Project envisions safer trails for walkers, cyclists

Anyone who drove down Government Street near Hearthstone Drive on Saturday probably didn’t recognize it.

Dozens of vendors set up tents and tables on both sides of the street. Plants sat in the middle of the roadway, creating a makeshift median in the otherwise concrete landscape.

And, for a small stretch between Bedford and Beverly drives, bicycle paths lined the edge of the road, giving cyclists a safe pathway along an otherwise bike-unfriendly thoroughfare.

The temporary transformation of the area was part of Better Block BR, a two-day demonstration designed to show what major roadways could become if they were more hospitable to pedestrians and bicyclists.

The exhibition began Saturday and continues Sunday.

The demonstration is spearheaded by the Mayor’s Office, the Center for Planning Excellence, the Mid-City Redevelopment Alliance and the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority.

It is a project of FutureBR’s implementation team.

The four-lane road was squeezed into a three-lane street — one lane in each direction and a turn lane.

The design intentionally slows down traffic, said John Price, city-parish assistant chief administrative officer and Mayor-President Kip Holden’s point man for FutureBR’s implementation.

The traffic compression creates a safer roadway for a social junction, Price said.

“When you create that kind of place and an opportunity for people to interact with each other, it becomes a destination,” Price said. “In order for that to happen, you have to slow down traffic.”

Price said the city-parish has plans for similar demonstrations in two areas identified as priorities under FutureBR — north Baton Rouge near Southern University and Old South Baton Rouge.

Camille Manning-Broome, director of planning for the Center for Planning Excellence, also known as CPEX, said her organization created the design after consulting with other cities about best practices of “better blocks,” in addition to weighing public input.

“That’s the program that you see today,” she said.

The provisional bike paths were painted green with white lines.

Traffic barrels narrowed the street, slowing traffic for only a few blocks past the demonstration area.

The atmosphere felt more like a block party than a block project.

A little bit of live music serenaded patrons as they made their way through the flea market-like setup. Bike riders conversed with one another about their two-wheelers.

Sarah Simmons and Arlen Caulking, an engaged pair of bicycle enthusiasts, took a look at the merchandise on sale from Mid City Bikes.

Simmons and Caulking said they were impressed with the arrangement at the Better Block BR demonstration, especially the bike paths.

“It’ll make it more like a neighborhood where people actually use their bicycles — the way other cultures do — so that you’re not in your car all the time,” she said.

Marsanne Golsby, president of the nearby Ogden Park Civic Association, said her neighborhood supported the project because transforming the area into a bustling economic strip with bike-friendly roadways would make the neighborhood, and the city, more attractive.

“It should’ve happened yesterday,” said Golsby, a bicycle rider herself. “It’s good for our property values. It’s great for our quality of life. It’s good for the city.”

Before the Better Block BR party started, Holden and about 50 other bicycle enthusiasts taking part in the mayor’s Annual Family Bike Day rode around neighborhoods near St. Joseph’s Academy and Catholic High School.

The ride, which is part of the mayor’s Healthy City Initiative, promotes healthy living and bicycle safety.

Holden rode at the front of the pack as the group pedaled through the nearby subdivisions.

The cyclists met at Congregation B’nai Israel on Kleinert Avenue, where Rabbi Jordan Goldson led the gathering in prayer to bless the bikes.

Holden then stressed both staying active as well as the importance of drivers sharing the roads with bicyclists.

“We must become each other’s cheerleader,” Holden said in remarks to the group, “especially when it comes to health and letting each other know that the body is a sacred temple that has to be nurtured and taken care of.”