Sept. 15, 2016 01:50 PM

Drivers navigating re-striped lanes on W. Congress are understandably confused. But when the update is complete, the Downtown-adjacent zone will be a safer place to travel for all types of transport.
photo by Robin May

Perhaps you’ve been confused as you barrel along West Congress from the Evangeline Thruway, gleefully humming Don Henley’s "Boys of Summer" only to run headlong into a matrix of white traffic lines displacing your normal cruising lanes. That’s understandable. You’re used to driving 45 or 50 on your way to Fast Eddie’s and all this change and lack of warning has got you fed up. We get it. That’s normal.

To make matters worse, it’s probably not been clear to you that the restriping project underway, which will add on-street parking and bike lanes on West Congress from the Thruway to University Avenue, is not yet complete and won’t be till after this weekend.

It may even seem backward to you that, in a city with never-ending traffic problems complicated by aggressive drivers, the powers that be have opted to reduce vehicle lanes along West Congress rather than widen or add them. That’s normal too. So long as you conceive of streets for driving and cities for cars, that’s just how you’re going to operate.

An overhead map depicting the road diet currently underway on West Congress.
Downtown Development Authority

What the city is trying to accomplish along Congress — and what the state is trying along Moss Street — is called a road diet. Road diets aim to improve street access to pedestrians and cyclists by slowing car traffic down intentionally, and in the process work to repair urban fabrics rended by wide-berthed thoroughfares designed to accommodate high-speed automotive traffic and blotched by the parking lots required to stable cars at rest.

All of that easy, available parking has a real cost, hidden as it may be. Some studies have estimated that each off-street parking space costs as much $1,000 per space in lost potential revenues from development. Every parking lot you build is another shop or restaurant or residence you can't create.

By building cities around auto traffic alone, we’ve hollowed out valuable, developable land in our cities’ interior districts by expanding roadways, building parking lots and curb sides that better accommodates strip malls than they do neighborhoods. Calming traffic can mitigate those scars by slowing cars and encouraging re-connectivity.

Consider how close the La Place neighborhood, on the “west” curve of Congress, is from Downtown but how difficult it appears to cross. That’s because Congress, as it was previously striped in that zone, featured five 12 foot wide lanes engineered to allow cars to drive comfortably at speeds better suited to highway driving. That’s dangerous for cars and residents.

Slowing you down is probably the part that’s going to frustrate you the most. And given that U.S. city and street design over the past century has primarily served the automobile, you’re not alone in feeling that way.

Take comfort that the Federal Highway Administration, which endorses road diets as an effective safety measure, reports that reducing and narrowing lanes can reduce collisions by as much as 47 percent.

As has been widely reported, millennials want city living and many corporations select sites based on quality of life metrics which include walkability, bikeability and mass transit. Sadly, Lafayette has performed poorly in those measures. A 2014 walkability audit performed by the Walkable and Livable Communities institute highlights many of the city’s shortcomings in providing broad-spectrum travel access. While the Metropolitan Planning Organization, the local agency responsible for regional transportation planning, has adopted a “complete streets” policy, Lafayette has struggled to implement transportation designs that reduce collisions, improve commerce by multi-modal access and create more attractive towns.

The Congress re-stripe plan adopts many of these best practice elements. When complete, the re-striped portion will feature bike lanes, on-street parking — which also encourages use of sidewalks by providing an ad-hoc barrier between pedestrians and car traffic — and will close off the de facto exit ramp access into Downtown between the library and IBERIAbank tower. Long term, the grassy patch that features the swirl sculpture by Robert Wig, will sit adjacent a new plaza with cafe seating, planters and an activated playground.

The fresh lines as they run now are not entirely clear, but the city will continue to paint in parking lanes and add bike lane designations to drive the new configurations home. No doubt this will continue to frazzle drivers unfamiliar with the change, maybe even after the re-stripe is completed. It’s new. That’s understandable. But the restripe could entirely re-shape the way the Saint Street, La Place and Fightin’ville neighborhoods interact with Downtown. Should it succeed, it will provide a powerful tool of comparison that will encourage similar projects across the city and give urban Lafayette a much-needed chance to thrive.