WATCH | Pedestrian accidents in New Orleans could be cut with a simple solution: adding more crossing signals. But an outdated, informal policy has kept engineers from rolling them out across the city.
Getting around in The Big Easy
On every corner in New Orleans, there’s a musician you’ve gotta hear, a sideshow you've gotta see and a bar with a drink you can take to-go.
But if you’re taking in the city on foot, the booze isn’t always to blame if you have trouble walking around. Circa and its partner Full Measure found the lack of pedestrian crossing signals is a big problem.
Not enough crossing signals for people
Jolie Lemoine can tell you all about the city's lack of pedestrian crossing signals at intersections that need them. She was hit by a car last year near City Park in New Orleans at a complicated intersection that doesn't have a single crossing signal for walkers.
The experience that sent her to physical therapy for her hip for eight months also made her an advocate for pedestrian and bicycle safety in the city.
"It's very shocking. You don't expect that to happen. You don't expect to get hit by a car."
—Jolie Lemoine, pedestrian hit by car
Lemoine is a statistic in a city with a real pedestrian problem, laid bare in an audit released by the Inspector General. It showed New Orleans has 463 intersections with traffic lights. Of those, only 62 have pedestrian crossing signals.
'Surprised to see a pedestrian light'
Bigger cities with even more intersections have those blinking white lights at more than 80% of their crossings. OIG Evaluator Becky Mowbray was part of the team that scoped out the situation, walking the city streets.
"It’s more like the exception than the rule." Mowbray said. "When you see a pedestrian light, you’re surprised to see a pedestrian light. Whereas in other major cities, they’re pretty much on every major corner.”
Mowbray and Assistant Inspector General Nadiene Van Dyke showed us a modern example of the city's pedestrian problem, the Central Business District. This area, recently redeveloped to be walkable, doesn't have pedestrian crossing signals.
Crossing signals keep pedestrians safe
Pedestrian crossing signals are a pretty big deal when it comes to safety. The Federal Highway Administration says they can cut the risk of pedestrian crashes in half. And stats show New Orleans could certainly use some help. Publicly available data shows 40 pedestrians were killed in the last three years.
Cleveland and Minneapolis, which are pretty close in size to New Orleans, had just eleven and six deaths in the same time frame.
Pedestrian fatalities a problem in several cities
The Big Easy is far from the only city with pedestrian problems. The Federal Highway Administration maintains a list of "Focus Cities" with the highest pedestrian fatality rates.
In 2015, New Orleans was listed as a city that gets continuous focus. Twenty-five other cities, including Miami, Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia, are also on that list.
The OIG's report found the Department of Public Works wasn't using data to make decisions about where pedestrian crossings should be installed. Instead it was often done using "gut calls." And Van Dyke says engineers used a decades-old informal rule that said they could only install pedestrian signals at intersections where traffic could be stopped in all directions.
"Unless somebody does come and in and say 'Whoa, why do you do that? Why do you do that that way?' I think sometimes those questions don't get asked," Van Dyke explained.
Other cities are thinking forward on pedestrian safety. New York and Washington, D.C. joined an aggressive program called "Vision Zero," aimed at eliminating deaths. Leaders in New Orleans have discussed but not yet adopted the program.
Last spring, years after getting state funding, New Orleans began adding countdown timers to some signals. Nine months later, we found many not working, still wrapped in burlap bags. Only 44 intersections are being upgraded.
So what now? The OIG's report includes a list of recommendations, trying to push New Orleans to step up its pedestrian safety efforts. The city did not respond to specific questions Circa and Full Measure asked about the report and its claims. The report says it has agreed to implement the OIG's recommendations. But Nadiene Van Dyke and her team aren't just going to take their word for it.
"We’ll follow up. We’ll see if they do what they say they’re going to do. We’re watching," she said.
In a statement, Erin Burns, Press Secretary for New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, said the safety of residents and visitors is a top priority.
"The city is already hard at work implementing solutions to improve pedestrian accessibility across New Orleans," she said.
Burns highlighted improvements to infrastructure in the city, including ramps for the disabled. When it comes to pedestrian crossing signals, Burns said that without additional funding, it will be difficult for the city to expand its program.