Owen Courreges: Incomplete streets

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Owen Courreges

On Dec. 15, the City Council adopted a “Complete Streets” ordinance.  At first blush, this ordinance appears entirely innocuous. It merely requires city agencies, most notably City Planning and the Department of Public Works, to create and adopt internal policies mandating that engineers consider curb ramps, bus stops, bike lanes and a variety of other traffic elements when resurfacing or rebuilding roads.

The overall goal is to create streets that are designed not just around private automobiles, but also pedestrian traffic, bicycles and wheelchairs — hence the notion of a “complete street.”

Since the passing of this ordinance, kudos have flowed in from many sources, including the Louisiana Public Health Institute, the Tulane Prevention Research Center and the University of New Orleans Transportation Institute. At least publicly, the ordinance has been universally praised.

However, my first thoughts upon hearing of this ordinance went to the time I was driving down Nashville Avenue a couple of years ago and struck a pothole. The impact was jarring but I didn’t immediately notice any damage.  Later it was obvious that the pothole had been more formidable than I first realized — a shock absorber had ripped clean through the control arm that held it in place.  It hung down from my undercarriage, limply swinging from side to side.

Next, my thoughts turned to the time I drove out to the Bywater to pick up a space heater I had found on Craigslist. I had to travel down crumbling side streets that were barely navigable to make it there and back. Later, I noticed a large puddle underneath my car. I went down to touch it and, sure enough, it was oil. At some point I’d nicked my oil pan.

Finally, my thoughts went to a study I’d read about last year.  According to “‘TRIP,” a transportation think-tank based in Washington, D.C.,  New Orleans roads are the sixth worst in the nation among cities of over 500,000 persons, drivers in New Orleans spend an average of $681 more per year, on auto repairs attributable to poor road maintenance, compared to a national average of $279.  New Orleans was the only deep-south urban area to make the list of the ten worst.

The percentage of bad roads appears even more staggering – 55% of New Orleans roads were rated as being in “poor” condition.

Accordingly, when I think of a “complete street,” I don’t think of one that has bike lanes or so-called “traffic calming” devices.  Rather, I think of a street that has good, smooth pavement, clear painted lines for traffic lanes and crosswalks, and even sidewalks.  By this measure, New Orleans streets are typically very, very incomplete.

Overall, my view of the “Complete Streets” ordinance can be summed up in one word: posturing.  This ordinance is more about getting good press and the appearance of being forward-thinking than it is about actual improvements in the quality of New Orleans streets.  Our street maintenance budget is laughable, with major projects funded mainly by the federal government and past bond issues.  We have very little dedicated funding to perform even the most basic street maintenance.

If we really wanted to help pedestrians and bicyclists, the focus wouldn’t be on planning or engineering mandates.  It would be on creating level sidewalks and streets.  Bike lanes on major thoroughfares may be well and good, but bicyclists would probably be better off travelling on side streets with their lower speed limits and traffic volume.  As the situation is now, most side streets are so pothole-ridden as to be impassible by bike (and barely by car).

The “Complete Streets” ordinance allows the City Council to claim it has done something about multimodal transportation when actually it hasn’t done anything worthwhile.  To the extent this ordinance actually does anything, it will likely increase costs and thereby reduce the amount of money available to get through our massive backlog of roadway maintenance projects.  That will hurt pedestrians, motorists and cyclists alike.

Worst of all, it presents New Orleans as a city that puts the cart before the horse.  We still don’t have the planning capacity to fully coordinate road maintenance between city agencies and utility companies, and we don’t have the money to keep our roads maintained heading into the future.  In this context, we appear foolish and vain to be passing this kind of “feel-good” legislation.  It’s all style, no substance.

Let’s have the City Council deal with the major issue first, namely the horrible condition of our streets in their existing configuration.  After that, we can start to work through the details.

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

8 thoughts on “Owen Courreges: Incomplete streets

  1. Interesting to me that as the city trumpets its new status as “Hollywood South” and we hear that filming is up more now than other, why no one stops to think all these films are coming here because they got huge tax breaks. Meanwhile the studios rake in bucks. If they’d been asked to pay the same taxes as everyone in the state, there would be money to fix the roads and the dilapidated homes and streets Hollywood so loves to film. Good job, Jindal.

  2. Movies do pay the taxes, but get rebates–this as an incentive to come here in the first place and spend money and give jobs. Which they do. Lots. Without the rebate incentives, there would be no films made here. I think you could look elsewhere for blame.

    • They in did create a lot of jobs…Too bad the people who are working these jobs aren’t from New Orleans. Take a walk around Prytania and Erato and see all the nice pretty license plates.

  3. A complete streets ordinance is a design mandate. It’s a step to using a more appropriate and inclusive engineering design guide such as the NACTO guide, rather than MUCTD or AASHTO. It has nothing to do with budgetary issues, such as the amount of money we spend on street repair each year.

    People on bicycles want to ride on arterials for the same reason everyone else wants to drive on them: they’re faster and they don’t require as many stops. Except, in a car, it’s much easier to press your foot on the brake and then move it back over to the gas pedal. On a bicycle, stopping every two blocks, then regaining all the momentum only to stop after another two blocks is exhausting and completely inefficient.

    Complete streets and other similar design mandates are good policy. New Orleans city streets are in poor shape for everyone, but at least now we know that when we have the money to rebuild them (a separate issue), DPW engineers will consider the needs of all users instead of just cars.

    • alpelican — We’re actually debating design mandates when our streets resemble Berlin circa 1945? Again, I just think it makes the city council appear useless. There’s no point in passing design mandates when we can’t even keep half our streets decently paved. It’s a classic case of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic: Why discuss street configuration when our streets are literally caving in?

      I understand why bicyclists would want to ride on major roads (fewer stops) but at the same time it is more dangerous than side streets. I think more bicyclists would use side streets if they were reasonably well paved. Although bicycles are technically supposed to stop at every stop sign, the truth is that they can generally get by on side streets by simply slowing down momentarily and maintaining a close lookout. And on top of it, they largely avoid getting side-swiped or pushed into an opening car door. In any case, due to poor road maintenance on most side streets, bicyclists don’t even usually have the option.

      I don’t believe that it is wise to force the city to consider additional measures whenever it does something as simply as slap down new asphault. That does increase costs (if only because it forces the city to study reengineering roads whenever it simply acts to maintain them), and it makes it more difficult for the city to spend scare resources for road maintinance. Our roads will better serve all users if they can just be decently maintained. That’s the only important issue here, and anything else just gets in the way of that.

      • Well, the current state of “no design mandates” sure isn’t speeding up the process of road maintenance, is it?

        Design mandates are most important when the streets resemble Berlin 1945. That’s the time you start talking about design mandates, in the hope that your streets will be rebuilt at some future point. That’s what sets out your plan to get the “level streets and sidewalks” you’re talking about.

        One reason NOLA’s streets are in the shape that they are has to do with planning. I can drive around this city and see where old streetcar tracks or cobblestones have just been paved over, or drainage was never taken into account. Think any planning went into that? Hell no. They just bought some asphalt and laid it down whenever they got money.

        That results in the streets we have today. Try and tackle this stuff without a plan, and you’re just going to have the same problem down the road.

  4. I’ve generally regarded my time on Guam as good preparation for driving in New Orleans. The only place I’ve been with streets as bad as New Orleans is a west Pacific island territory which is largely ignored except for its large U.S. military bases. Those streets are very well maintained.

    Moreover, GovGuam’s issues are largely the same as New Orleans: corruption, incompetence, and nepotism. The streets, much like the police department, are just a symptom.

  5. Unfortunately the only road maintenance and repair program or plan the city of New Orleans has adopted since the storm and even before that is a citizen complaint and a hopeful future broadcast on a TV station through WWL action reporter. Then it gets fixed!
    I always planned on sending to the City of New Orleans my $1000 plus bill for repairing the front end of my car but maybe the deplorable streets keep the car repair shops in business.
    I sometimes think that New Orleans would be better off today with large coblestone streets than the exisiting asphalt?

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