August 27, 2014

Originally written by Emily Lane of The Times-Picayune on August 26, 2014.

There's no easy answer that pinpoints the cause of Baton Rouge's traffic problems, and solving the problems are as tangled a task as the I-10/12 split at rush hour.

LSU traffic engineering professor and researcher Brian Wolshon acknowledged the challenge but breached the topic anyway Tuesday (Aug. 26) night at Chelsea's Café during his talk for the university's Science Café event.

The city's traffic problems and potential solutions are complicated and multifaceted, he said. They involve traffic engineering, land use, money, politics and culture. And despite what some in his industry think about roundabouts, there's no magic bullet solution.

Baton Rouge drivers spend an average of 42 hours per year stuck in traffic -- the second worst among similarly sized cities, according to a 2013 Texas A&M report.

Adding more lanes to the interstate won't fix everything, and doing so brings another set of issues for communities that spent decades developing on the interstate's edges. Chelsea's and the rest of the Perkins Road Overpass neighborhood, which has developed its own culture that city planners can't ignore, he said, serves as an example.

It doesn't help that government planners and engineers have "fifty dollars to take care of fifty million dollars of problems," Wolshon said.

The city's traffic problems, he said, were essentially created a long time ago.

The interstate was built in the early 1960s through the middle of Baton Rouge to zip truckers and travelers passing through the state from Texas to Florida, for example. But many of the drivers who use the interstate today are Baton Rouge area residents commuting from their doorsteps to work or school each day.

The new interstate allowed people with cars to begin settling down in what's now the suburbs, where land was cheaper. Decisions made at the time about land use allowed people to develop neighborhoods along the interstate. While the new neighborhoods created a demand for more capacity, the development of those same neighborhoods impeded expansion to make way for more cars.

Too, Wolshon said, the city's street grid doesn't provide many good alternatives for locals to navigate around town. Essen Lane and College Drive are often heavily trafficked, he said, because they are the only main streets that cross the interstate running north and south, at the heart of the city, for a three-mile stretch.

The term "interstate" has lost its meaning for drivers in Baton Rouge, resident Mark Martin said, since "people in Baton Rouge use the interstate for a street."

Martin, who advocates for a more bicycle-friendly Baton Rouge at attended Tuesday's event, said after Wolshon's talk that there are 19 ways to get downtown, but most drivers take one of the two exits off the interstate.

Outside of Interstates 10 and 12, Wolshon said, drivers use some streets as a main road even though the road wasn't designed for that purpose. For example, he said. Acadian Thruway is a popular byway for LSU traffic, but it's not designed for that purpose.

Solving traffic problems requires addressing both supply and demand.

Increased capacity and alternative routes might be part of a solution, he said. But another potential solution to the city's capacity-supply-problem lies in decreasing the demand.

"It's like dieting," he said. "The chicken and egg."

Decreasing the number of motorists by better incentivizing public transportation, adding rail, or even making Baton Rouge more bike-friendly could help ease traffic woes.

"People believe it's easy to widen the street then get of their car," Martin said.

But when it comes to a large-scale solutions, like building the proposed "loop", the professor said, everyone seems on board unless it's being built in his or her backyard.

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