Blown red lights don’t represent biggest danger for pedestrians in New Orleans, report says

Mayor Mitch Landrieu has proposed doubling the number of traffic cameras in New Orleans next year, a move he says should reduce dangerous driving in school zones and on busy streets.

But a report Wednesday from Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux suggests there may be greater threats to pedestrian safety than drivers running red lights.

The IG found that more than four-fifths of intersections with traffic lights in the city lack accompanying pedestrian walk/don’t walk signals, a tool the federal government says increases safety.

More people died in New Orleans after being hit by cars than in any other city in Louisiana from 2013 to 2015. In four of the past five years, the city had more than twice the rate of pedestrian injuries as Jefferson and East Baton Rouge parishes, the report said. Both of those parishes have larger populations than New Orleans.

Few pedestrian signals exist in New Orleans partly because the city’s Department of Public Works used “gut calls” and anecdotal evidence to decide where to put them, a move Quatrevaux said ignored best practices.

“The result was arbitrary departmental practices that discouraged the installation of pedestrian crossing signals and made New Orleans a more dangerous place for pedestrians,” the report said.

The report comes two days after the mayor proposed adding 55 new stationary or mobile traffic cameras next year — an idea that’s likely to stir controversy. Landrieu said the additions are intended to boost traffic safety, but his proposed budget shows the cameras are also expected to bring in $8 million in new revenue, with $3 million of that needed to cover the cost of their operation.

The city plans to use the extra money to help shore up the Police Department’s diminished ranks and hire more Emergency Medical Services personnel, two moves aimed at reducing the response times for emergencies.

The City Council will consider the mayor’s $614 million proposed budget in the coming weeks.

The Landrieu administration has at least been working on the issue of pedestrian signals. The city began putting new signals at 44 intersections this spring, officials said, after Quatrevaux’s office began studying the issue and in line with earlier plans to replace broken or outdated signals on Canal Street and in the Central Business District.

But that project covers less than a tenth of the city’s roughly 460 intersections with traffic lights, and does not make certain provisions for people in wheelchairs or with other disabilities required by law, the IG said.

Further, he said, it doesn’t hew to the city’s 2011 “complete streets” ordinance, which requires planners to consider pedestrians and bikers when making road decisions.

The overall dearth of signals stems from a narrow interpretation of federal guidelines on the matter, Quatrevaux said. The government provides specific conditions on where and how “walk” signals should be used, such as to stop traffic for pedestrians when traffic lights are red in all directions, or when the number of people or cars crossing the street at a given time hits an established threshold.

But the city has long installed signals only when traffic lights stop cars in all directions to allow pedestrians to move, and even then, the practice was informal, the report said. And because officials didn’t deem it feasible to stop traffic in all directions long enough to let people cross streets, the city’s Public Works Department deemed many major roadways in the city ill-suited for walk signals.

As a result, New Orleans ranks last on a list of 10 studied cities in terms of its provision of crossing signals, according to the IG’s report, with just 13 percent of appropriate intersections outfitted with them.

Quatrevaux also suggested that the Public Works Department is not solely to blame, noting the City Council’s denial of the department’s funding requests, the disbanding of an advisory committee tasked with advising the council on street issues and other factors.

City officials agreed with Quatrevaux’s recommendations in a written response to his report, pledging to maintain current traffic signals and school zone beacons and better track those signals. They said current projects are reviewed for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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