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"I want My complete Streets"

Join Our Statewide Initiative
for Safer, Healthier and
More Economical Streets

Jerry Fried
By Jerry Fried
Lead Ambassador,
Ambassadors in Motion, Rutgers
Vorhees transprotation Center
former Mayor, Montclair

One quality of life issue that unites people of all ages is the need for safer streets. Professionals from pediatricians to gerontologists know that to live and feel healthy, Americans need to be spending more time outdoors, walking or biking several times a week for common activities like short trips to the store. Streets that accommodate such active living are called Complete Streets (CS), and municipalities that want to take advantage of grants and initiatives to improve safety, health, and economic vitality are well-advised to adopt CS policies.

Girl with bicycle holding "I want my complete streets" signNew Jersey adopted the country's most comprehensive state Complete Streets policy in 2009. Since that time, many municipalities and organizations have come onboard to form an active transportation movement. This thinking is an important element of the state’s new strategic plan and the focus of many transportation, health, and safety organizations including Safe Routes to School programs throughout the state.

This year I have been working as a lead ambassador for the New Jersey Bicycle and Pedestrian Resource Center's Ambassadors in Motion program. The program employs four forms of outreach: on-street, classroom, event and municipal/county. Our mission is to increase the number of people walking and biking, while also decreasing the number of injuries and fatalities. Through municipal and county outreach efforts, the program is spreading the word about CS, offering technical assistance, and encouraging the adoption of new local policies. The program, funded by the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT), has already helped several municipalities through the CS adoption process. To learn more about the program, please go to www.njbikeped.org.

It turns out that what's good for you, such as walking and biking, is also good for local economies. There is ample evidence from economic data and research that property values increase with walkability. This is most evident in the residential housing market. The worst drop in housing prices has occurred in sprawling suburbs where there are few opportunities to walk. In contrast, homes in areas where basic amenities are within walking distance have maintained their value. As sustainable development-guru Chris Leinberger has so eloquently stated, "people raised on Seinfeld, Friends, and Sex in the City aren't looking to live in McMansions…they want to hang out in their local neighborhood coffee shop and walk to work.”

Many of the elements of Complete Streets are dirt cheap and will pay for themselves with increased commercial property values. Take for example the $1.1 million improvement to Montclair’s downtown streetscape. The money was used to transform a hazardous thoroughfare and parking zone into a leafy public commons with amenities for pedestrians and adequate space for cars and parking. The project received the enthusiastic support of our town’s fiscally-conservative budget committee and will benefit the city for years to come.

AARP has joined NJDOT to advocate for Complete Streets throughout New Jersey. To date, over 30 municipalities and three counties have adopted CS policies. With over 1.3 million members in New Jersey, AARP is investing its resources in Complete Streets so that seniors can live healthier and longer. This powerful organization also recognizes that walkable communities make it easier for the elderly to remain in their homes.

Meanwhile, the Complete Streets movement is also being embraced by those who advocate for youth. Shaping NJ, the state's public/private initiative to reduce obesity and promote lifelong, active living, has adopted a goal of increasing the number of CS policies and Safe Routes to Schools programs.

So with all these initiatives, how can citizens make sure Complete Streets is an engine of economic growth, quality of life, and health and safety for young and old in their communities?

The key is elected officials. Although many technical experts like municipal planners and engineers have learned about Complete Streets through NJDOT outreach, only elected officials are in a position to communicate with the public effectively. They are simply in the best position to promote policies that will ensure that our most extensive public commons, our streets, are accessible to everyone (including those who walk, bike or use mass transit).

How can you get involved? A 2013 campaign, "I Want My Complete Streets," will feature New Jersey celebrities, policy makers, and citizens (including seniors and children for whom safer streets can be a matter of life or death). Like the "I Want My MTV" campaign, the main goal is to introduce what is a new concept to most people: the notion that our streets are a precious resource for people, not just thoroughfares for vehicles. At the same time, it will raise awareness of the many health, safety and economic benefits, direct people to online resources, and ask people to speak with their Mayors and representatives to address the issue directly. There will be Public Service Announcements that can be customized to add the voices of local officials and community leaders to those of statewide figures, buttons, t-shirts, bumper stickers, and other signs that can be posted in stores, on bikes, strollers, wheelchairs and walkers.

In Montclair, it has been inspiring to see the diversity of supporters of Complete Streets. They come from virtually every sector: senior citizens, PTAs, skateboarders, business groups, retailers, police, the YMCA, hospitals and healthcare providers. Many homeowners understand the fact that a walkable, more vibrant community is simply more desirable to homebuyers. It certainly helps when one demonstrates the $1 million in grants and $1/2 million in zero interest loans that the Township of Montclair has received for pedestrian and bicycle enhancements and our reputation as one of New Jersey's best destinations for dining, arts, recreation and cultural activities.

Policy makers in Trenton, including the Governor, Commissioner of Transportation, and economic development leaders have all endorsed investment in areas of the state that are transit-friendly and feature mixed-use development. These areas make it easier for residents to shop and work close to home and to use mass transit. They also make it possible for more seniors to age-in-place.

Although our state suffered from many of the auto-centric mistakes of post-war American development, over a third of our residents live in older suburbs that are ripe for invigorating redevelopment. Many also live in cities that are undergoing significant investment. For the rest, it’s important that we retrofit roads and connect housing with more retail stores and public amenities to encourage healthier living and a more dynamic community.

To learn more about how your community can become healthier, safer, and more economically sustainable through Complete Streets, please go to completestreets.org and contact me at jerryfriedhome@gmail.com to find out how to get a Complete Streets media kit and materials.

 

Editorial from New Jersey Municipalities, Volume 89, Number 9, December 2012

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