Cyclists, Walkers in NJ Face Uphill Challenges

Confab in New Jersey Highlights Challenges in Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety, Access

Saturday’s summit for bicycle advocates around the state demonstrated just how hard it continues to be to make this state bike-friendly.

A student presents a plan to redesign a major street in New Brunswick

New Jersey is almost on the bottom–47th when it comes to federal spending on bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure projects. Add to that dismal record, the state known for both its farmlands and long stretches of highway through no-man’s land also ranks one of the highest in deaths by motorists of people walking and cycling.

So when this group of the who’s who in cycling advocacy, transportation and educational institutions got together to discuss progress, expectations were high.

It was the third year that the summit was being held since it was first conceived by the New Jersey Bike-Walk Coalition, a sign that optimism, perserverance and a bit of the visionary will be necessary to effect the transformation.

One indicator of just how hard change is going to be came from the audience themselves when some reacted with pessimism about a well-conceived student proposal to turn a major avenue in New Brunswick into a transit and bicycle access-only route.

Jeffrey Miller, CEO Alliance for Biking and Walking keynote presentation

And one of the presenters at the conference, Andrew Besold came to report that NJ Transit is turning back the hands of time by disallowing bicycles on low train platforms, a move that is sending cyclists statewide into a sudden frenzy.

But in all, the conference was met with tremendous optimism by advocates from around the state who see this yearly event as an opportunity to gain more strength, and understand how they can plan change.

A Forward-Looking Plan is Met with Hard Facts

Said one participant after viewing a road redesign prepared by urban design students from the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation center that would make a 2.2-mile section of the city more bike-centric, “But how will we get our cars to the garage?”

The students enrolled in the urban planning program at the Bloustein School also faced pointed questions from participants who wanted to know how they could implement similar changes in their localities. “Where are graduates like you working?” demanded someone from the audience. “Because I haven’t encountered anyone in our town administration who thinks in this [forward-thinking] way.”

“Did you do a cost-benefit analysis?” questioned another audience member who questioned the practicality of the proposed changes.

It was a tough reception to a well thought out plan that New Brunswick badly needs.

But perhaps the pushback from “friends” was just good practice for students Jonathan Hawkins, Aimee Jefferson, Dorothy Le, David Nelson, Tiffany Pryce and Sofia Recalde for that moment in time when they encounter real political and economic resistance in their future jobs as municipal and state planners.

Speaking on another panel, Montclair’s  Mayor Jerry Fried who is considered a bike-ped mover and shaker and whose town engages in Safe Streets to School for walkers, could not point to a single program that promoted safe bicycling to school—for the largely unspoken reasons that motorist danger and liability still present thorny problems for any political leader trying to promote teen or children’s cycling.

And in yet another presentation a participant asked a panel of experts on Complete Streets ‘what should be done about cyclists who occasionally weave in the road.’ When the correct answer could have been ‘no road should be so inherently dangerous that a cyclist can’t suddenly weave, for example to avoid a pothole or other danger,’ instead the conversation turned to pedestrians and cyclists who imbibe alcohol.

Andy Besold who has his own blog on cycling called WalkBikeJersey.blogspot.com brought news to the conference that cyclists are no longer allowed to board New Jersey trains from ground level and lower-level platforms—a rule brought down from on-high at New Jersey Transit. The decision was made with little regard for cyclists’ needs and with no opportunity for community feedback.

This poses a problem for riders in Bergen and Passaic Counties in particular. For example the Pascack Valley Line does not have any high level platforms and the Main and Bergen Lines have only four stations with high-level platforms. Connectivity with transit hubs is an important issue for cyclists if they want to travel longer distances.

But these problems are just the tip of the iceberg for cyclists and pedestrians who are fighting to maintain equal status with motorist funding in the state.

A Focus on Federal Infrastructure Spending

Participants at the Summit listen to a presentation

In the keynote presentation, Jeff Miller president of the Alliance for Biking and Walking pointed out that New Jersey ranks 47th in the country for bicycle and ped infrastructure funding at 0.9% or 0.92 cents per capita. What’s worse, the state is the second worst for bicycle and pedestrian fatalities where more than 25% of traffic fatalities are made up of people on two wheels or two feet.

“Safety is one of the biggest concerns that people have,” preventing more than 60% of the U.S. population from walking and biking, said Miller. “We need to speak up and be a loud voice,” for improving the roads for this group of users where 15 miles of traditional road spending could be translated instead into 3,000 bike-ped infrastructure improvement projects and a resounding 8,400 jobs, he added.

“There is money that is being left on the table that can be spent on biking and walking,” Miller continued to a captive audience. The timing could not be more critical as a major transportation spending bill is being challenged in the U.S. Senate as we speak, he noted.

Meanwhile our country is facing drastic traffic, obesity, and gasoline costs many of which can be resolved at least in part by increasing safety. “A full quarter of all car trips in the U.S. are one mile or less,” said Miller, “And 50 percent of all trips are 3 miles or less—If we can start turning the needles a small amount, we will make an effect.”

Miller detailed the New Jersey’s legislators who are most likely to assist in preserving bike funding which is at danger of being cut at the federal level: the threat recently became clear when Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) presented a hollowed-out, transit-stripping version of the original $260 M transportation bill that had been put forward by House democrats.

Sheree Davis shows one of the emails from a local DOT

On the plus side is Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, Chairman of the Commerce Surface Transportation Subcommittee who played a major role in drafting the Surface Transportation Bill that would dedicate $109 M to modernize roads, rails, and bridges in New Jersey and across the country.  “Senate Republicans continue to stall action on this job-creating bill by insisting on unrelated amendments, including an effort to curtail women’s access to health care,” said Lautenberg in a prepared statement.

Other pro-bike-walk legislators include Sen. Robert Menendez, Transportation Subcommittee chair who said in a statement, “the bill will provide New Jersey $519 million in federal transit funding, an increase of over $63 million per year.  If passed by the full Senate and House, New Jersey would receive more federal transit funding per year than ever before — without increased overall federal spending.”

All of that is up for grabs now as fiscal conservatives and Republicans try to strip the transportation bill of its transit spending, said Miller who urged all the participants to contact their legislator and go down to Washington, DC for the National Bicycle Summit in March.

State DOT Gains More Muscle with Bike-Ped Facilities

A presentation by Sheree Davis from the state’s department of transportation was a little more hopeful. “I want to assure you that even though there is not a lot of spending of federal money on bike-ped projects, the department invests state dollars on these types of projects,” said Davis.

Bike-ped improvements “are being built faster and with less red tape,” said Davis who noted that there was approximately $10 M set-aside in the state’s transportation fund in various programs.  What’s better, Davis’ department now has some real muscle and can send back projects from the project pipeline that haven’t documented the agreed-upon complete streets improvements.

The move is consistent with a ‘Complete Streets’ policy adopted in December 2009 by DOT commissioner James Simpson with the intent of transforming New Jersey towns and cities into more livable, bikable and walkable communities.

Davis, who is the DOT’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator showed the audience an email from a local transportation office that complained they had not gotten the green light on their project because it lacked bicycle and ped infrastructure improvements.  “If I don’t see it in black and white it’s going back,” she said.

Nicole Wynands and Susan Poliwka talk about Bike Friendly communities

She also highlighted a number of new bridge projects around the state that have complied with the Complete Streets policy and are building accommodations for pedestrians and cyclists.

Among them was the Route 52 Causeway Bridge connecting Summers Point to Ocean city where a 10-foot shared use path was being added; the Rte 36 Highlands Bridge connecting Sandy Hook National Park to the mainland, and the Rte 45 Bridge in Woodbury which is being put on a “road diet,” with center turn lanes, bike lanes and sidewalks.  “This will be an opportunity to do it right the first time,” said Davis about the Woodbury Bridge.

Bergen County, A High Traffic Bike Area, Being Studied

The DOT is also studying Jones Road over Route 4 in Englewood which they consider not exempt from the Complete Streets requirement and where high visibility sidewalks will probably need to be installed.

Of interest to the hundreds of thousands of cyclists traveling from the George Washington Bridge along Route 9W to Nyack, NY every year, the NJ DOT has been out there counting cyclists and doing a scoping survey, said Davis. The goal is to make one of the most cycled roads in the U.S. safer and more accessible.

Since DOT’s Complete Streets policy now requires that future roadway improvement projects include safe accommodations for all users, including bicyclists, pedestrians, transit riders and the mobility-impaired, local planners who have never even heard about it will have a chance to learn more this spring.

The NJDOT will be making presentations to all 21 counties state-wide this spring, said Davis.

In preparation for their meeting planners and political leaders can brush up on their Complete Street facts by downloading a guidebook from the state’s DOT site, or view a video on the topic, both of which will be available soon through their site

More reporting on the confab later this week.

The Editor