The following Op-Ed was submitted by Essex County Freeholder Brendan Gill:
As part of my ongoing efforts to promote cycling and walking opportunities in Essex County, I recently attended New Jersey Bike and Walk Coalition’s 7th Annual Summit in Princeton on February 27th. Cycling and pedestrians advocates from all across the Northeast were there, bright and early, to share their thoughts on how our state can learn from other states and cities how to create safer and more efficient bike paths and a more cyclist friendly culture.
This was my second consecutive year attending the conference and serving proudly as a board member for the New Jersey Bike and Walk Coalition, under the direction of Executive Director and Montclair resident Cyndi Steiner. Each year organizers put together a program full of informative lectures and presentations, and 2016 certainly didn’t disappoint. Through a series of informative workshops and panel discussions led by expert speakers, participants were able to get the latest updates on current state and federal policies while taking advantage of strategic networking opportunities that will ultimately help their communities become more bike and pedestrian friendly.
One presentation at the NJWBC Summit I found particularly interesting focused on restructuring of bike lanes in the Ironbound section of Newark. Most people think of bike lanes as running on the right side of the street, in between car lanes and parking lanes, but the truth is they can be in the middle of the street, or even to the right of parking lanes, depending on the flow of traffic and the placement of bike lanes in surrounding streets. I was intrigued-but not shocked-to learn that the appearance of bike lanes in urban areas actually decreases the reported number of vehicular accidents. This is because bike lanes typically accompany reduced speed limits on streets, and transform the feel of the streets from highway to a more rural road.
When I was sworn in as the Essex County 5th District Freeholder in 2012, one of my first initiatives was passing a County Wide Complete Streets policy, which sets the parameters for the County to restructure its roads to optimize their accessibility for drivers, mass transit users, pedestrians, and cyclists. Mass transit users, pedestrians and cyclists help create sustainable economic development for our communities. As the second densest County in New Jersey, we owe it to our citizens to seriously consider alternate modes of transportation are incentivized and available.
Since Montclair opened its bike depot to commuters at the Bay Street train station, the number of monthly memberships has predictably shot up, meaning the number of commuters who bike to their train station–rather than driving–has increased, alleviating the parking problem, as well as reducing the carbon footprint of commuters in Montclair. Expanding biking and walking options for commuters also has positive affects on commuter routes, as well as local traffic.
One longstanding project that everyone at the Summit agreed needed to be resumed was the Ice and Iron Rail Trail, a proposed 13 mile trail similar running the nearly abandoned tracks of the Northern South freight company. Numerous advocacy groups have proposed sustainable drawings and plans to connect the trail–which spans Montclair to Kearny–in the style of the Manhattan Highline. Progress has been slow but with the expertise of bicycling and pedestrian advocates, and dedication of our local leaders, I am confident such trails can and will be completed.
There are tremendous health, economic and environmental benefits to creating new cycling and walking opportunities in the Montclair area, and we are just getting started.