Tuesday, March 01, 2011

NJ Bike-Walk Summit Inspires, Highlights Challenges

Prof. Pucher shows highest fatality and injury rates for US cyclists and pedestrians
"Women are an indicator species" Prof. John Pucher, Rutgers University

The second New Jersey summit of its kind for cycling and walking lovers, advocates, and other folks was held this past Saturday.

Pulled together by the New Jersey Bike Walk Coalition had two clear messages: whatever we can do to improve cycling and walking conditions is necessary, but getting it done will take a lot of work.

It's no surprise to most bike-ped advocates in New Jersey, or in the U.S. for that matter, that changing conditions for cyclist and pedestrians is difficult.  John Pucher made that point loud and clear in his keynote address held over wraps and vegetable chips at the historicTrenton, New Jersey Masonic Lodge.

Prof. Pucher shows outrageous conditions for pedestrians on local bridge
A professor in urban planning and policy development at Rutgers University, Pucher's provocative address demonstrated how other countries like Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands are far ahead of the U.S. in providing safe cycling and pedestrian access. His charts on health, safety and obesity gave an indication that compared to those three countries,  the U.S. is a sad and distant cousin.

What's more, Pucher noted that "women are especially sensitive to safety, more than men," which helps explain why cycling is the U.S. is dominated by young males. "Women are an indicator species: if you don't see a lot of women cycling, then you are not doing the right thing."

Dr. Cheryl Allen Munley brought an e-bike to demo
One reason women don't ride here as much as they could, it's not safe said Pucher. Fatality and injury rates are much higher in the United States.  Conversely, in Denmark, 55% of all bike trips are made by women.

"It's a matter of social justice: we need to make it safer and more convenient for any New Jerseyan," to ride or walk, he said noting that in those European cities, neither "age, sex, skill level or dollars" prevent anyone from getting on a bicycle.  What's more, those countries give independence to the elderly, where over half of the trips by those 65 and over are by walking or cycling.

"Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands weren't always so safe," Pucher said. In the 1950's and 1960's there was a sizable decline in cycling because of the growth of the automobile. But since those countries adopted a purposeful policy to decrease their reliance on the almighty car and improve bike/ walk facilities,  "there has been an 80 percent decrease in cycling fatalities," he noted.

What's more, the experience of those cities show that "as levels of cycling increases, injury and fatality rates per trip and per kilometer travel fall dramatically." Conversely, injuries and fatalities in the U.S. are much higher per bike trip taken, he noted.

A flyer from the Morris Area Freewheelers
But as he spoke, Pucher interjected comments regaling the lack of safety even in his own town of New Brunswick. Pucher does not own a car and gets around by bicycle, walking and public transportation he said proudly, drawing a round of applause from the audience. But he does so often at his own peril, he noted, citing multiple intersections and areas where motorists don't even stop when he is in the crosswalk, a fault due partly to poor design and partly to lack of sufficient law enforcement.

Pucher also pointed out the "best pedestrian crossing in New Brunswick," where flashing lights embedded in the sidewalk, cross hatching, and a raised area demarcating the crossing made it obvious that cars had to stop. "Twenty percent of cars went through anyway," he said, "but WOW, if we could get more crosswalks like that, I would be very, very happy."

Inspiration Comes from the Heart

Peter Bilton, previously a member of the Alan M. Voorhees transportation center at Rutger's and now a principal at the Civic Eye Collaborative, opened the summit with a message that the key to increasing cycling is "happiness": making people happy will bring them out on their bikes.

Rich Averill discussing Collingswood Bike Share
The layered complexity of that statement became more obvious as the summit's speakers delivered their addresses. First off was Rich Everill who started off a "library method" bike share program in Collingswood, NJ.  Because the town is only two square miles, the program has one central location, and is open two days a week.

With 200 bikes donated from people's unused or outworn bicycles, the program charges users only $25 a year to use the brightly-green painted bikes. "The program injected 200 bikes into the community that would otherwise be sitting in a garage," said Everill.  It also brought people of different backgrounds together, and allowed some who did not own a car or without access to bike shops (there are none in Collingswood itself), to ride bikes. Nearby bike shops were also asked to help repair the bicycles at a cost, but children in the neighborhood were inspired to come in and learn bike repair, said Everill.

A rider from the 2009 Morristown Halloween Ride
Kendra Arnold of Morristown Critical Mass and or Morristown Bike Ride charmed the crowd with her stories about a critical mass bike ride which she started in 2007, and evolved to a 3.54-mile monthly bike ride for all to come and join.

The first rides went off despite then Mayor Donald Cresitelo's objections to putting bike lanes in Morristown. "He called it "the stupidest thing he had ever heard," said Arnold, "because men in their thousand dollar suits  and women who did not want to mess up their hair, would not want to ride to work."

(In 2010, the former Morristown mayor was ordered to pay an $11,375 fine for alleged campaign finance violations during his 2005 mayoral run, according to the Election Law Enforcement Commission.)

That was in 2007, and the monthly ride has been a tremendous success since then, attracting on average 200 riders, and enjoying free police entourages for safety. It might be enough to provoke jealousy from cyclists taking place in critical mass events in New York where they are going through a period of harassment from police. "We keep going through red lights after the green and the police don't seem to mind," said Arnold.

The ride uses themes to attract non-cyclists, like the Zombie ride: "Maybe they don't want to ride but they do want to be a zombie," said Arnold to laughter.  In 2008, even a police chief and several council members ignored the mayor's negative pronouncement by showing up regularly, and soon the ride became a safe place for children to ride around town said Arnold.

The ride also features after-parties, a vegan food truck, chalk-out contests, bike-in movies, and is a regular location for politicians to show up and hand out buttons and tee shirts for their campaigns. Needless to say the new mayor of Morristown, Timothy Dougherty likes the ride, said Arnold.  Marty's Reliable Cycle Shop has been a strong supporter of the event, and hosts several Youtube videos of the event on their site.

Laura Torchio discusses BikeWalk Montclair
Laura Torchio spoke about the Bike and Walk program in Montclair, NJ, an area that is surrounded by highways and byways and indeed to the outside observer, seems impenetrable to the average cyclist. Their goal is to "advocate, educate and encourage," and in the last festival over 1,000 people attended said Torchio.

The program appears to gain much of its success from the imaginative use that the non-profit 501 (c) organization puts to use, like a Crossing Guard Appreciation Day, when crossing guards are given "flowers, coffee, and hugs," a Fourth of July parade using bikes, on foot and stilts, a Critical Manner, Courteous Mass on each Friday of the month, Bike to Work days, a Tour de Montclair on May 15th, and the moniker, "Bikes and Feet on Every Street."

BikeWalk Montclair also enjoys the blessing of their town council, and for the first time the council has applied for Complete Streets status from the New Jersey department of transportation. "This was the carrot that allowed us to go for the gold," said Torchio.

Kendra Arnold
Complete Streets is a designation by the NJ DOT that a town or locality provides "safe access for all users by designing and operating a comprehensive, integrated, connected multi‐modal network of transportation options."

But as Ms. Arnold noted at the question and answer section of her presentation, New Jersey towns are very competitive, and once one town has applied for Complete Streets, others will follow. "I want to win," quipped Arnold.

Later this week: presentations by Sharon Roerty, National Center for Biking and Walking; Leigh Ann Von Hagen, Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center; Jeff Peel, League of American Bicyclists; Sheree Davis, New Jersey Dept. of Transportation; Elizabeth Thompson, North Jersey Planning Authority;  and Summit Wrap up with Mike Dannemiller, RBA Group.


BobP said...

I wish I could have made it.

John said...

Great article and a great Bike Summit. Thank you so much for covering it. As the project director of the Rutherford Bike Ring in the Meadowlands area of Bergen Cty I learned so much and made so many good contacts. This Summit will make a big difference in how I approach my project.