Baton Rouge recently made another one of those dubious lists that highlights the bad things about places. This one, titled “Deadly by Design” and published by Smart Growth America, ranked Red Stick No.12 among the 20 deadliest cities for pedestrians in the U.S.
Which is better, at least, than how Louisiana fared in the study: It cracked the top five, coming in as the nation’s fourth-deadliest state for those who routinely hoof it.
The SGA study ranks cities and states based on their “pedestrian danger index,” which is derived by crunching the number of pedestrian fatalities on a per-capita basis with the share of people in that locale who walk to work.
Between 2008-2017, Baton Rouge had 182 pedestrian fatalities and an average of 2.21 for every 100,000 people. Louisiana’s total count of pedestrian fatalities was 1,047, an average of 2.25 for every 100,000 residents.
Those may not sound like alarmingly high numbers, given the myriad other public health crises and dangers that land us on the bottom of so many other lists. But it’s worse than most other places in the country and, really, there’s no excuse for anyone to lose their life crossing a street.
So what’s the problem?
According to the study, it’s the way we’ve designed our cities and communities, with too few, if any, “complete streets”—which are those that accommodate not only vehicles but also mass transit, cyclists and pedestrians.
Though the complete streets concept is not new, it has been slow to catch on, particularly in the South, which the study describes as generally more “car centric” than other parts of the country. Our street lanes are wider. Our turn lanes are wider. Our crosswalks are few and far between.
“Our streets have been designed with the car in mind and at a larger scale and at fast speed,” says Camille Manning-Broome, director of the Center for Planning Excellence. “This should be a wake-up call for our city and state to say, we need to be designing for safety and for people and not just for moving our cars.”
Thanks to advocacy efforts by CPEX that began several years ago, Baton Rouge actually has a complete streets program. The Metro Council has even adopted a complete streets policy that a related committee meets monthly to help implement. So far, it has helped pass several measures that should improve the situation and give us safer, more complete streets.
Among the most significant of these is a May 2017 ordinance that requires sidewalks with any new development. Sidewalks were pretty much required under the old ordinance but the new law is tighter. Plus, and this is important, the ordinance does away with sidewalk waivers, which was how most developers got around having to lay them in the past.
Despite the best of intentions, however, the complete streets plan isn’t really accomplishing much—we’re still on the top 20 list, right?—because of a disconnect between the rules on the books and the way developments actually get done. In short, the rules aren’t really being enforced.
Consider the aforementioned sidewalk ordinance. Because it’s now part of the parish Unified Development Code, any proposed development that goes before the planning commission for approval is required to have a sidewalk.
But only 20% or so of proposed developments—and it’s the bigger stuff like planned unit developments and mixed-use projects—ever crosses the desks of those in the planning department.
The other 80%—like small strip centers and commercial buildings—goes directly to the permits office, which does not review plans to see if they comply with the UDC but only that they meet state building codes. That the permits office is understaffed and under pressure to work quickly doesn’t help matters.
Planning Director Frank Duke, who sits on the complete streets committee, says it’s a little maddening.
“I get questioned about the inconsistency all the time,” Duke says. “Developers will come up to me and say, ‘You made me put in a sidewalk but you didn’t make that other guy do it,’ and I don’t have a good answer.”
Duke stops short of blaming the permits office per se. But he says a lot of plans are getting approved and built without sidewalks, and it’s not the ones his staff reviews. Draw your own conclusions.
Adding to the challenge are inconsistencies in the zoning code that make enforcing smart growth principals and things like complete streets almost impossible. Duke has been working to revise the code practically since he got here in 2014. That job was supposed to have been made easier by the late land-use planner John Fregonese, who was under contract in the city for several years to help sync the zoning code to the city’s land use plan.
But Duke says the code is still a mess. Chapter 5, for instance, supposedly lists all the allowable waivers in the code. In reality, however, Duke has found numerous other waivers buried deep elsewhere in the code that aren’t listed in Chapter 5.
Chapter 4, which deals with site plans and plats, is another example. Its rules don’t square up with those outlined in Chapter 11, which deals with dimensions.
It’s a complex problem, years in the making, that someone at least is now trying to address. But it shows how far Baton Rouge has to go and how many issues have to be resolved before we can reasonably expect to have complete streets and a city safe for pedestrians.