Montclair Planning Board Discusses Township’s SAFE Complete Streets Plan and Use of “Sharrows”

the Montclair Planning Board, minus Chairman John Wynn

The Montclair Planning Board had no new applications to consider at its April 29 meeting.  Instead, business centered on going over a report from the board’s Master Plan Subcommittee on the implementation of the Montclair SAFE Complete Streets plan completed in June 2017.  Board member Daniel Gilmer said the subcommittee weighed whether the plan as written could be adopted or amended to the master plan, and they agreed that accepting the plan, as is, would not be the best way to proceed.  He identified areas they could support, focusing on pedestrian improvements (more designated crosswalks, flashing-light signs at said crosswalks), including shared-lane markings, or “sharrows,” on streets to reinforce motorists and cyclists sharing the road, a greater discussion on dedicated bicycle lanes, and which streets to be prioritized for pedestrian and cycling improvements as part of a SAFE Complete Streets network.

An example of a shared-lane marking, or a “sharrow,” on South Park Street in Montclair. Image courtesy of Google.

Board member Carmel Loughman said that the subcommittee would not want to recommend Grove Street as part of that network, and she said that, as a trial, if there were any plans to do work on any streets in the proposal, like Park Street and Bellevue Avenue, they should be considered for improvements for bicycles. She said the plan could be edited later and did not have to be as formulated.

The cycling component provoked the greatest amount of comments. Board member Martin Schwartz objected to giving cycling “equal status” with pedestrians and motorists by suggesting dedicated bicycle lanes on all streets.  He was quick to point out that he was not suggesting that cycling should be discouraged or that cyclists should not be considered in the Complete Streets plan.  His rationale was that Montclair residents, as residents of a suburban bedroom community, were more likely to commute and get around doing errands in cars than on bikes.  Schwartz said that former Mayor Jerry Fried had been promoting the idea of bikes as transportation rather than only as recreation during his term and had taken inspiration from Portland, Oregon and San Francisco, but the problem was that those cities have year-round temperate climates to support biking as commuting, as opposed to the New York/Newark area’s cold and snowy winters that discourage year-round bicycle use.   Schwartz endorsed a limited number of dedicated bicycle lanes on through streets like Midland Avenue, which are wide enough to accommodate bike lanes and parking.

Board member Carole Willis concurred with Schwartz’s assessment.  To illustrate her own concerns, she cited Upper Mountain Avenue, a street that is currently not part of the SAFE Complete Streets network designated in the implementation plan, as a street that might be considered for a bicycle lane.  If Montclair were to add a bike lane to that street, she said, it would eliminate parking, as there are only three car widths available and thus one side for parking on the shoulder.  As Schwartz expressed a willingness to add bicycle lanes in town where feasible, Willis expressed concern that Montclair shouldn’t open a “Pandora’s box” by increasing bike lanes without much demand for them.  Gilmer sought to make clear that the Master Plan Subcommittee does not recommend bike lanes that could impair motor vehicle traffic, but he also added that the plan does not in any way make implicit that the streets should only be for cars.  Also, board member Timothy Barr said he would prefer more money for pedestrian improvements because more people in town walked than cycled.

Bike & Walk Montclair president Deborah Kagan

Deborah Kagan, president of Bike & Walk Montclair, said she understood that the Complete Streets plan is deliberately designed to be optional so the township and the public at large could go through a process as to how it is implemented.  She stressed that a multimodal plan is township policy, and that the plan is meant to give the township options.  Kagan looked at how bicycle lanes work in other municipalities work and found that in Passaic County, there are over 100 miles of dedicated bicycle lanes that are heavily used, with an increase in usage as new lanes were added, despite the varying weather in the region.  When there is an increase in designated lanes, Kagan concluded, there is not only an increase in usage but also a 50 percent decrease in vehicular accidents between motorcars and bicycles.

“We have to have a more holistic approach,” she said, “and that’s why we have the Complete Streets policy in the first place.  This document was really to help us as a resource, not to restrict us.”  She added that the plan does not require any bicycle lanes in town where they would not be feasible.  Schwartz was quick to caution that if the plan were passed as is, it would inevitably become a policy directive to implement, and town control would be lost.

“This is the moment to really evaluate what of this report we as a board think should be passed on as a recommendation to the council,” Schwartz said, adding that more review was needed by the board and the township engineer’s office.  “There are lot of good ideas, suggestions and directions here.  It’s just that the way this is written as a comprehensive initiative, it would take on a life of its own and just roll out, and then there would be a demand for public expenditures coming down the road.”

Board member Anthony Ianaule said communicating with the public through notifications and community outreach was essential to continue the process, noting that the plan had a lot of options.  Vice Chair Keith Brodock, substituting for Chairman John Wynn, said it would be a good idea to get feedback from professional planners about the recommendations.  For her part, Planning Director Janice Talley said the board could go over it with consultants to produce a draft that the board can adopt, including an identification of streets where bike lanes are feasible.

“There’s a lot of good in here,” she said.

Montclair SAFE Complete Streets Implementation Plan: https://bit.ly/2vs4pSz

Montclair Planning Board meeting video, 4-29-19:  https://bit.ly/2XV7lDf

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