Op-Ed: Let’s Make Montclair Streets and Sidewalks Safer for Everyone

Next week, after years of controversy and debate, the Montclair Planning Board will be considering adopting the Streets Are For Everybody (SAFE) Plan — guidelines for addressing Montclair’s challenges with traffic, congestion, parking shortages and pedestrian and bicycling safety. The SAFE Plan was commissioned four years ago by the Montclair Town Council and researched by professional engineers with community input–funded by a grant from the NJ Department of Transportation, it provides well-researched guidelines on the enhancements and improvements that could guide the long term evolution of Montclair’s streets and walkways into a safe and inviting network for all forms of vehicle and foot transportation as we strike that necessary balance of growth and character preservation in the years ahead. 

As a town of nearly 40,000 residents which prides itself on its vibrant small business community and reputation as a regional dining and entertainment destination, these issues have long been of concern. Certainly, one of the features residents value about Montclair is the proximity many of us have to walk or bike from our homes to dining, shopping, entertainment and public transportation. Yet, we don’t have the infrastructure to support us safely doing so and the plan has been met with curious resistance — misperceived as bicycling enthusiasts seeking to reduce vehicle parking.

Nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, encouraging walking and bicycling would reduce the demand for parking in our commercial districts while actually increasing foot traffic for these businesses. Secondly, one of the primary reasons Montclair suffers from such a parking shortage is that too often we wave parking requirements for developments based on misguided underestimations of car use and ownership in Montclair. 

Thirdly, we now must consider how the COVID-19 pandemic has brought renewed urgency to our need to improve the health, safety and accessibility of our streets and open spaces. I believe this crisis has in many ways already shown us the future so many of us want for our town — one that centers on community and camaraderie, made easier by a grid of public spaces conducive to human interaction.

Our town of many commuters has become a town of small offices, and our school children are learning remotely. Perhaps the only silver lining of this enduring crisis is the hope that more people in town during the weekday means more customers for our small businesses — grabbing a morning coffee at a local cafe, popping into that shop to buy someone a gift, lunching outdoors or ordering take-out from our local restaurants. Now and in the post-pandemic future, we should be encouraging people to consider walking or bicycling into town by making it a safe and convenient experience. The benefits to our health and the environment are countless. 

Perhaps most urgently, our shared collective dread at what will likely be challenging, and isolating months ahead reminds us that walking and bicycling provides our community — from our seniors to our youngest children — with one of the few safe opportunities available to us for fitness, recreation and socialization. This past spring, as we emerged from the dark winter of quarantine, the sight of Montclair’s streets joyfully teeming with bicyclists and joggers and strollers allowed us to recapture some sense of normalcy and well-being and replenish our basic human need to connect with the outdoors and each other. At the very least, we must provide our young people a safe alternative for transportation and additional opportunities for physical activity. We have never been more acutely aware of how important our outdoor spaces were to our mental and physical health and quality of life. Some of that may revert back when the pandemic subsides, sure. But much will remain, as it’s who we are by nature.

In closing, I’d like to address some of the falsehoods and outright lies that have been presented as objections to the SAFE Plan: 

 

FALSE: This is a plan to change all of our streets at once and spend millions of dollars
This is only a set of options the town would have in place for the government to consider when the political will, community support and the funding to support improvements existed.  

FALSE: Bike lanes will reduce parking and impede drivers 
Montclair bans and/or restricts on-street parking throughout most of its residential neighborhoods, so no parking would be lost if bike lanes were designated in these areas. Additionally, on low traffic roads, there is no need for bike lanes to be hardscaped in a way that would impede movers, landscapers and delivery trucks. 

Secondly, the sense of space and openness that Montclair’s wide streets and off-street parking provides drivers actually increases traffic hazards. In fact, one effective way to reduce speeding and narrow streets is to actually add more on-street parking. Bloomfield is experimenting with this with reverse back-angled parking. In Montclair, drivers use this space to pass each other on the shoulder and speed with impunity–both of which are dangerous and illegal. Reducing vehicle speed is one of the main objectives of SAFE. The plan would give us best practices for narrowing problem streets by many means– bike lanes, curb extensions, mini traffic circles or lesser known options such as chicanes.

No one is suggesting we eliminate or even reduce parking in our business districts. In fact, we need to make parking easier and more accessible and create space for ride sharing and food delivery services. However, we should also provide people with the opportunity to leave their cars at home. This requires a well-thought out pedestrian strategy, such as making sure crosswalks are safe, beautifying our sidewalks and creating pedestrian plazas. Our street grid and neighborhoods are what makes Montclair special. We want our downtown and our business districts to remain neighborhoods, not become strip malls. 


FALSE: Montclair’s streets are too old to be retrofitted for pedestrian and bike traffic 

Cities much older than Montclair have implemented biking and walking infrastructure to great success. Beverly, MA, Wausau, WI, Carmel, IN, Norwalk, CT, and Crested Butte, CO, despite being older cities in much harsher climates than Montclair and have all been ranked as top small cities for biking and walking. These types of designations create interest in communities, attracting business investment and boosting property values. Montclair’s street grid, localized business districts and relatively flat north-south grade make it an ideal community for pedestrian and biking infrastructure, and we should be reaping the benefits that come with that. 

Implementing the SAFE plan would create a safer, more livable, more attractive and more sustainable community for all Montclairions. It provides solutions to our long-term concerns with traffic, parking, congestion, street safety and accessibility, while also addressing our more urgent needs of quality of life, reviving our local businesses, and public and mental health. We have an opportunity before us to finally amend our master plan in a way that demonstrates how we value safety and mobility in Montclair. I am calling on the Montclair Planning Board to once and for all, adopt the Streets Are For Everyone (SAFE) guidelines into the Township Master Plan. 

 


Peter Yacobellis is Councilor-at-Large for the Township of Montclair. The Planning Board for the Township of Montclair will hold a public hearing on the inclusion of the SAFE plan into the Township Master Plan on Monday, December 14th at 7:30pm. Details for participation will be available here, prior to the meeting. The SAFE plan can be downloaded here.  

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12 COMMENTS

  1. Not many argue with the concept. I support it. However, this document is just wrong for inclusion into the Master Plan. It suffers from serving egos and is way too specific, & more importantly, is misleading through its examples. It should also be a stylistic reminder to the Planning Board and the older public of the first drafts of the Master Plan, c.2013.

    It mostly suffers from an appropriate home. While much more detailed than the Circulation element, they both suffer from a sense of place. They are both like a tick.

    Seriously, fit is an issue because we, as a township, have never addressed the Public Realm land use in a holistic way or document. The Master Plan is really about private property and how it should fit into the town. To limit excesses and detriments. To create and advance a synergistic network of neighborhoods. However, throughout, the public realm is secondary. It is the accouterment private property ownership.

    Include this if you wish and will make all feel better. But, don’t hold it up as anything of consequence. It is not all that and certainly doesn’t come with a bag of chips.

  2. “But, don’t hold it up as anything of consequence. It is not all that and certainly doesn’t come with a bag of chips.”

    Then why do you support it?

  3. I support the implied vision & values that was the impetus for the SAFE Report. The work product is a rudimentary & dated manual for executing bike lanes. The standards & assumptions are ok. But, seriously, using a generic street classification system? A system based on standardized roadways, on width and vehicle traffic? It’s an American Century, Newtown, IBM Selectrics mindset updated by a turn-of-the century laptop contingent with the BikeMontclair ranks. Funny? OK, not. Anyway…

    What is the future? This document doesn’t see it. Doesn’t talk to related trends. Forget 25 years out. How about just a decade out. Zoning? Technology? Housing? Work?

    I saw the proposed amendment after I wrote my earlier comment. My ‘no consequence’ remark applies 100%. The amendment doesn’t say anything. Our bicycle plan needs a home. As do the other non-vehicle conveyances. The home is carving a new element out of the LUCE. A stand-alone Circulation Element.

    And when that happens, maybe this town will come around to look at the Public Realm land use on an equal footing with private land ownership. Then, it will be obvious that the next SAFE plan will look at the R.o.W. and how it is best allocated by sections…also called Form Based Zoning. FYI, that enlightenment is a a decade down the road.

  4. If you are new to Montclair and want a quick trick to see if a roadway is County or Township owned, look for the trees between the sidewalk and the street. The County believes if we want trees, then we can put them on our property. The Public R.o.W. belongs to them.

    And Parkour, look at the South Mountain Ave example. That choice was extraordinary in it lack of awareness. S. Mtn is zone entirely as R-O. Basically, R-O parcels are our biggest single-family lots in town. They are generally so big their driveways are longer than several township streets. They get variances for backyard accessory uses because the law says, that far out of sight, out of mind. Yet, this report classifies S. Mtn. the same as Washington Ave. Same as Walnut Crescent. And these are not exceptions. There is a litany of illustrative head-scratchers.

    It is just unreadable as a document. It is 168 pages. The entire Land Use & Circulation Plan (LUCE) is 179 pages. The Planning Board will double the pages of our LUCE by adding this SAFE Report. And if they don’t, then BikeMontclair is going to say you’re not supporting bikers.

    As I said, not anything of consequence. No movement of the needle. Just appeasement. But the future offers a lot.

  5. Complete Streets Plans are NOT “bicycle plans” but I must give credit where credit is due…those who have been able to frame this plan around being only by a very small special-interest group of bike lane worshippers, coupled with tying every way in which we think about streets and sidewalks to how we move and park cars have been INCREDIBLY successful in obstructing for over a decade…so kudos to that framing and ability to convince the powers-that-be (at least the 9 unelected officials who hold all the decision making power) that this is a “bike plan”. well done.

  6. parkour,

    C’mon, the unelected 9 (the Planning Board) are not known for thinking outside their box. Just look at the watered down 65 Church approval. They only do what the Council tells them to do, e.g. Lackawanna Plaza demo. But, that board aside, this is a bike plan. For streets. It doesn’t care about reconciling pedestrian & bicycle conflicts. I could tick off item after item with this document. It is seriously lacking.

    Look at the Typology template on paper doc pg 13 (PDF pg 17). See the pedestrian box? Down in the lower corner. Expansive. Now go to the Typologies and go to that box on the 2nd page. It’s a bike plan.

    I love the part of the Plan that deals with sharing among pedestrian/bike/open space. The coming Greenway Trail, pedestrian malls, linear parks, alleys and plazas. Right of Ways. Right of Way Reservations. And the recommended ADA/Universal Access standards are great. And pedestrian scale lighting at intersections! Fantastic. Makes me long for the days Montclair had an Engineer on the payroll.

    And the part about leveraging these new multi-mode sharing plans to reduce the amount of impervious surfaces and storm water runoff issues. I see you ran this by the Environmental Commission.

    Alas, this is just a bike plan. And for fun, search the amendment language for the frequency of these key words: shall, should, & may

  7. And look at the design of the new Midtown Parking Deck on Glenridge Ave. It has incorporated bicycle parking for up to 80 bikes. Montclair foresees the increased bicycle use and obviously there can’t be bike lanes on Bloomfield Ave and bikes are prohibited on our Montclair Center sidewalks (for good reason). Hence, like cars, visitors all have to park and walk. Those living there can walk.

  8. parkour,

    Now I feel badly. There is no doubt this amendment is of no consequence. But, any Master Plan amendment should be of consequence. I reread this amendment several times: both the revisions and the surrounding original language. It’s not really worth the time of a hearing. It’s not a policy difference of opinion. It is not just a lack of substance. It lacks a point of view. It is meaningless busywork.

    Now, if you reverse the perspective, maybe there is fruit there. If we start that every Right of Way design is obligated to account for all recognized modes of travel. That reallocation does not justify eliminating a mode, just the proportions. E.g. a parking need can never justify a local of at least 1 sidewalk or a some space for bicycles. And if it is a question of a conflict between s speeding 2-ton car and a pedestrian or bicyclist, the last resort is to eliminate the latter. Multi-Modal Coexistence is a Master Plan starting point & requirement and let the technocrats & developers figure it out. They always do. Forget streets. Forget you cross-sectional typologies. It is form. Not one, but a multitude. Starts with a handful and the process to build 100’s. Lastly, signage, signage, signage! Not post signs. Street surface signage. Lots & lots & lots of paint. You need a marketing system that is so omnipresent, even our visitors from the towns will get it after few times. Not just on the collector streets. As many streets as possible. Skip the very antiquated safe routes, the bicycle network. That idea belongs back in the previous century.

    A ‘We encourage biking’ Montclair logo. Safe Biking doesn’t have boundaries. Yes, we will need a logo that says “Nope, No Bikes”. We all know those segments. But, they are just segments. Not whole stretches of streets.

    This is fundamental design & marketing and execution.

  9. Hopefully, you are now looking, if not thinking outside the box. What is the big limiting element here? In SAFE Streets. In your mindset? What is the obvious bias? Hint: what direction do bicyclists travel? Why is that necessary? Stretch your mind.

    What if curbs were not fixed? Look at all your typologies. Where are the curbs? Do bicyclists rely on curbs? Do pedestrian rely on curbs?
    What if we put bicyclists (and those joggers) on the same level as pedestrians & trees? Not everywhere like I’m sure you are thinking. But, as one solution.

    Frankly, I got the idea from my street – Upper Mountain Ave. It is represented by Hurlock, Schlager, Russo, Yacobellis, and Spiller. We have an explosion of what I call parking patios…in the public right of way. We actually have an ordinance that prohibits from yard parking, but we don’t follow that. We go a step further and concede public property like the Orange Road Parking Deck (that pedestrians and bicyclists could use) to parking & parking patios. Some are quite nice. Very high end. Yes, some also look like Home Depot dumped 10 yards of asphalt and used a hand truck to flatten it. But, the Township is fine with it. Live and let live….in the public RoW. Don’t screw with votes. That is the rule.

  10. You’re right Frank Rubacky. The real Safe Streets hidden agenda is for bike lanes everywhere. Not just pedestrian safety. Whose improvements could be implemented separately for streets and cross-walks.

    This all just appears more of the same from those with a bike-focused mindset that support taller new building transit hubs here as some kind of Amsterdam-small city vision — but not understanding that we instead have 6 rail train stations and are a really still a suburban town — without much mass transportation support behind it.

    That Montclair has a village-like design where people can walk to train stations or commuter buses. Therefore most riding is really recreational. Bike lanes all over as he Plan pushes, will likely not cause a majority of car users to switch to biking for their day to day actions. Therefore this street “equity” idea being pushed in the Plan — as if we were a European small city or even Seattle — just doesn’t hold up.

    Sure…a few more lined bike lanes here would be fine. But not those hard urban type, street set-ups in New York City now. We don’t have the transportation system behind it to kill off cars like New Yorkers can. It’s really not needed.

  11. parkour,

    BikeMontclar would be smart to direct a parallel influence campaign to expand front yard parking in all residential zones. Think about it with the rising property values. First, who uses on-street parking in these zones? And please, say landscapers…because that will give me my laugh of the day. And should the town subsidize parking (with on-street capacity) for private homeowners when many have driveways (& garage space)? OK, so in return for taking away a portion of their public parking subsidy on the street in front of their homes, we graciously allow then to park cars in their own front yards. We already allow it for homes (with garages) to have the front, half-circle drives with two curb cuts. It seems like a little inconsistent to me.

    Anyway, if homeowners can create their own private, always available parking, I would think there would be less hand-wringing over allocating Right of Way space to some bicyclists.

    Lastly, I had to laugh HARD about this SAFE Streets Op-Ed and the accompanying photo of a 7 year old learning to ride on Claremont Avenue. Just down the block from the Council’s Chambers in the background. Just cracked me up. The imagery was perfect.

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