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Lanes of their own

Under a new plan, BR could build extensive bike, pedestrian network
By Sara Bongiorni

The draft of a master plan for developing a parishwide network of bike and pedestrian paths recommends 140 miles of new bike lanes and other on-road features, including 50 miles of new bike lanes separated from car traffic by curbs or other physical barriers.

The draft plan also recommends 265 miles of new off-road paths for bikers, pedestrians and others, about four times what the parish has now.

The EBR Pedestrian & Bicycle Master Plan being developed for the Department of Transportation and Development and BREC will lay out a doable, cost-effective approach to creating a bike and pedestrian network for parish residents of all ages, whether commuters or recreational users.

The plan also will include cost estimates and project priorities for a parish bogged down by road congestion and plagued by a rate of pedestrian and cyclist deaths that rivals the biggest U.S. cities.

“It’s a very robust network; everything’s on the table,” said project manager Daniel Helms of Arcadis, the Dutch-based consulting firm that is overseeing the master plan and a related safety-action plan to reduce bike and pedestrian deaths and injuries in Baton Rouge. The community will get a look at full details of the draft plan at public meetings in late February or early March.

Completion and release of the final version of the master plan in early summer coincides with a series of significant, tangible improvements for walkers and bike riders in Baton Rouge.

Newly completed projects or those planned for 2019 include:

The arrival of 500 GPS-equipped Gotcha Group bikes at bikeshare hubs that will be operating by April at 50 sites at LSU, downtown, Southern and nearby neighborhoods, with an expansion to Mid City and the Baton Rouge Health District down the path. The Baton Rouge Area Foundation started bikeshare and advanced it with partners, including state and local government.

Completion of a bike/pedestrian bridge over Wards Creek has for years been a missing link in BREC’s first big bike and walking trails project. The 10-foot-wide lane was added to a vehicle bridge being built by Ochsner for its new campus south of I-10.. “It’s huge,” Reed Richard, BREC’s assistant superintendent of engineering, said of the bike/pedestrian crossing.

BREC, by March, also will open another half-mile of trail to connect the new bridge to existing trail that now ends near the Morning Glen subdivision, so residents can bike, run or walk from Siegen Marketplace to Bluebonnet Boulevard.

BREC is likely to get started this year on the segment of trail that runs from Bluebonnet to Essen Lane in the Baton Rouge Health District. That will eventually link to the path next to Pennington Biomedical Research Center.

Gardere Lane will be vastly improved by 6,000 feet of sidewalk on its east side to move pedestrians out of the narrow two-lane roadway and roadside ditches.

Bike lanes on Government Street from I-110 to Independence Park, except for the Foster Drive intersection. The project should be finished next summer.

The master plan for the bike-and-pedestrian network will create a long-term vision for nonvehicular transit options as those projects move forward.

While stressing that it is a work in progress, consulting firms Arcadis and Toole Design Group shared key aspects of the plan with Currents in advance of public meetings in the weeks ahead. Feedback from those meetings and a public-comment period will be used to shape the final version of the master plan.

Jeff Ciabotti of Toole Design said East Baton Rouge has the advantages of flat topography, warm weather and “good bones” in terms of a roadway system that can support modifications for an effective bike and walking network.

The path that now runs atop the Mississippi River levee will serve as a backbone of the proposed network that will knit together existing roads and new pathways in a way that is “safe, connected and comfortable,” Ciabotti said.

Bike boulevards on broad residential streets with little car traffic are likely to feature prominently in the network, Ciabotti said. Recommended projects will be as simple as painted bike lanes in some cases to potentially as complex as pedestrian/bike bridges across multi-lane roadways.

The plan will provide guidance to local and state officials about whether it makes sense to add bike and pedestrian crossings or other safety features to dangerous roadways like Florida Boulevard or direct bikers and walkers to alternate routes.

Both the proposed bike and pedestrian network and the more immediate safety-action plan pair best practices in transit design with analysis of local crash data and the conditions of local infrastructure.

There were 1,303 crashes involving bikes or pedestrians in the parish that caused 118 severe injuries and 62 deaths between 2011 and 2015, the period looked at most closely by planners.

Across the five-year span, pedestrians were at greatest danger, accounting for 52 of 62 fatalities.

The crash numbers put Baton Rouge in a grim category. In 2015, the city was designated a “focus city” by federal transportation officials for its high rate of pedestrian and biking deaths, lumping it in a category that includes New York, San Jose, Atlanta and other large cities.

Baton Rouge “heat zones” with high numbers of bike and pedestrian crashes include neighborhoods near the LSU campus, Florida Boulevard and arteries between downtown and Mid City. Other parts of town with high crash rates include Ogden Park, Eden Park and the Istrouma neighborhood.

Analysis for the master plan highlights the extent to which biking and walking function as basic transportation in the parish. In some 2.1% of households—about 1 in 50 homes—walking is the principal mode of getting to work or school, buying groceries or doing other basic errands.

That compares to 0.4% of parish households that commute by bike and 1.5% that rely on public transit, according to American Community Survey figures compiled by the consultants.

Their analysis noted a lack of bike or pedestrian accommodations, including crosswalks, at key multi-lane roadways. At the intersection of Florida Boulevard and Sherwood Forest Boulevard, for instance, there is no crosswalk or pedestrian signal despite existing bike lanes on Sherwood that terminate at Florida.

The connectivity of existing bike lanes was also a significant issue noted by planners, who will recommend ways to extend or modify bike lanes that abruptly terminate at narrow two-lane streets—the Goodwood bike lanes that end to the east at South Flannery Road, for example.

BREC, which has been planning and building trails for recreational and commuter use for years, has collaborated closely with consultants on the bike-and-pedestrian master plan since they began their work in mid-2018.

The master plan brings together planning by BREC and other local agencies that have worked to expand bike-and-pedestrian trails for years, BREC’s Richard said. “This approach brings everybody together and takes all these efforts into account.”

Richard noted that the planned widening of I-10 will present additional opportunities for new trails on top of those BREC has in the works. Planned work includes its biggest segment of its Capital Area Pathways Project: a 6-mile pathway from BREC’s Memorial Stadium to Scotlandville Parkway that could break ground in a year.

A $3.7 million federal grant is funding the project.

The city’s designation as a federal “focus city” means local projects to reduce roadway deaths and injuries will be prioritized for federal funding once the final network plan is in place, Kathy Stites, BREC trails director, explained.

“That will be important as we move forward,” Stites said.

Arcadis’ Helms said the parish will be able to take meaningful short-term steps toward building the bike-and-pedestrian network, even if completion of the entire network is a long-term goal.

“What we hear over and over is that it’s unsafe to bike or walk,” Helms said. “But people will do more biking and walking if they feel it is safe.”