For decades, politics and not performance has been the rule in planning in Baton Rouge. The result is never more on display than in the mind-destroying traffic jams to the mall during holiday gift-giving. But even day-to-day travel in the city is often painful.
What to do about it? One positive step is to already being taken by the Metro Council with a “complete streets” policy that embraces a broader approach to transportation that pavement and cars.
Like the similar ordinance in place in New Orleans, the plan is the fruit of activists who want to make Baton Rouge more walkable and bikeable. “All too often, Baton Rouge builds very nice things that are not connected to other nice things,” said Bryan Piazza, one of the people supporting complete streets.
While the concept of complete streets is a good idea, the reality is that it is very difficult to retrofit old-fashioned suburban sprawl into a more pedestrian-friendly environment. As mayoral aide John Price says, many streets were laid out without regard for the notion of sidewalks much less bike paths.
Complete streets is a forward-looking policy but it is also something that can make a difference on existing streets, if the city-parish government follows through and takes a new look at each route as it comes up for repair, or there is new construction and thus a need for planning review on existing streets.
Some of that kind of forward-looking planning is going into the repaving of Government Street in mid-city and downtown, with plans for a more modern street plan under way.
The city-parish should also revisit its political mistakes of the past, including the decisions of Metro Councils in years past to allow dead-end streets in subdivisions. Neighborhood associations don’t want traffic on their streets, yet the same people live in frustration with traffic jams caused by a deliberate and political refusal to allow streets to connect.
One of the essential components to short-term traffic relief is the connection of these “stub-outs” so that people have alternative routes to work and schools.
In the longer term, new streets and bike paths and walking trails consonant with the complete streets policy must be a city-parish priority. BREC has responded already to those calls by adding plans for more trails throughout the city, especially interconnecting ones, into its new 10-year plan.
Not only is changing roadways a quality-of-life issue, bad transportation could affect how many people move to and stay in Baton Rouge. Studies cited in the policy show that the ability to walk and bike is a key factor when younger people, especially millennials, decide where to live.
The evidence is overwhelming and has been obvious since the Baton Rouge Area Chamber first launched a series of trips to study other cities. The first group went to Austin; the Texas capitol is booming because it created a quality of life attractive to a younger generation. The bike paths and urban qualities of Austin paid off, far more than Baton Rouge’s rigid adherence to restrictive zoning and cheap-as-they-come streets and strip malls.
More than a decade since that trip, and after other trips have demonstrated the same dynamics elsewhere, will Baton Rouge learn the lessons of complete streets? We hope so.