Add Traffic to the List of New Orleans Miseries

Times Staff Writer

At almost any time of day, vehicles on this city's grandest avenue, St. Charles, crawl along at 7 mph. The French Quarter is packed with cars and delivery trucks, not to mention horse-drawn carriages. Side streets in the Garden District and Uptown are blocked, offering no escape.

More than half the city's 450 traffic signals are nonfunctioning or nonexistent, blown away by Hurricane Katrina or corroded by the floodwaters that followed.

Nearly five months after the storm, traffic in New Orleans is, in a word, terrible.

Except for two short streetcar runs, public transportation is nonexistent. Huge trailers and construction vehicles clog the streets, and more than two-thirds of the city remain unnavigable -- sending all the traffic into a compact area.

Just about any in-city drive takes twice as long as it did before Katrina. The morning and afternoon rushes start at least an hour earlier. At 10 p.m., the Mississippi River Bridge is often jammed.

"It's crazy," said Lisa Shedlock, owner of a boutique in the French Quarter. "It's like L.A."

In an effort to keep things moving amid the storm debris and electrical outages, four-way stop signs were installed on scores of busy streets. But they were positioned lower than normal -- and at seemingly random intervals -- making for frantic stops and screeching brakes when drivers finally spot them.

And four-way stop-sign etiquette is a new experience in New Orleans. Many drivers sit perplexed, wondering whose turn it is to enter an intersection. Meanwhile, lines of cars pile up. Horns blare and tempers flare.

"I think it is a horrible thing," said Allen Yrle, the city's senior traffic engineer. "And it needs to be corrected."

When New Orleans was laid out in 1718, traffic flow was not a consideration. Roads here -- built to carry horse-and-buggy -- follow the Mississippi River, twisting and turning.

In this city's navigational lexicon, residents say "river," not "south," when giving directions. "Lake" is the local word for north, in reference to Lake Pontchartrain. "East" is "downriver" or sometimes "downtown." If someone says to go "upriver" or "uptown," that means west.

"You know why you're never going to hear north, south, east or west in New Orleans?" asked Diane Johnson, a tour guide. "Because we don't know one from another. You have no sense of direction when you live here."

But New Orleans residents do have a sense of time.

Johnson, due to meet a tour group at 9 a.m., had spent much of the morning stuck in traffic, preparing an excuse in case she got to work late. She made it at 8:55.

"It took me almost two hours to get here today," she said. "Normally the drive would be about 20 minutes."

Amid post-Katrina rebuilding, trailers and work trucks squeeze onto narrow city arteries, preventing other vehicles from passing.

And regardless of the vehicle, drivers are flummoxed because Katrina knocked down so many street signs. Night driving is a special challenge, because there is no power in most parts of town to run the streetlights.

Moving vans filled with the belongings of families who are returning to their homes -- or leaving the city forever -- add to the congestion.

And many who work in the city now are living in unfamiliar areas. They drive cautiously, for good reason: Roadblocks and other diversions often appear without warning.

"At least once a week, I have to detour on my way to work," said Rachel Hoormann, Web director at Tulane University.

Hoormann evacuated to Houston for three months when Katrina struck Aug. 29. She returned to find that her customary in-town commute of 15 minutes had grown by 20 minutes -- sometimes more.

When city crews picking up fallen trees bring traffic to a halt, Hoormann reads work memos. It has crossed her mind that the joggers around her make better time than she does.

"It's all progress-related," Hoormann said. "But it's still snarled."

Heavily traveled routes such as Claiborne Avenue and Tchoupitoulas Street often are too packed for the kind of natural traffic flow that permits vehicles to enter from side streets. When things clog up on Magazine Street, drivers can window-shop in the string of boutiques that have begun to reopen, or roll down their windows and torture themselves with the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee.

"You just sit there, waiting for a break," said Byron Keelen, a tour bus driver who thinks navigating New Orleans has never been so difficult.

Keelen, 37, said he can no longer bring tour buses into the French Quarter. He confronts new routes and annoying obstacles. He said the time he must allow for his own commute from the West Bank, across the Mississippi River, has tripled since Katrina.

"Today I had to leave by 6:30 in order to get to work at 8 a.m. It is 10 miles, and it takes an hour and a half," he said. "It makes me crazy as a professional driver, and it makes me crazy as a personal driver."

The new traffic realities are keeping law enforcement officers occupied, New Orleans police spokesman Juan Barnes said. Yet accident totals are down, because drivers have been forced to go more slowly. Since the hurricane, Barnes said, the city has averaged 140 accidents a week -- "minor compared to what we had pre-Katrina. But it is because the population is so much less, so it is not a fair comparison."

Barnes said most of the mishaps were attributable to the nonfunctioning traffic signals and the confusing four-way stops.

"This is just another example of our new normalcy here in New Orleans," he said. "We have traffic, and we have road patterns that even people who are from New Orleans find confusing."

Mark Berard, manager of a thrift store in this city's Uptown section, said he mapped out a new way to get to work after Katrina. The drive takes him past badly damaged neighborhoods where almost no one is living, so the roads are less congested.

"It's ugly," he said. "But it's a whole lot faster than going the old way."

Berard said he sailed right through one of the new stop-sign configurations the first time he took his new route. Cars from all sides honked to inform him of his mistake.

"It's a wonder I wasn't killed," he said.

Yrle, the traffic engineer, said the city was planning to rebuild the signal systems at about 200 intersections. He said power boxes on most lights were submerged in saltwater, corroding the wiring. Electrical power remains scarce in New Orleans, he said, "but even if we had power, you couldn't turn those lights on."

He sympathizes with anyone who has to drive in the city these days. He too has had near-misses at four-way stops formerly governed by traffic lights.

"I got caught myself that way," Yrle said. "I thought, 'Oh my God,' and hit the brakes."

For The Record Los Angeles Times Saturday January 21, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction New Orleans traffic -- An article in Thursday's Section A about traffic problems in New Orleans stated that except for two streetcar runs, public transportation was not operating. The city's Regional Transit Authority says some new bus routes have opened, and that ridership on the scaled-down bus route system is 10% of what it was before Hurricane Katrina.
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