Dedicated bus and bicycle lanes are among ideas central to the “complete streets” approach to multimodal transportation systems. Photo credit: Flickr/Eurist e.V.

By Matthew Rufo, The Lens contributing opinion writer |

In recent years, New Orleanians have witnessed a transformation of their streets from motor vehicle speedways to multimodal havens for a variety of users. Since 2004, the city’s bike lanes, paths and shared lanes have grown to over 40 miles. New sidewalks, curb ramps and crosswalks accompany many street repair projects. These “complete streets” have come to symbolize Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s repeated call to build the New Orleans we want to be, and not recreate the city we were.

While the pace of expansion of these street projects has been impressive, more remarkable yet is that they are the result not of high-level directives from public officials, but of bottom-up advocacy efforts through grant-funded assistance to the Department of Public Works. Since 2004, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Entergy Corporation and the Louisiana Public Health Institute have funded a bicycle/pedestrian engineer to serve on loan to the City, a position particularly valuable in the “completion” stage of street projects.

Grant funded work doesn’t last forever, though, which is why New Orleans needs to adopt an official complete streets policy that ensures all users are considered in street design, construction and operation. The City Council is currently considering such a policy and we are calling on City Council members and the mayor to adopt and effectively implement it. Doing so will ensure that New Orleans does not lose momentum toward becoming a safer, more equitable and more livable community.

Defined simply, a complete street is one planned, designed, built, operated and maintained for all users. These include pedestrians, bicyclists and bus and streetcar riders, in addition to motorists. These people often include vulnerable groups such as children, older adults and people with disabilities. In a city where one out of five households does not own a motor vehicle, they deserve particular attention.

Complete streets are not foreign to New Orleans. In fact, the City in recent years has built several strong examples of complete streets, such as South Carrollton Avenue. Funded through a combination of federal Submerged Roads program dollars and local bond funds, the street project features a new bicycle lane in each direction, repaved and ADA-accessible sidewalks and bus stops, and freshly installed crosswalks, in addition to a smooth roadway for motorists. Newly repaved Franklin and Filmore avenues and Robert E. Lee Boulevard offer similar facilities for non-motorists.

What difference does a complete street make? First, they make it safer and easier for people without cars to commute to work, to go to school, to shop and to play. But motorists are safer too. The Federal Highway Administration found that complete-street retrofits have reduced crashes by an average of 29 percent.

By creating safer environments for all users, complete streets increase active transportation, such as walking and bicycling, which help individuals avoid obesity. For instance, the Prevention Research Center found that the St. Claude Avenue bicycle lane increased ridership on the street by 57 percent. For a state with the fourth highest childhood obesity rate in the country, we need to use every available tool for encouraging physical activity like this. In addition, more bicyclists and pedestrians translate to fewer cars on the road, which improves air quality and relieves traffic congestion.

These benefits are also good for our local economy. Reduced reliance on ever more expensive gasoline and automobile costs allows us to keep more money in our pockets for other necessities. Creating walkable environments improves housing values. And the greater access non-motorists have to retailers, the more money ends up in cash registers. A quick stroll down lively Oak Street well illustrates the benefits that livable, complete streetscapes provide.

In order to continue development of complete streets, it is critical that the City institutionalize the promising work it has already done by adopting an official complete streets policy. In the last decade alone, more than 200 jurisdictions in 46 states have made this commitment to create more livable communities. Just last year, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development adopted its own, which is now guiding the planning and design of state road projects.

New Orleans would be the first local jurisdiction in the state to follow the DOTD’s lead and complete its streets as a matter of policy, rather than on a piecemeal basis. An effective complete streets policy would clearly direct relevant City departments to develop design standards based on best practices, establish a process for measuring performance, specify implementation steps and assign oversight of implementation.

Creating such a policy will demonstrate that New Orleans will become the safer, healthier and more livable community we all want it to be.

Matthew Rufo is program manager of the KidsWalk Coalition Prevention Research Center at Tulane University.