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.