The risk of pedestrians being fatally struck by cars in Louisiana is nearly twice the national average, researchers say.
A report released Wednesday by the Center for Planning Excellence found that Louisiana has the third highest pedestrian fatality rate in the nation, while Baton Rouge ranks as the 19th worst metropolitan area for pedestrian safety.
New Orleans was the 38th most dangerous metropolitan area for pedestrians, the report found based on data from 2005 until 2014 gathered by Smart Growth America, a Washington, D.C., based group.
"We have serious problems," said Jessica Kemp, vice president of policy and advocacy for CPEX, a Baton Rouge-based urban planning nonprofit. "I don't think that there's a widely shared understanding of the risk to pedestrians in Louisiana. These are preventable deaths, by and large."
The state and its two largest cities have implemented policies that aim to improve quality of life by adding and widening sidewalks where possible and putting in more bike paths, changes that experts say can help curb pedestrian deaths. But limited funding continues to stunt implementation, Kemp said.
"The fact that the numbers are still bad speaks to the need for implementation," Kemp said.
Louisiana also ranked number one for racial disparity in pedestrian deaths: people of color represented 85 percent of fatalities in the state, but only are 39 percent of the population, according to the report. Non-white pedestrians are more than nine times as likely to be killed than a white person, the report says.
"We need to pay very careful attention to the way in which investments in public infrastructure are allocated to be sure we are identifying these high-need areas where residents can benefit the most," Kemp said.
She said that targeting neighborhoods most in need of quality sidewalks and outdoor spaces can also improve public health by allowing people walk around their communities.
"Safety is the primary concern, but these kinds of investments have multiple benefits," said Kemp, who also cited increased property values, stimulated economic activity, and reduced economic disparities.
Interim Chief Administrative Officer William Daniel said many of Baton Rouge's streets were built decades ago before the city-parish's development code demanded higher standards. Those roads are often more narrow and have ditches running alongside them, making them especially difficult for pedestrians to navigate.
But when new roads are built, the city-parish considers how to make them friendlier to non-drivers.
A group pressing for more sidewalks and bike paths to make it easier for people to move arou…
"We try to implement 'Complete Streets' in a manner consistent with the street," said Daniel, referring to the city's policy of trying to add sidewalks and bike lanes where feasible. The city-parish has concentrated these amenities in residential neighborhoods instead of bustling commercial hubs, like Siegen Lane, he said.
Daniel helped former Mayor-President Kip Holden implement the original Greenlight Plan in 2005, in which voters approved a half-cent sales tax to pay for road improvements to alleviate traffic congestion across the parish. But most of the 2005 Greenlight Plan's money was reserved for road widening and building new roads, as opposed to sidewalks and bike paths.
In December, voters rejected a Greenlight 2.0 plan that would have diverted much more money into sidewalks, bike paths and other quality of life improvements for pedestrians. Despite the rejection, those projects will still receive 3 percent of the original Greenlight Plan funding, totaling about $1.5 million a year for more sidewalks in the community. The money does not stretch far, though, and Daniel said it's especially expensive to build sidewalks on older streets where ditches need to be filled.
Two upcoming sidewalk projects are on roads where pedestrians and bicyclists have been hit in recent years: Hanks Drive, where a pedestrian was killed in 2012, and Gardere Lane, where a biker was also hit and killed that year. Both projects have been approved.
And while progress is being made, Kemp said the city and state need stronger policies.
"Quality implementation requires a plan," Kemp said. "There are some projects on the books for the city, but we don't have a comprehensive, regional multi-modal plan, and for Complete Streets to generate the biggest impact that requires a broader more holistic strategy."