Architect Buddy Ragland lives on Longwood Drive in Mid City, near Webb Park. His street, one of the first developed in the area, has a sidewalk, but many of his neighbors aren’t so lucky.
“You go in any direction away from me, and everybody’s walking in the road,” he says. “It’s clear that [sidewalks] are a good component to have to enhance life in the neighborhood, but we just don’t seem to think it’s that big a deal here.”
Technically, East Baton Rouge Parish mandates sidewalks in its unified development code, although exceptions are common. Historically, the city has assumed roads are for automobiles, while walkers and bikers pretty much fend for themselves.
“We have trouble getting crosswalk markings on a lot of our streets, much less alternative transportation options,” Ragland says. He sees evidence of changing attitudes in his neighborhood; recent traffic calming measures and pedestrian lanes on Capital Heights and Glenmore avenues give walkers and bikers a sporting chance. But Baton Rouge remains one of many U.S. cities that’s largely impossible to navigate without a car.
A growing national movement is urging governments to “complete” America’s streets by building road networks friendly to bikers, walkers, bus riders, wheelchair users; in short, everyone. Proponents claim a host of benefits, including reduced traffic congestion, better air quality and improved public health leading to lower health care costs for businesses and taxpayers.
Complete Streets legislation was introduced last year in the U.S. House and Senate and likely will be reintroduced in the new Congress. A handful of states and some 50 municipalities have adopted Complete Streets polices, although often the ordinances are essentially toothless.
“These efforts are starting to give the Complete Streets movement a real boost,” says Adam Goldberg, a government relations representative with AARP, which is part of the “Complete the Streets” coalition. “They haven’t been around very long, so they haven’t had much impact yet, but we’re starting to see these concepts creeping in.”
AARP is in the process of crafting a Complete Streets bill for Louisiana, although officials aren’t ready to talk about the details. They are, however, starting to look for potential legislative sponsors. State Department of Transportation and Development Secretary William Ankner did not respond to an interview request made through an aide, but has publicly said his department needs to pay more attention to the needs of walkers and bikers.
Goldberg says states could provide funding incentives by prioritizing projects that promote multiple means of transportation. The coalition is urging governments to do just that with infrastructure dollars from the federal stimulus bill.
Legislation being debated in Hawaii would require all new projects to incorporate different modes of transportation, while recognizing that different roads have different needs [a freeway doesn’t necessarily need a sidewalk, for example] and providing exceptions for projects that could get too expensive. In theory, a Complete Streets law could exempt any project where the costs would increase by 10% or 15%, while requiring such exemptions be supported by publicly available documents and approved by a senior manager in the local transportation authority, Goldberg says.
Even Baton Rouge might be coming around.
Melissa Guilbeau is a Capital Region planning commissioner and urban transportation coordinator for East Baton Rouge Parish. The 11-parish commission unanimously adopted a resolution supporting Complete Streets in January. Guilbeau also is the author of an internal audit of Department of Public Works practices, recommending the city-parish adopt its own Complete Streets policy. There’s no easy way to quantify how much more a complete approach would cost, she says. In fact, you might even be able to save money.
“If you look at transportation more holistically, it may turn out you don’t need the amount of pavement you thought you did to move the same number of people,” Guilbeau says. “If you’re looking at what we’re building now in Baton Rouge, it may cost a little bit more on the front end, but the long-term benefits are there so I think the case can be made that’s an investment we should be making.” It’s certainly cheaper than going back in five years to retrofit projects, she says.
DPW director Pete Newkirk says when the Green Light Plan was publicly discussed in 2005, all anyone wanted to know was, “How are you going to move the traffic?” But on Mayor Kip Holden’s listening tour this February, mass transit and pedestrian and bicycle access were among the biggest concerns.
“The tune has changed in the last four years,” Newkirk says, adding some residents have actively opposed sidewalks in their neighborhoods. The administration planned to put its own Complete Streets ordinance forward at an upcoming Metro Council meeting, although Newkirk argues the city-parish already incorporates those principles where feasible. About 40% of the Green Light Plan roads belong to the state, which didn’t necessarily put much emphasis on bike paths.
“To expedite projects, we followed the DOTD criteria on their roads,” Newkirk says. “There was a push to get highly traveled roads under way … Now that we’ve got a [Green Light] plan to upgrade 25 to 30 streets, I think now it’s time to go back and say, ‘On which ones do you want pedestrian access? ‘Which ones do you want to have a bike path component?’”
“I have a feeling there’s a notion that we’re not addressing the issue, and that’s not true at all,” says Michael Songy of CSRS, which manages most of the Green Light projects. As an example, he mentions Siegen Lane, where a two-lane open ditch roadway is slated for conversion to a four-lane divided road that includes sidewalks and a bike path. He refers skeptics to the plan’s Web site, greenlight.csrsonline.com, which lists the features of each project.
Krista Goodin, senior planner at C.H. Fenstermaker & Associates and director of the local chapter of the American Planning Association, says the Green Light Plan has been successful in what it set out to do, which was improve the system for moving cars.
“With the new projects that will be coming out of the Green Light Program, and with the new comprehensive plan being developed for Baton Rouge,” she says, “it’s a great opportunity to incorporate that [Complete Streets] philosophy in how DPW does their transportation planning.”