ABMB has been contracted to perform a Stage 0 Study for possible improvements to Government Street in Baton Rouge. Government is a notoroiously troublesome corridor in Mid-City.
Traffic consultants are once again studying whether Government Street needs to go on a diet.
Spurred by safety concerns and the ongoing sense that the street’s traffic moves too fast for its urban setting, the Metropolitan Planning Organization has hired ABMB Engineers to look at whether a so-called “road diet” would work. Specifically, the firm is studying two options: Each would reduce the four-lane street to one lane in each direction and give a third lane back for wider sidewalks, bike lanes or on-street parking. But one option would have a center turn lane and the other a raised median with roundabouts at the major intersections.
A roundabout replaces a traffic signal and slows down cars but keeps them moving as they merge in and out of the circle from all four directions.
The thought of reducing the number of lanes on Government has always been considered a bit of a pipe dream, even by those who want to see it happen. Like many cities, Baton Rouge is obsessed with traffic congestion and has a penchant for widening its roads, not narrowing them.
A similar inquiry several years ago died on the vine, but this time is different in two key ways, said ABMB’s Laurence Lambert. The previous study was conducted soon after Hurricane Katrina and the traffic counts were affected by the swell in population, which made a road diet look less feasible. Also, that study did not take safety into account, and this one will at the request of the state Department of Transportation and Development.
The state classifies Government as an “abnormal” road, meaning it has twice the accident rate of the average four-lane undivided street in the state, said April Renard, of DOTD’s highway safety division.
It’s not hard to figure out why. Government has both local traffic — cars traveling several blocks from one of the dozens of neighborhood streets to a local grocery store or dry cleaner — and traffic that essentially treats the road like a highway.
As Dennis Hargroder, one of the owners of Government’s Circa 1857 has pointed out, the two center lanes already function as turn lanes. Cars are routinely stopped dead in the street as others change lanes quickly to avoid slowing down. Add in the natural human tendency to speed up at yellow lights, and the results are T-bones, side swipes, right angles and rear enders.
“It feels like a slalom course driving down Government Street,” Lambert told a group of traffic engineers earlier this month. “It’s a tough road to drive.”
Then there are pedestrians — residents from the surrounding neighborhoods patronizing Government’s merchants — who are forced to wait until all four lanes are clear, or pause in the middle of the road to wait for cars to speed by.
It is exactly the wrong way to design a street, said Dan Burden, a “professional pedestrian” brought to Baton Rouge by the Center for Planning Excellence about 10 days ago for a workshop, presentation and walking tour of Government Street
with public and private sector traffic engineers. But it’s nothing he hasn’t seen before.
Burden is the executive director of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute in Fort Townsend, Wash., but he
spends most of the year traveling around the country. A former statewide bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the Florida Department of Transportation, he now evangelizes about the importance of streets that do more than move cars and he helps cities reconfigure poorly designed, hazardous roads to encourage driving, biking, walking and economic development.
Burden called it “ludicrous” that a busy urban corridor like Government Street has a posted speed limit of 40 miles per
hour. He’d shoot for a target speed — the speed cars actually drive — of 20 or 25 miles per hour.
"Forty is just off the charts,” he said. “You’ve got to get away from that.”
Burden is a big fan of roundabouts, and thinks they would work well along Government, particularly with “redundant systems” like North and Florida boulevards running parallel to it. He suggested one roundabout every quarter-mile on Government, but said a good way to start would be with a couple in a demonstration project on the right section — one with receptive businesses, strong neighborhoods, historic buildings.
Burden flopped a metal tape measure out into the street to check the width of Government’s 10-foot lanes, and asked Lambert what the prior study’s counts had found for Government’s heaviest sections.
Twenty-three thousand, Lambert replied.
“With the right tools,” Burden said, “23 works beautifully.”
Burden said Route 25A in Smithtown, N.Y., is in the planning stages of a road diet with roundabouts, and it has 33,000 cars on it per day. Carmel, Ind., which is trying to get to zero accidents on a particular road, is doing it with a 40,000- to 50,000-car intersection.
Asked about the intuitive complaint that road diets slow down traffic, Burden grinned and replied, “That’s the point.”
The key with roundabouts, he said, is that traffic keeps moving. A properly placed and designed roundabout can move 30 percent more cars, loading them from all four directions, compared to only two at a time with a traditional intersection.
Roundabouts also cut personal injury by 90 percent, he said, “civilizing” motorists by slowing them down on approach, giving everyone more reaction time. That is in contrast with a signalized intersection, where motorists often speed up to make the yellow light as other cars and pedestrians prepare to move into their path.
And road diets, whether they include roundabouts or not, give space back to the streetscape for trees, bike lanes, wider
sidewalks or on-street parking.
While Burden said typical signalized intersections and roundabouts are similar in cost, Lambert said that upfront, roundabouts are more expensive but they cost less to maintain over the long term.
Burden showed slide after slide of how fewer lanes, narrower streets, different paving surfaces, landscaping and roundabouts have been used successfully in cities in Florida, California, British Columbia, Alabama and New York.
The days of simply widening roads, he said, are over. It’s just a matter of which cities figure it out and which ones don’t.
“If you plan cities for cars, you get traffic,” he said, noting that even with an estimated 20 percent increase in capacity over the next 15 years, traffic congestion is expected to triple nationwide.
For Burden, the new challenge for cities is building the next economy — the economy of place. Connected, complete streets that serve more than just cars allow “villages” to develop, with neighborhood residents moving out onto and engaging their streets, feeding existing businesses and attracting new ones.
He said people want cities to be places of exchange, not just commerce, but of ideas. They want to spend less time in their cars and more time on their feet, engaging with other people.
By creating a strong and unique sense of place, cities attract more in-fill development and population density increases. Transit upgrades become more feasible and, over time, property values increase and the tax base grows.
“Streets are the magic that make it all happen,” Burden said.
Earlier that day, Burden had looked and laughed ruefully at a banner advertisement for some condominiums on Government Street. All of its photographs showed people enjoying themselves inside its gates and walls.
“This is a great place to live if you stay inside your condo,” he said of its implicit message.
Walking back to Baton Rouge Community College a few minutes later, Lambert said Magazine Street in New Orleans — a street often invoked by Midcity’s business owners and residents when brainstorming about how they want Government Street to look — proves a two-lane road can be a vibrant commercial corridor.
Soon after, group members sat in a circle in the BRCC meeting room to air their impressions.
Marie Walsh, of the Louisiana Transportation Research Center, said she doesn’t want to have to move to live in a walkable neighborhood.
Bicycling-advocate Mark Martin said it seems crazy that people see sidewalks as a potential legal liability, so people are forced to walk and bike on dangerous streets.
Jeanne George, of AARP, lamented it’s almost impossible to simply cross Perkins Road where she lives.
Lori Pilley, of the Midcity Redevelopment Alliance, said she loves the idea of embracing Government Street as a gateway
But there was doubt that the state will ever find funding for drastic change on Government, which is a state road. Burden rejected worrying about cost.
“That’s the wrong question,” he said, noting the cost of not making these changes is too great. “If you’re worried about the money, you are doomed.”
He said cities should be focusing on road projects that add value to land and property.
“We need to spend money to make money from here on out,” he said. “If we only build streets as a conduit to move traffic, we’re going to fail.”
Lambert said ABMB started its study about six weeks ago and has already gathered the safety data. It is waiting on turning movement count data from the city to complete the capacity analysis. The contract was for one year, Lambert said, but it could be wrapped up sooner. He said ABMB won’t be making a recommendation, but will pass along the information and the state will respond however it sees fit.
DOTD’s Dan Magri told the group that if a road diet and roundabouts prove to be the right approach, it will still be a tough sell to a public conditioned to think that streets should only get wider and move cars faster.
“Marketing is the biggest problem,” he said. “I think that’s one of the biggest issues around the state.”
They could talk to Ron Whittaker, a retired state trooper and former commander at Troop L now working as a consultant to DOTD’s highway safety section.
Whittaker told the group that traffic on Airport Drive near his Hammond home got so bad it was almost unbearable. He was so thrilled one day to hear DOTD was going to do something about it that he drove to Baton Rouge for a meeting. It was there he heard the state was going to put in a roundabout.
“I thought it was one of the craziest things I’d ever heard,” he said, recalling he actually left the meeting early in disgust. Whittaker said he was shocked to find the long line at the intersection has almost evaporated, and cars roll steadily through.
“Now, they’ve put (a roundabout) by my house and I’m one of their biggest proponents. I couldn’t have been more wrong,” he explained after the meeting. “It’s like a Thermos: It’s magic. I don’t know how it works, but it does.”