Monday, March 01, 2010

New Jersey Bike Summit First of its Kind: Optimism in the Face of Reality

March 1, 1010
Photos copyright, Jen Benepe
Left: One lone bicycle outside Denville Town Hall

New Jersey had its first Bike Summit on Saturday in Denville, NJ, bringing together bike advocates in what might seem to some like mission impossible--making the state safe and accessible for cyclists and pedestrians.

The all-day event organized by the less-than-one year old New Jersey Bicycle Coalition brought together like-minded state and local advocates for one day to brainstorm how they could make their communities more bikeable and walkable--in short, more likeable.

Large national and regional groups including the League of American Bicyclists, the RBA group, and Bikes Belong also attended, bringing age old wisdom to the presentations--most of it a message of 'this will take longer than you expect, but it's well worth it.'

The summit, the brainchild of NJBC chief Jim Nicholson and organized by NJBC member Brendan Poh, was deemed a success--not just by the number of people who came out on a treasured day off from work, and when New Jersey was still reeling from it's last major snowstorm that dumped more than 20 inches of snow in many locations-- but also by what it achieved in one short day said Nicholson.

Brendan Poh (speaking) and Jim Nicholson (seated) of NJBC

"One of our main objectives was to bring together people from around the state in a common effort getting behind the "Bicycle Friendly" agenda," said Poh. He and Nicholson agreed the first meeting brought together cycling groups for the first time to share ideas, as well as set goals for supporting state legislation that will protect "vulnerable users" on the road, and create standards, means, and strategies for creating "Bicycle Friendly" communities.

The effort is sorely needed: "Bicycle Friendly" New Jersey is more often an oxymoron than not. For one, the snow and cold weather notwithstanding, all but two of the attendees had to drive or take public transportation to the event, an irony that more than one attendee mentioned in their remarks. One lonely bike stood outside the Denville Town Hall when I arrived.

Rhonda Cohen who traveled about 2 hours from Cherry Hill, NJ to the Denville Town Hall described her township as "A highway, a bi-way, and a lot of pot holes." Her group, Sustainable Cherry Hill has been trying to improve cycling access and safety in their area--a tough job she said as she rattled off the major attributes of the topography, two major interstate highways, one connecting route with no space for cyclists and speeding cars, four far flung schools, and several disparate developments.

On top of that the group faces an impenetrable bureaucracy for creating change, because the roads belong to the county, the township, the state and the federal government.

Cohen is not alone: many areas of New Jersey fit the same paradigm, and advocates who embrace the idea of creating new spaces in their localities also often face huge uphill battles.

Even the Mayor of Denville, Ted Hussa who donated the space for the conference has encountered some stumbling blocks when seeking state aid to improve Route 53 for cyclists--the road that passed right outside the window of the conference. Denville had been turned down for state aid--"I am sorry, to mention it," he said, turning to DOT Bicycle and Pedestrian chief Sheree Davis who stood at the dais behind him.

"The single impediment to getting on a bike is fear," continued Hussa, which means that communities need to make a real effort to create trails or spaces on the road that make riding safe. As the ultimate optimist--- a trait that any New Jersey cycling advocate has to have if they are trying to make their communities "Bicycle Friendly"---Hussa will try again for that grant.

Chowing down between meetings

The state faces some real obstacles. A car culture dominates, and it shows in the accident fatality numbers. The year 2008 was the worst year for cyclists as the number of people on two wheels killed by car drivers more than doubled from the previous year to 21. In 2009 pedestrian deaths in New Jersey went up by 14 percent, from 136 to 155, according to Sgt. First Class Stephen Jones of the New Jersey State Police's Public Information Office. Meanwhile traffic deaths of people in cars, --went down by 8 percent, a trend that reflects better protections for people inside cars, like airbags, and better car technology.

In the past snowstorm, four crossing guards were struck by cars--one of them killed. In some ways you could describe drivers as non-compliant savages because even in a snowstorm, they'll gun around the very people who are trying to protect their children crossing the street.

That culture is no less embedded among police enforcement. After the fatal accident of Bent Rasmussen in Sparta, NJ last year, an officer assigned to duty Rasmussen's funeral said the cyclist was at fault when a passing school van passed him too closely, striking him with its mirror and then running him over.

Davis, who is herself an avid cyclist, said the current acting commissioner at the Department of Transportation is a big supporter of cyclists which might help speed along some of the initiatives, such as their Complete Streets standing, a competitive state-by-state ranking by the national organization that measures whether states are designing their roads to be safe for all users, not just cars and trucks.

"Last year Delaware got into 9th place," kicking New Jersey into 10th, said Davis. "I didn't settle for that," she said. This year she hopes to help New Jersey get into the top tier of the rankings.

Her department is gearing up significant measures to make New Jersey a better Complete Street state. That includes backing a "Vulnerable Users" bill being brought to the Assembly by Rep. Grace Spencer (D-29th District), developing a statewide bike map which she says should be completed in about 10 months, backing a Stop and Stay Stopped law, further developing Bikeschool, which helps teach kids how to ride to school, and improving the department's assistance to local communities to develop more bike friendly roads.  But working on improving enforcement "is probably the toughest for New Jersey," added Davis. "Our goal is to see zero crashes and zero fatalities," she added.

Spencer, who also spoke at the summit and is a member of the Major Taylor bike club of New York and New Jersey, was at mile 70 of a 120-mile ride in 2007 when she was struck by a driver. Technically she struck the car, but the accident was the fault of the driver who sped up intentionally to pass her and then turn in front of her--an accident that landed her in the hospital for the day with a major concussion. The hit and run driver stood by in the parking lot watching Spencer being loaded into the ambulance and pretending he was a bystander.

Rep Spencer with Kyle Weiswall of Tri State Transportation Campaign and Paige Hiemier
Vice-President of NJBC

"In Newark, to say it is a jungle is not an understatement," said Spencer who in addition to sponsoring the Vulnerable Users bill will also be working to add bicycle-specific questions to the statewide test for drivers at the Motor Vehicle Commission. Currently, there are no questions or even instructions on how to drive around cyclists, she said.

Still there are some bright spots. Among the attendees was Anne Kruimer who was hit by a car more than 18 years ago while riding her bike--and was paralyzed from the waist down. She and her husband Mike had a tandem made for them that she sits in front of and pedals with her arms. They were at the summit promoting the East Coast Greenway which they rode--all 3,000 miles of it--from Maine to Key West in 53 days. They have already installed 5 kiosks along the greenway, and more than 30 percent of it is off road, said Mr. Kruimer.

And Zoe Baldwin, who heads the New Jersey arm of Tri State Transportation Campaign said that the inclusion of construction workers and crossing guards in the earlier version of the safe passing law have created a bill that may pass in the car culture dominant State Assembly.

There was much talk about two TIGER grants awarded to Philadelphia and Camden, NJ in the amounts of $17M and $6M respectively. Those grants will be earmarked for bicycle friendly changes. The TIGER Grant will pay for bike lanes, sidewalk improvements and sharrows on certain Camden streets to connect with the Ben Franklin Bridge the Camden Waterfront and the Camden County Trail Network. The Delaware River Port Authority will be building a ramp for the Ben Franklin Bridge walkway--which connects Philadelphia to New Jersey-- as part of their Capital Program in 2012.

Add to that the young people that are finding their way into cycling advocacy like 15-year-old John Lee and his friend 16-year-old Jake Rosa who are working to convert a 7.5 mile stretch of old Boonton railway to a cycling trail. They aren't deterred by the spur's owner, Norfolk Southern who stopped using the spur 11 years ago but refuses to sell or lease the land for conversion. Their group, the Montclair NJ Rail to Trail effort had already garnered support from the townships of GlenRidge, Bloomfield, and Montclair. They hoped to get more support from advocates at the bike summit.

"Copenhagen wasn't always a cycling paradise," said LAB president Andy Clarke in his remarks to the group. They too used to have parked cars everywhere, rising crashes, and impossible traffic in the 1960's. "You are the people that are going to make this happen in New Jersey."

Among those ever cheerful optimists in the audience who will definitely be leading the charge were Marty Epstein of Marty's Reliable Bike Store who helped sponsor the event, and Laura Torchio, who donned her "Bike Friendly Fairy" outfit, ready to transform your community instantly into what it really needs to be---bikeable.

Said NJBC president and Nicholson, "There was widespread agreement on a safe passing/vulnerable user law, and for bringing Complete Streets down to the local level." If New Jerseyites can achieve those two objectives in 2010, they'll be batting 1,000.

Attendees were sent home with homework said Poh: "That included such things as identifying  opportunities in their own communities to bring them toward "Bicycle Friendliness," recruiting other people to join the Coalition, and contacting their representatives in the State house to support a safe passing law."

NJBC's next big event will be hosting the "Winning Campaigns" seminar presented by the Alliance For Biking and Walking, coming up in June. Nicholson says they are also looking for people in parts of New Jersey who are willing to hold informal meetings in their homes or businesses to continue local discussions. You can contact Jim at jimnichlci@njbike.org, and you can join NJBC for as little as $15 for a "steel" membership, $60 for "titanium", and $100 for bike shops. Compared to the cost of a bicycle (or car), that's a real deal!

1 comment:

Richard said...

Last year I lost a friend to a horrible bicycling accident when he was killed.
Had he signaled properly this accident may never have occurred.

Why turning signals are not a requirement for all bikes, I'll never understand.
I purchased mine at safetybikesignals.com