Time to take the Project for Transportation Reform to New Jersey

Dear New Jersey:

It’s time to get angry. Angry about road fatalities.

Recently, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign posted an article on its blog, “2011: A Most Dangerous Year for New Jersey Drivers.” The article shows how unsafe New Jersey roads really are. “There were 13% more fatal motor vehicle crashes and 15.1% more motor vehicle fatalities in 201 than in 2010,” the article states. It’s on roadways claimed as technically safe by transportation engineers that 599 fatal accidents occurred last year. These preventable tragedies call out for different thinking about transportation.

Typically when there’s a death—a fire, choking or drowning ––– we call it a tragedy.  Yet when there are thousands of vehicular-related deaths, we call them “accidents”. But these aren’t accidents; they are fathers, mothers and children, dying in many cases because of ill-planned road designs that are in need of reconfiguring to allow for safer passage of both car and pedestrian. A baseball stadium full of people loses their lives every year in the U.S. because the designs favor the most expedient passage of four wheels at all costs.

The NHTSA reported that, in 2010, 32,885 people died in the U.S. due to traffic fatalities. In 2011, 640 people died in New Jersey alone.  Where’s the outrage?

In the book Fighting Traffic, historian Peter Norton writes how streets used to be public spaces shared by trams, bikes, cars and pedestrians, and morphed into spaces singularly demarcated for cars.  This change to a single-use was not immediately realized or embraced. As the car overtook the street’s traditional role, people started dying in “accidents,” prompting “safety” measures to put into place.  There was ­–– and continues to be –– just one problem.  These safety measures nearly always maintain a focus on the car, not people.  Even our language reflects the predominant focus the car has attained as the owner of the street, for people are treated as “jays,” or a synonym for hayseeds or things out of place in the city. Thus, the term “jaywalking.”

Yet a change is underfoot. People are biking, walking, strolling and skateboarding on streets in record numbers. Cities and states are taking notice.  Look at the transformation of Times Square into a pedestrian pavilion with tables and chairs. Chicago launched a federally funded pedestrian plan in 2011, which included a graphic public safety campaign bringing attention to the perils of pedestrianism. Chicago’s campaign to call out automobile accidents isn’t pretty, but neither is losing a brother, cousin or friend to a preventable death. 

We need to change our approach to road design that makes room for the pedestrian and provides for better, safer outcomes for drivers. Here are a few steps we can take, as offered by the Congress for the New Urbanism, a Chicago-based advocacy organization promoting sustainable, healthy community development: 

  1. Better Networks CNU has released a booklet of Sustainable Street Network Principles aimed at helping places develop human scaled networks. And as University of Connecticut Researcher Norman Garrick has shown,  the denser the network of streets, the fewer fatalities.
  2. Adopt standards that prioritize multi-modal activities on the street. The Institute of Transportation Engineers has come out with a new recommended practice emphasizing that transportation engineers look at street context before speed. Last year, the Texas Department of Transportation adopted it. Research shows that car speeds can be directly correlated to street activity. If drivers see buildings closer to the street, pedestrians moving around, cyclists, or even the activity of parked cars, they will go slower.   This is why cars drive faster in suburban strip mall locations where the buildings are pushed far back after a sea of parking. The design of the public realm tells them to speed up.  The ITE Manual indicates there are better standards out there for use. New Jersey officials should adopt them.
  3. Question the word safety.  For 60 years engineers have designed sidewalks, trees, parking, seats, cars and streets around safety.  But guess what?  They mean auto safety, not human walking or biking safety.   It’s time for pedestrians to take back their rights. After all, every trip begins and ends with walking. New Jersey DOT this is your wake up call. There are new opportunities to take those frightening streets and turn them into valuable, vibrant places. 

New Jersey, it's time to take back your streets.


For more about CNU reforms visit www.cnu.org/transportationreform.