they become to each other. The more they are integrated, the more they live in harmony,” Wilmot said.
“[Transportation] opens up opportunity for employment, education and cultural exchange,” Wilmot said.
One of the main goals listed on the Complete Streets policy is better connectivity in between neighborhoods. It cites increased “social capitol” as one of its many positive benefits.
But these things can be difficult to measure.
“If you put sidewalks in a neighborhood, to what extent does that impact the quality of life? It’s hard to say,” Wilmot said. “It’s a qualitative measure.”
If you build it…
Public transportation funds have been on the rise since 2012 when East Baton Rouge Parish voters approved a $10.6 million property tax to better fund Capital Area Transit System. Yet, only about 2 percent of commuters use public transportation, according to 2013 U.S. Census data.
There is 60 miles of bike lanes and shared-use paths in the parish, according to planning commission data. (That does not include an additional 20 miles of “sharrow” lanes, which allow bicyclists to travel on the roads with vehicles.) But only .7 percent of commuters use a bicycle to get to work, according to the same Census data.
By comparison, the data shows 91 percent of commuters in the parish rely on a vehicle to get to work. Eighty-one percent of them drive in a vehicle by themselves.
“You can speak about transit, but people just won’t do it unless it becomes more convenient for them,” he said.
Wilmot said the change to alternative transportation is inevitable, and it’s taking place already. The challenge is getting more people to change their minds.
Whether that change is driven by the poor or the affluent is remains the question. What’s more, how connected the Red Stick “tribes” are depends on what neighborhoods are included in the Complete Streets implementation.
“We should see [public transportation] as a very important and noble investment from society,” Wilmot said. “It provides mobility for the most needy part of our society: the people who are unemployed, the poor, the elderly and the handicapped.”