The Daily Targum (R.U.'s daily paper) reported yesterday that 52 pedestrians were hit by motorists in New Brunswick so far this year. Having spent way too much of the last 16 years of my life riding a bike and walking around the city, I still found this figure quite high but was not entirely surprised.
I'll theorize a little why this might be.
New Brunswick is rather crowded town with many, many pedestrians. It also has a population of younger people due to the University; some of which may not exhibit the best judgment either while behind the wheel and when walking (Yes, when walking! I've seen too many oblivious college kids walk against the red light while yapping on their cell phones to only wonder why they nearly got hit by a car).
Also it seems the city is doing all that it can to encourage more driving into town which is evidenced by the thousands (yes, thousands) of new parking spaces that have been built in town over the past decade. About 1,000 more are scheduled to be built in the near future as well.
With an increase in the number of cars and pedestrians from the increasing enrollment at the University and new downtown buildings, it might seem that a rise in this figure is all but inevitable. However there is much that the City of New Brunswick can do to remedy this problem.
#1 - More traffic calming: George St. between Albany St. and Livingston Ave is probably the best example of traffic calming in all of New Jersey. The nature of the street in this location makes it very uncomfortable to drive with any real speed (the nasty bumps sure help too). Speed has been proven time and time again to be the primary factor in traffic deaths, particularly with regards to pedestrians. Building more streets that make it very uncomfortable to drive above 15 or 10 mph has been proven in Europe to be the most effective means to reduce pedestrian crashes and has been adopted widely there. It wouldn't surprise me to find out that very few pedestrian crashes have happened on this stretch of George St. due to its current design (even though I nearly got hit just tonight by a driver who clearly drove right through a red light at George and Livingston).
#2 - Re-engineer traffic lights: Several years ago many of the traffic lights in the downtown were re-engineered to require pedestrians to push a button to get a "Walk" signal. Considering that at times more pedestrians are crossing these intersections than motor vehicles, it seems that this was a poor if not absurd decision. Imagine if one needed to get out of their car and push a button to get the light to change! Often times these buttons do not seem to work or if pushed late in the cycle, will require the pedestrian to wait until the light goes green then next time through the cycle. Pedestrians just assume that the damned buttons don't work and never bother with them again. Also these buttons can be difficult if not impossible to find for blind pedestrians (there are quite a few in New Brunswick) which calls into question ADA compliance issues. At George and Albany it is possible for pedestrians to get stranded in the island in the middle of Albany since nobody thought of putting a pedestrian signal activation button there. Finally the pedestrian signal between the train station and the Ferren Deck never seems to work and when it does, the wait for pedestrians is intolerably long so pedestrians just give up waiting, take their lives into their own hands and cross when they can.
#3 - Crack down on illegally parked cars: Who really cares if that car in the 5th ward doesn't have a parking permit! As long as it is not otherwise illegally parked, it is not causing a safety hazard. However, downtown illegally parked cars can be found at nearly every street corner; parked directly in front of stop signs, within 25 feet of the corner and sometimes directly in the crosswalk itself. These illegally parked cars cause a clear hazard not only for pedestrians but other motorists too. Unfortunately, I rarely see these cars ticketed because agents are too busy in the outer wards giving parking permit and expired meter tickets.
#4 - Build bike lanes: The reason for on-street bike lanes is two fold; one to give cyclists a safe place to ride in the street (where they belong) and away from pedestrians on the sidewalk, and two, to act as a traffic calming device to slow down cars. In October the Targum reported that the long (way too long) awaited New Brunswick Bikeway Study is finally near completion. From what I read in the article it seems the city will only approve a bike lane or route if it does not infringe on the movement of motor vehicles at all. Unfortunately this is exactly to wrong approach the city should take. Bike lanes should not purposely obstruct cars but restricting cars to a certain degree does slow them down which is safer for bicyclists and pedestrians alike.
#5 - Close George St. between Albany and Livingston to all but bus and emergency vehicle traffic: It would better to eliminate this traffic as well but that might be too much to ask. Once Rt 18 is completed there will be little reason to cross town on George St. and as the Rt 18 project proved (and many other road and freeway closures around the U.S.) traffic patterns can adapt to to restriction and permanent closer of a through route. Downtown is bustling hub of activity these days, a far cry from the verge of economic collapse it once faced at the end of the 1970's when the current streetscape was built. New Brunswick doesn't need to fear an abandonment of its downtown it once did back then. Downtowns are hot! People now want to be in them and New Brunswick's is one of the hottest. The people that go to the establishments along this stretch of George St already park several blocks away and walk to them. Closing the street to traffic could only be a benefit making it a wonderful place to stroll, dine alfresco and simply enjoy life!
In closing, police can only do so much enforcement and crossing guards can only be posted at a certain number of intersections. While there have been some innovative ideas by the City on these fronts, they can only go so far. The time is right for on-street innovation. Most of the city streets where built or updated under a "move as many cars as efficiently as possible" philosophy. While that may have a place on the freeway it shouldn't be a design practice for city streets. Cities are about people not cars. It's time to relinquish some of the city, its streets in particular, back to the people.