Will Take Us Where
We Need to Go
By Jerry Fried
Mayor, Township of Montclair;
Founder, Bike and Walk Montclair, Lead
Ambassador, Ambassadors in Motion
I’m convinced that this year will be the turning point in New Jersey’s quest for economic sustainability. Each municipality must decide if they’re laying the foundation for climbing out of the economic crisis or hunkering down to endure more of it.
The guiding document for our future is the state’s Strategic Plan, which is near adoption. This plan speaks eloquently about the need for more “Smart Growth” planning in which resources are allocated to take advantage of population density and existing infrastructure while shunning failed policies that have contributed to sprawl. Municipalities that encourage mixed-use development and multi-modal transportation policies will gain, while those in which housing is segregated from retail and commercial business and mass transit will lose.
In fact, they are already losing. The housing bubble and Great Recession that followed have impacted property values statewide, but has decimated values in places where driving is the only mode of transport.
This reality was an important factor in New Jersey adopting the country’s most comprehensive statewide Complete Streets policy in December 2010. In a USA Today article John Ritter defined complete streets (sometimes called livable streets) as “roadways designed and operated to enable safe, attractive and comfortable access and travel for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and pubic transport users of all ages and abilities.”
An artist’s rendering of the proposed South Park Street streetscape for Montclair. (Courtesy of the Township of Montclair)
The New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) is looking forward to a day when all users of our streets, automotive and non-automotive, will be accommodated equally. For the NJDOT, this will soon be standard. Every transportation project that goes through the state will be evaluated on the basis of whether it serves all users. So that will be the number one cost of your incomplete streets!
In 2012, I will be helping lead this effort through a pilot program “Ambassadors in Motion.” The program will, among other things, assist municipalities in developing and implementing Complete Streets policies. Along with Charles Brown, senior researcher at the Voorhees Transportation Center, I will be traveling throughout the state, helping municipalities get ready for this paradigm shift in transportation policy. Municipalities that adopt a policy this year will improve their chances in competing for future funding.
“Completing your streets” will also help increase the value of your communities, in terms of residential property values, commercial ratables and in that intangible thing called "quality of life." Complete streets will help make your town a place that people want to come to visit, shop, and live. Fortunately, most municipalities have several "complete streets" already. The key is to develop policies and practices to build on our existing assets.
Supports Complete Streets
AARP shares the goals of the Ambassadors in Motion Program and commends Mayor Fried for making Montclair streets safer and more livable for residents of all ages. Complete Streets policies are important to older New Jerseyans
in particular, as they help ensure their ability to remain active members of their communities as they age. For more information, please contact AARP New Jersey Associate State Director of Advocacy Brian McGuire at 609-452-3921, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Every step Montclair has taken towards making our community more bike and pedestrian-friendly has had a "humanizing" effect. We've found that the presence of more walkers and
bikers has reduced driving speeds, increased safety and promoted a sense of community. Along the way, we have drastically increased compliance with the state's Stop and Stay Stopped Law. It's important to understand that this is not necessarily about creating separate spaces for activities; instead, it is about sharing the road. We see far more people walking and biking to schools, shopping and recreation.
If you think complete streets are
primarily a construction and design issue, you're wrong. Yes, you'll need changes to your streets. But the physical changes are often inexpensive things like striping shoulders and reconfiguring intersections. These engineering improvements encourage behavioral changes that can energize your residents and get them more involved in community life.
The effect in my town has been truly inspiring. The project has brought people together to talk about our "great places" and how we make them more accessible. It has opened people's eyes and given us a stronger sense of "their own town," while encouraging the foot traffic and bike traffic so important to small businesses.
I have been working on this endeavor since 2002, the same year I co-founded Bike/Walk Montclair. It has been a gradual but transformative process. There is no guidebook that will provide a solution for each problem, but we can create policies, partnerships and plans that help change our decision-making process by including all users in our planning.
One example is the reconstruction of South Park Street: the gateway to Montclair's central business district. A wide street with lots of diagonal parking and narrow sidewalks, South Park Street looks more like a parking lot than a city street. Over the last decades, the Township Council considered making it more pedestrian-friendly by widening the sidewalks to accommodate cafes, adding landscaping and space for outdoor events.
Despite the constraints of the Great Recession, our local business improvement district worked with a normally-conservative finance committee to make the case that this initiative would more than twice pay for itself. By increasing the property values and accompanying commercial tax revenue, a project that might have been considered a frivolous beautification effort was funded as an Economic Development Project.
Complete Streets is a revolution in the culture of civic design, which Historian James Howard Kunstler refers to as "a body of knowledge, method, skill and principle that we as a culture, threw in the garbage can after World War 2." In transportation, we lost our way when we focused not on "connectivity"—our ability to get to goods, services and activities—but only on "mobility." In the United States, 50 percent of car trips are 3 miles or less and 28 percent are under one mile.
Eliminating just a small percentage of these trips can significantly reduce congestion, accidents and parking issues. It also would create an environment where more people walk and bike... and this in and of itself leads to more and safer trips by foot and bike.
Complete Streets provides us a framework for reestablishing this culture in our communities. We will need to do this if we want to re-compose our public spaces to be vital habitats for healthy living. The era of cheap oil is over, and we are going to need a sense of shared civic life and mission to move to a less-expensive, more equitable and sustainable lifestyle.
And as bicycle guru Michael Ronkin says "retrofitting always costs more than doing it right the first time."
For our own good, we need to move to a "complete streets world." New Jersey is encouraging these efforts and municipalities that start now will lay the foundation for the changes that are forseen in the State Plan.
Originally published in New Jersey
Municipalities, Volume 89, Number 3, March 2012