A devil's bargain is what we've made in terms of our transportation policy in Baton Rouge and Louisiana as a whole.
Decades ago, city officials decided to put time, energy and resources into designing our city streets with two goals in mind: capacity and speed. It wasn't illogical. They figured fitting as many cars on the road at the same time and allowing for very fast speeds would get everyone to where they were going faster. It would save everyone time. That was the thinking anyway. And it's not necessarily the officials' fault. They were just doing what people wanted.
What did we give away in this devil's bargain? Safe streets, for one. Baton Rouge is the 19th most dangerous city for pedestrians, according to a recent study. We sacrificed being able to walk or bike relatively short distances in exchange for expressways running right through our neighborhoods. We gave away our health. Less than 15 percent of our residents use active transportation, which means most folks get little to no exercise, resulting in a population that is sedentary and unhealthy. We gave away the ability to let our children walk and ride their bikes to school, friends' houses or the park.
We gave away quite a lot. So we must have gained a lot in the process, right? Wrong. Our traffic congestion is worse than ever. Our list of capacity projects keeps getting bigger, as does the number of tax dollars it would take to build and maintain them all. Our car-centered approach has backfired horribly, resulting in a painful and expensive irony: a city that is built for cars but that cannot handle the traffic.
Even if we could build our way out of congestion, our citizens don’t have the stomach for the tax increases that would be necessary to fund all the construction and maintenance. Who could blame them? Two billion dollars have been spent in this parish over the past 20 years on adding more vehicle capacity. Does anyone really think this approach has worked? We made a bad deal, and we live with the results every day. Adding more, wider vehicle lanes with higher speed limits doesn’t lessen traffic congestion; it makes it worse. Moreover, it’s really, really expensive. Trying to lessen traffic congestion by making it easier to drive is a fool’s errand. It’s not achievable.
What is achievable is making our roads safer for all users. Bike lanes, paths, greenways and sidewalks improve people’s health and quality of life, not to mention our property values. They add value to the city and pay for themselves over time. They also cost way less than adding more vehicle lanes. It’s time we reject the devil’s bargain we made and make our city a nice place to live in, rather than just to drive through.
president, Bike Baton Rouge