It’s time to put the horse before the cart. The average New Jersey driver spends 46 hours a year trapped on congested highways. (Los Angeles is tops with 104 hours.) This congestion costs — in dollars, in pollution, and in road rage. In 2002 the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) claimed that, based on the travel delay and excess fuel expense, these traffic jams cost New Jersey residents $63 billion — an almost $50 billion increase over l982.
This doesn’t even consider the environmentalists’ rage. These static traffic congestions gobble up an additional 5 billion gallons of gasoline, with toxins spewing all over the Garden State. As the interstate highway system celebrates its 50th year, this scarcely seems the vision its founders had in mind.
The NJDOT insists that the traffic and pollution are unnecessary.. Clogged traffic arteries are not unavoidable in a highly populated state. To prove this point, and to develop some solid transport solutions, the NJDOT has established NJFIT — New Jersey Future in Transportation, (www.njfit.com.)
Paul Cohn is project manager for this new division. “It is obvious that our current growth patterns are just not sustainable,” he says. “With the advent of NJFIT, we no longer build the towns and then wonder where we can cram the roads. Transportation pathways are part of the initial planning.”
Cohn, who has spent the last 34 years with the NJDOT, recalls well the unfortunate effects of the old roadways-as-afterthought policy. A native of Newark, Cohn earned his B.A. in political science in l972, followed by a master’s in city and regional planning before joining the NJDOT.
He still remembers the old, l940’s era New Jersey maps marked with a thin black line that was labeled “Proposed Route 92.” Even then, a central Jersey east-west highway was deemed a necessity. And in those less dense days, when rural Middlesex was home to a mere 217,000 residents in a state of less than half today’s population, building the proposed route would have been quite straightforward. But with transportation getting short shrift of land use for half a century, the whole east-west conduit got put off until its only open course lay through protected wetlands.
Now with NJFIT working hand-in-hand with the state’s Office of Smart Growth, the entire quality of life package, including transportation options, gets on the blueprint before one posthole is dug. In addition, myriad of innovative ploys are underway to halt sprawl and to get the state’s drivers moving again.
No widened roads. The old standard traffic fix of just widening the road is a concept easily understood, very visible, and thus beloved by politicians for decades. Unfortunately, it cycles into its own downfall. The extra travel lanes invariably lure in new home buyers and businesses. Area taxes rise, forcing farmers to sell off land to large developers. More structures are built, demanding more cars and trucks, which clog up the highway again, calling for even wider roadways.
Parallel solutions. “Canal Pointe Boulevard, along U.S. 1, is a prime example of a much better solution.” says Cohn. By building a parallel road between the new houses and the shopping areas along U.S. 1, residents can access the malls from behind, without entering the highway. This backway entrance helps not only the new residents on Canal Pointe Boulevard,, but also speeds the route to malls for those living in Princeton and Lawrence.
Shared trucks. Sharing community services, a banner waved by Governor Corzine, lessens both cost and congestion. When local municipalities unite on such efforts as trash collection, fewer trucks circulate on more sensible pick-up routes, and costs per town are cut. Cohn also points out that such sharing stops the great ratables chase and allows towns to plan with an eye for something other than the tax base.
“You are dealing with very emotional issues here,” says Cohn. “That big free-standing house and the concept of transport only by personal car are part of the American Dream.” Yet despite the dream, no one is fond of sprawl. Most towns readily accept NJFIT’s plans for higher density living to allow more open space and less travel time. “It is the rare town, like some along Route 17, that just doesn’t want to discuss anything other than widening the roads,” says Cohn.
Mixed use. Back in the bad old days of heavy, dirty industry, zoning was established that set residences, stores, and manufacturers each in their own areas. This led to necessity of the auto to reach every service and shop just for daily living. By replanning and blending businesses, schools, and churches in among cleverly designed housing areas, more people can reach more services by foot, bike, or short car ride.
The biggest villain in this separate-use syndrome is the idyllic cul-de-sac funneling to a feeder street. It’s a lovely place for a house, assuming you never want to leave. But if you do want to be out and about, a better set up is a connected street network with more direct access to the highway. These connected streets should be able to support a closer-together neighborhood with enough residents to support stores and services nearby, and ideally with walking or biking distance.
Keeping downtown. When 1960’s songstress Petula Clark lauded the town center’s enchantments in her “Downtown,” such centers were still the places to walk to, stroll through, and meet friends. But now, as developments have rolled out randomly across the Garden State like dice on a crap table, such hubs have been choked out — and many have disappeared. Not only have malls put the price squeeze on local shops, but Main Street has become a highway itself. As massive developments press in around the town, local roads become conduits, carrying heavy traffic at speeds that make it unsafe for sixth graders to bike downtown for an after-school ice cream cone.
NJFIT believes that the town center is a presence, not a highway to elsewhere. Across the state they are employing a host of tactics to achieve a strategy they term “traffic calming.” The first goal is to slow the existing traffic down. Signs are fine, but speed bumps and narrower driving lanes make drivers obey the laws of physics, rather than just the laws of the land.
To make the town center more walker friendly, raised curb ways, cobbled crosswalks and colored lanes have proved successful. Simply setting up diagonal parking on streets allows more folks to stop the car and stroll the sidewalk.
The traffic circle, while the bane of major highways, works well in town centers, keeping cars moving continuously, and at a sensible pace. These circles, when blended with planted road islands and extended curbs, make the driver instantly aware that he is no longer on a thoroughfare.
For an agency still shy of its second birthday, NJFIT has taken a lot on its plate. Ranging from Route 17 traffic jams, to the Burlington County interchange problem, to the separate use dilemma along 30 miles of Route 9 in Ocean County, NJFIT has conducted 15 studies and is partnering with municipalities to come up with solutions.
The 20-mile corridor along Route 1 from Trenton to New Brunswick has received special interest. Partnering with the five municipalities and three counties, NJFIT is devising schemes to get U.S. 1 moving again. One possible plan is establishing a Bus Rapid Transit, using bus-only lanes. Parallel bike routes are in the works, along with a whole new mixed-use zoning for the region.
Will we all are sitting in in our idling autos for 46 hours every year, or can NJFIT send us on our way? “There are no simple, one-fix solutions in this field,” says Cohn. “But everybody seems willing and we are going to employ whatever it takes.”