Baton Rouge Advocates Look to Tear Down Institutional Barriers to Safe Streets

Wide, deadly streets are the norm in Baton Rouge, one of the deadliest cities for walking. Photo: Bike Baton Rouge
Wide, deadly streets are the norm in Baton Rouge, one of the deadliest cities for walking. Photo: Bike Baton Rouge

Some places make it harder to change car-centric streets than others, and one city where it’s especially tough to implement safety improvements for walking and biking is Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Now the advocates at Bike Baton Rouge have mapped out a strategy to change that.

Baton Rouge is one of the most dangerous places to walk in the United States. Among cities with at least 200,000 residents, it ranks fourth in pedestrian deaths per capita, according to an analysis by USA Today and the Detroit Free Press. Statewide, Louisiana is also the second-deadliest for cycling, reports Governing magazine.

Baton Rouge officials are finally starting to redesign streets to calm car traffic, improve pedestrian safety, and provide dedicated space for cycling. But the task is much harder than it should be due to institutional barriers to change, according to a new report from Bike Baton Rouge.

Some of these hurdles are embedded in city code or traffic engineering manuals and apply to almost any city. Others are specific to Baton Rouge. They all contribute to a system where wide, fast roads are the norm, and any attempt to reduce the human toll of dangerous streets faces long odds.

Here are the barriers that Bike Baton Rouge identified.

1. Wide traffic lanes are the standard

Louisiana’s state design guidelines specify that general traffic lanes should be 12 feet wide — which might make sense on highways but is simply unsafe for urban streets where lots of people are walking. Wide lanes encourage drivers to go fast, leading to more crashes and more severe traffic injuries. Recent research has shown that lane widths between 10 and 10.5 feet wide minimize crash rates.

2. Requiring supermajority neighborhood approval

Like many cities, Baton Rogue has a complicated, hyper-local approval system for street safety changes. Street widenings were never subject to these veto points, but now that officials want to make walking and biking a higher priority they have to get through them.

The process is extremely tilted toward preserving the status quo in East Baton Rouge, the county (technically a “parish”) that includes the city of Baton Rouge. To move forward with a redesign, 65 percent of all property owners on the street must vote in favor of the change. The barrier is even higher because East Baton Rouge counts a property owner who doesn’t vote as a “no” instead of simply tallying “yes” votes as a percentage of the total votes cast.

In some cases projects have been overturned via this process even when it’s obvious they have public support. A 2015, the Goodwood Property Owners Association voted 327-208 in favor of a traffic-calming project. But because non-voting property owners counted in the “no” column, the measure failed.

Bike Baton Rouge says a simple 50 percent-plus-one majority of all votes cast ought to be sufficient to approve a project.

3. Setting speed limits by the “85th percentile rule”

Speed kills. The faster a driver is traveling, the less time they have to react, and the more severe the impact of a collision will be.

But an engineering rule-of-thumb called the “85th-percentile rule” works against policies that get drivers to travel at safe speeds, even on streets with lots of pedestrians. The rule holds that speed limits should be set so that 85 percent of drivers travel under the limit. The practical effect of the rule is that streets are designed and managed to accommodate drivers who travel at dangerous speeds, not to maximize public safety.

A 2017 report from the National Transportation Safety Board [PDF] said the 85th percentile “may not be valid” as practiced because it can “lead to higher operating speeds …and reduced safety.”

4. Crosswalk “warrant” rules are pseudoscientific garbage

Other guidelines that traffic engineers rely on all over the United States also reinforce dangerous conditions for walking. Developed during the heyday of the Interstate highway era, they continue to hold sway over the design of city streets to this day.

Crosswalk “warrants” are one of the best examples. The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, one of the nation’s most influential engineering guides, says a signalized crosswalk isn’t warranted unless at least 93 pedestrians are crossing at that location every hour, or five people are struck by cars at that location in a year.

Louisiana uses the same guidelines. But as Bike Baton Rouge points out, “if a crosswalk does not exist, then pedestrians will not cross the road (or will cross it at other locations and not be counted).”

Citing these pseudoscientific rules, engineers often deliver a “technical brushoff” — ignoring residents who demand street safety improvements by hiding behind technical jargon.

  • CarlessInOKC

    So what is the solution to the warrants situation? Take this article to the next level, provide guidance on what to do!

  • Ian Turner

    I can tell that Baton Rouge is trying, but they are not trying that hard. Consider this intersection, with a housing development on one side and a park on the other, and no way to get across (instead there are slip lanes).

    https://www.google.com/maps/@30.4066355,-91.1649363,20z/data=!3m1!1e3?hl=en

  • jwcbkdc

    To echo CarlessinOKC: I’d love to see Streetsblog dig into the signal warrant issue some more. Because it’s in the regulatorily-binding MUTCD (illustrated with pseudoscientific graphs), it’s often a tougher barrier than issues that fall under non-regulatory “engineering guidance.” As with so many traffic engineering issues, its inside-baseball nature makes it hard for laypeople to critique.

    How do other countries do it? Not just Holland and Sweden, but our auto-centric brethren in Canada and Australia?

  • Stephen Simac

    If they included pedestrians and bicyclists in the 85th percentile, rather than just motor vehicles, speeds would be posted significantly lower on routes with more usage by these transportation modes.

  • Bike Baton Rouge

    It’s in our report – https://bikebr.org/news/designedtofail

  • Bike Baton Rouge

    This is actually one of the more bike/ped friendly places in town. There is a mid-block crossing from the (luxury) apartments on the eastern side of Stanford to the park on the western side. And there is actually a multi-use path connecting this part to the university (along the blue line on the map) though it is in poor condition. But you’re right…the engineers need to try a lot harder.

  • CarlessInOKC

    Thanks!

  • mike

    There actually is a brand new cross walk at this location plan northeast right in front of the park.

  • mike

    Surprisingly, tt also has yellow over the road way as well.

  • mike

    I have almost been hit by cars while crossing within a cross walk with the right away twice in the past 6 months trying to cross Government St. and in the first instance been honked at by a driver trying to make a left turn on a ‘green light / yield to pedestrians’ in the process. I don’t fault the driver because I feel most of BR does not understand how roads can effectively work with bikes and pedestrians. The area has an evolving traffic problem and a non effective public transit system that only encourages people to drive more and walk / bike less. We continue to pave more lanes and expand the interstate system which doesn’t necessarily help solve the core issues, but does show what a politician can physically do to improve the problem. Not sure how we collectively get around those barriers, but we will certainly need to put our heads together to do so.

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