Thursday, December 29, 2011

In The Streets

In a stunning move of progress-prone action, the City of New Orleans recently decided that it would attempt to design streets before it builds them, at least from now on. What is even more shocking is the idea that such designs might take the needs of pedestrians, bicyclists, and disabled persons into account.

If you've ever tried to get from point A to point B in New Orleans, you know why this is so important. The impact also goes far beyond the transportation alternatives for the folks who break out their bikes to ride to Mardi Gras parades or Jazz Fest. New designs can have an immediate impact with regard to demographics and economics. From The Lens:

Despite a media focus on young, white and preternaturally hip pedalers, the data show that the majority of the city’s cyclists are men of color who don’t have cars and rely on bikes to get around. And the injury rate tracks that: Of the injuries reported between 1996 and 2001, 44 were sustained by black males under 18, but only two in the same age group were white males


While it is troubling that policy makers remain far more responsive to the needs of the "young, white" constituents, the end result is policy that helps many people for many reasons. And let us not forget that this kind of policy is something the city should have been doing already. Urban infrastructure is something that property owners and renters already pay taxes for.

Of course, not everyone is pleased with this development. This is New Orleans, after all, and apparently le bon ton roule is culturally incompatible with competent infrastructure (at least to hear some people tell it).

Some individuals seem to equate this type of stuff city governments are actually supposed to provide for their citizens unprecedented civic planning initiatives as the result of external agitators coming into New Orleans and telling people what to do. Pedestrian, bicycle, and disabled transportation access is apparently considered "restrictive" in some circles.

Even if the concern is founded in the idea that the existence of bicycle infrastructure will lead to the enforcement of bicycle traffic rules, I find that concern unfounded. In the first case, bicycles already have traffic rules to follow, they just aren't enforced. As I've noted many times, selective enforcement of laws and ordinances is a problem everywhere it happens, and this will be no different. The proper remedy is not to deny fellow citizens access to infrastructure, but to engage the political system to ease the ordinances as written. Related to that, I know many bicyclists who break these traffic regulations with regularity simply because there exists no safe, legal alternative. Providing safe, legal alternatives - things city governments should be doing anyway - and you may actually see enforcement issues reduced.

Additional concerns have been raised raised regarding the idea that planning will slow the process of fixing New Orleans streets. Maybe this is true - effective planning and implementation of infrastructure upgrades may take additional time and cost additional money. But I posit that the reason New Orleans' roads are in their current state of entropic decay is that past "upgrades" and "repairs" were poorly planned if planned at all.

Driving around New Orleans, you can see many places where the city simply threw three inches of asphalt down over previously existing streetcar and railroad tracks, cobblestones, the South Louisiana mud, or any combination thereof. Most of the time, this layer of asphalt never took drainage into account. Add that to the unique (and unenforced) city concept that the property owner has to maintain the sidewalk in front of their property. Oh, and give the responsible city agencies a tiny budget to keep up with all this. Put that all together, and what do you think happens? A city whose infrastructure and design plan doesn't go further than buying asphalt, laying it down, and calling it a "street."

Maybe if the city continues that type of behavior, again and again, we'll get a different result. But I'm thinking it won't. So you can consider me pleased that the city government is actually taking some sort of design models into account for future planning purposes.

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