Friday, October 29, 2010

Op-Ed: Is a 3-foot Passing Law the best solution for NJ? - Part Two

Part two of two. Part one can be read here.

So what could be wrong with language requiring a minimum of three feet of clearance when motorists pass cyclists? Many of you might be thinking that it’s better than nothing, which is what we have now. It could be better but it could also make things worse.

First and foremost, three feet is just not enough room to safely pass a cyclist. Think of three feet this way. On my 5’7’ frame, three feet of clearance from my left shoulder while in a riding position is just 12 inches beyond my extended left arm. Another way to visualize three feet is that it’s two inches more than the distance from the center of my chest to my extended arm. That’s very close!

A pass at such close range instinctively elicits a visceral negative reaction not only by myself but also most people whom I ride with. If the pass was done by a vehicle at high speed or by a large vehicle like a bus or a truck, the experience can be downright traumatic. The only way I believe a pass at three feet can be “safe and prudent” as current law dictates, is if it is done while the passing vehicle is traveling at 25mph or less. Besides this one limited circumstance I am not convinced, and doubt that I ever will be, that a meager three feet is a satisfactory distance by which to measure a “safe pass” even if three feet has been standard distance used in laws by a dozen or more states around the country. And with the condition of New Jersey roads being as bad as they are, that three feet of shy distance can quickly disappear as a cyclist swerves to maneuver around a damaged roadway and debris.

Fortunately most drivers have much more common sense when they pass cyclists. The vast majority of the drivers I encounter pass me at a distance that is at least half the width of the travel lane in which I’m traveling. In other words, they move over halfway into the oncoming lane a straddle the centerline. Many others will move over into the other lane entirely. Many will also slow down in addition to moving over.

So why would we want to send out a message to drivers that anything less than half the width of a lane is a safe passing distance? I fear that once the 3-foot message got out that some drivers, who once gave cyclists half a lane width or more, will change their behaviors and pass at closer range. I can’t prove or give documented evidence that this could happen but why even risk the possibility?

I am also not convinced that just pursuing any minimal pass distance law is even a wise political move without first addressing the other oversights in Title 39 that I discussed in Part One of this opinion. As it currently reads, the current bill only addresses a minimum three-foot passing distance. (I understand that bills go through a number of revisions before they are put to a final vote and often initial versions are a primitive, bare bones idea). If only a minimum passing distance is addressed at this time, there might not be another chance to readdress the issue of safely passing cyclists for quite a while. If the cycling community comes back a year or two later saying, “Yeah the three-foot bill was nice but we need to have some other details clarified as well,” it is quite likely that legislators in Trenton might say that you had your ONE chance. Legislators are very busy people and are likely to not have the time to readdress cycling safety issues for some time. Even worse, they might feel that their previous effort in passing the first bill was wasted and might dismiss future concerns entirely!

Fortunately, most of the shortcomings in Title 39 regarding the legal rights and responsibilities of cyclists as they operate on the roadway have already been reviewed by leading New Jersey experts, not once but twice by Bicycle and Pedestrian Office in the Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University. First in a 2002 review of Title 39 by Charles Carmalt who is now leading the development of bicycle amenities for the City of Philadelphia, and second with a multi-year effort by New Jersey Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC). Included in that second review by the BPAC was innovative language calling for overtaking motorists to give cyclists a minimum of half a lane width as they pass. Not only does such language match the everyday best practice already seen by a majority of drivers on New Jersey’s roads but it also is a visually measurable distance that a law enforcement officer, with nothing more than the naked eye, can use to issue summonses to violators.

One of the major issues with a three-foot law is that it is unenforceable unless a driver actually crashes into a cyclist. Since current law already dictates that overtaking must be done “safe and prudent” there is already a law by which offending drivers could be charged with in a crash with a cyclist. The only thing that prevents the current law from being enforced in such crashes is an unfortunate “driver’s bias” sometimes called “the windshield perspective” that exists in our legal system. Also, the only living witnesses in such crashes are the offending drivers themselves who often say, “the cyclist just swerved in front of me.” In light of this, I wonder if even the best crafted law could overcome this inherent bias as it exists today. Just read about the Camile Savoy case if you don’t believe this bias exists.

In closing I would like it to be known that I support the New Jersey Bike and Walk Coalitions efforts to put a legislative agenda together to better the legal protections of cyclists on New Jersey’s roadways. I am also not privy to their latest ideas beyond what is publicly available on the Internet and in their emailings. Still, I have my concerns about the directions they are taking on this matter. I simply write this opinion to express those concerns and to make the general New Jersey cycling public aware of those concerns so that you can make up your own mind.

Be safe, be legal and keep on walking and riding.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

NJ Bike and Walk Coalition has a New Website

The NJ Bike and Walk Coalition (which is not directly affiliated with this blog) has announced a new website

This new website supercedes to reflect the new name and its expanded mission

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Rt 130 in Burlingon County continues to kill pedestrians

Already labeled one of New Jersey's most deadliest roads for pedestrians by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, Route 130 in Burlington County continues to be the sight of many pedestrian crashes including a number of recent fatalities. A Burlington County Times report from October 25th discusses the three latest crashes (two of which were fatalities) that happened on this stretch of roadway just in the past month.

Along theses lines the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia reports about the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission's (DVRPC), recent Road Safety Audit for Routes 130 and 206 in the Burlington County region.

Op-Ed: Is a 3-foot Passing Law the best solution for NJ?

UPDATED - I forgot to make an important point the first time I published this post. I've added it, highlighted in red.

I’ll start out by saying that some sort of law clarifying how motorist should and should not pass cyclist is desperately needed in New Jersey. I agree that a more concrete metric is needed to give motorists and law enforcement a clear understanding of what constitutes the safe overtaking of a cyclist. However, I am still not convinced that simply petitioning for a mere three feet of clearance is all that we should be asking for in a safe passing law, even at this embryonic moment of statewide, independent New Jersey bicycle advocacy. In fact much more needs to be done before we even begin to talk about a minimal safe passing distance.

As is, Title 39 (New Jersey’s vehicle code) is entirely mute about when, where and how motorist can pass cyclist or any other slow moving vehicle like farm equipment. To my amazement I could not find any language specifically allowing motorists to pass a slow moving vehicle, be that a bicycle or farm tractor, in a no passing zone even though it is common practice all over the state. This issue is simply never mentioned AT ALL. As such I wonder if such passing is even technically legal! Never mind details about when motorists are forbidden to pass a cyclists like when a cyclist is taking the lane or when the cyclist is traveling close to, at or even above the speed limit. All that NJ Title 39 asks of motorists is to overtake and pass only when it is “safe and prudent,” be it another motor vehicle or a bicyclist.

So I propose three things that need to be addressed regarding the safe passing of cyclists. They should be addressed in order, and you will notice that the first two having nothing to do with a measurable passing distance.

1 – Clarify that it is actually legal to pass slow moving vehicles and cyclists in no passing zones on two lane roads and when and how that pass should be done.
  • Some drivers have passed me by mere inches (really!) even though it was very clear that the opposing lane was entirely clear of cars. The one time I was able to talk to a driver about why he did this, he told me that it was illegal for him to cross the double yellow line. As I read the law, or lack there of, he could be right.
  • Some simple suggestions at this moment include: when it is clear that there is no oncoming traffic, with good sightlines (not around a blind corner or rise) and only when there is sufficient room for the overtaking vehicle to pass on narrow roadways.
2a – Clarify at what speed is it no longer legal to pass a cyclist when that cyclist is traveling at higher speeds.
  • I think it should be self evident that it is illegal to pass a cyclist in a no passing zone if that cyclist is traveling at or above the posted speed limit, which is easy to do in a downhill situation. However I’ve been passed a number of times in no passing zones while traveling at or slightly above the posted limit. Language that specifically spells out that this is illegal would be helpful even if it were technically redundant.
2b – I suggest that it be illegal to pass a cyclist on two lane roads in a no passing zone if that cyclist is traveling at speeds at or above 25mph and if the cyclist is required to take the lane to safely navigate a stretch of road.
  • Again drivers have passed me numerous times in no passing zones while I was traveling at high speeds but not exceeding the limit. The most egregious example of this happened to me over five years ago (yes I still remember because it was that frightening) when a driver in a large SUV passed me on a twisty mountain descent in Sussex County that never had a good sightline for a pass. I was traveling at 35mph in a 40 zone, all while my bicycle was loaded down with 40 pounds of gear for a multi-day, unsupported tour.
2c – I also suggest that there be stiffer penalties for drivers who harass cyclists while attempting to pass, particularly when cyclists are traveling on narrow roads where passing is not safe or the speed at which the cyclist is traveling makes such a pass unsafe. Some such actions are no longer mere driving infractions but should be viewed as criminal acts when perpetrated against vulnerable users like cyclists.
  • Beyond simply passing in dangerous situations, I’ve also been honked at, tailed by drivers by less than ten feet (in some cases MUCH less) and even threatened verbally and physically (with the bumper of their car, a deadly weapon) all while traveling at speeds above 25mph, while taking the lane and usually at or within a 3mph of the posted speed limit.
3 – Clarify what minimal discrete distance a driver must give a cyclist when overtaking.
  • Only when we’ve clarified when it is legal for an overtaking motorist to actually attempt to pass a cyclist, should we begin to specify by what minimal distance the overtaking driver should give the cyclist.

Unfortunately I also believe that there are a number of flaws in requesting that drivers give cyclists a minimum of 3-feet while passing. Since this entry has already gotten long I’ll conclude my discussion on the 3-foot passing law in part two later this week.

Monday, October 18, 2010

This comes to WalkBikeJersey via Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. They have produced and hosted a number of lectures on cycling and bicycle accommodation over the past several years. This is sure to be another excellent event which I plan to attend.

Cities for Cycling:
Riding in the Innovation Lane

October 28, 2010
6:30–7:00 p.m. - Reception
7–8:30 p.m. - Program

Cosponsored by the City of Philadelphia, the National Association of City Transportation Officials, and the Academy of Natural Sciences.

Presenting an evening that will highlight some of the best bike-friendly innovations from other cities across America, while taking a critical look at how to continue to bring cycling innovations in Philadelphia.


Rina Cutler: Deputy Mayor
Transportation and Utilities
City of Philadelphia
Eric Gilliland: Executive Director
National Association of City Transportation Officials
Jon Orcutt: Director of Policy
New York City Department of Transportation
Robert Burchfield: City Traffic Engineer
City of Portland DOT
Timothy N. Papandreou: Deputy Director
Transportation Planning & Development
San Francisco Metropolitan Planning Agency

To register, visit

View Larger Map of the location of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

Sign the Petition for a Safe Passing Law

The New Jersey Bike and Walk Coalition is sponsoring a petition advocating for the advancement of a 3 foot passing bill that is currently hung up in the State Legislature.

Contact your Assembly person or State Senator HERE. The Senate Bill is S1461 and the Assembly version is A1020. The NJ Bike and Coalition urges you to write letters to the editor of your local newspaper, contact civic organizations and offer to inform their members about this issue.

Go to the Petition.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Public Invited to Help Shape Future of Ramapo Mountains in Bergen County, NJ

JORBA take note! - If you haven't already.

The below message comes from the Bergen County Dept. of Plannng and Economic Development via the NY/NJ Trails Conference.

The Bergen County Dept. of Planning and Economic Development announces the start of a comprehensive planning effort for the Ramapo Mountains of Bergen County. This park planning effort will result in the production of a management plan for this county nature park.

After years of acquiring open space lands in the Ramapo Mountains, the County of Bergen has the opportunity to step back, examine its long-range goals and management issues, and chart a course for ts future.

The public is invited to help shape this management plan by attending a public visioning session on Tuesday, October 19, 2010 from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. at the Township of Mahwah Administration Building, Senior Activity Center, 475 Corporate Drive, Mahwah, New Jersey. The entrance to and parking for the Senior Activity Center is located at the rear of the building.

The visioning session is a community workshop whereby members of the public interact with government officials, project consultants, park users, local businesses, and other interested parties. The session will help planners determine the best course of action to preserve and utilize park resources for this and future generations.

Bergen County began acquiring forested land in the Ramapo Mountains in the late 1980s and acquired one of the last large tracts of land in 2005. Now that most of the acquisition is completed, the County is now focusing on helping ensure that the park's scenic, natural, cultural and recreational qualities are protected and preserved.

Visit the project website, which contains several resource reports as well as a park user survey that you can complete.

Click Here to read a Frequently Asked Questions information sheet on the park and this planning exercise.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

*SOLD OUT* Complete Streets Summit *SOLD OUT*

The Complete Streets Summit scheduled for next week has proven to be a major hit and is entirely booked out! (It can't really be "sold out" since its a free event) I've been told by the good folks at VTC that they have had to turn away many interested parties as they try to see if there is any way they can accommodate more attendees.

While it is unfortunate that there is not enough room for everyone to attend, it is great news to hear that this topic has proven to be so popular with local officials from around New Jersey. All those in attendance are sure to get a great lesson on the topic from Michael Ronkin and the other experts talking at the Summit.

Compiling Questions on Complete Streets and Liability

This question comes directly from Ranjit Walia at the Voorhees Transportation Center via the NJ BikePed Listserve. Send your answers directly to him as I'm sure he could use a number of examples.

Have you ever been told you can't improve your streets by providing more bicycle, pedestrian, traffic calming, or other type facilities because of concerns about liability? This is your chance to help us put together a list that we will be compiling for attorneys who will be working with us on how to address the concerns people have about liability and Complete Streets and debunk misconceptions on the topic. Please send me an e-mail to share your questions and/or examples of liability issues you have confronted. If you could provide the following information it would be appreciated:

What was it you proposed/discussed?
Who told you that it was a liability issue? (attorney, engineer, planner, etc.)
What exactly was the liability they associated with it?

If you have any other questions on liability as it relates to Complete Streets please feel free to submit those as well. Look forward to seeing everyone's responses!

Ranjit Walia AICP
Senior Research Specialist
Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center
33 Livingston Avenue, Rm 446
New Brunswick, NJ 08901
phone: 732-932-6812 xt. 771
fax: 732-932-3714

The latest issue of NJ Walks and Bikes now available

From the good folks at the the Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University with funding provided by NJDOT:

The latest issue of New Jersey Walks and Bikes, a newsletter for anyone
interested in bicycle and pedestrian issues, is now available.

Read the newsletter at:

New Jersey Walks and Bikes will keep you informed about issues, policies,
resources, and case studies dealing with the bicycling and walking
environment in New Jersey.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

NJDOT shows marked progress on Complete Streets

Back in the early part of the summer I felt that I was given no other choice but to question NJDOT’s commitment to its Complete Streets Policy following the release of the preliminary draft proposal for a reconstructed Manahawkin Bay Bridge. The proposal at that time to rebuild the only means of access to Long Beach Island gave pedestrians and cyclists only the bare minimum of facilities. The preliminary plan would have made the crossing something to be endured and not enjoyed and it was clear that this crossing would only be undertaken by only the most desperate of pedestrians and only the boldest cyclists. Fortunately, word has it that bicycle and pedestrian access on this bridge is being reviewed, possibly in part due to the critique of the initial proposal from this very blog.

However the good news doesn’t stop there. WalkBikeJersey has also learned that NJDOT has been hard at work making sure that its designers, engineers and project supervisors fully understand what a Complete Street truly entails. To do so, this past summer they had no other than Michael Ronkin come and speak at NJDOT headquarters, who is by far one of the World’s leading experts on the finer points of Complete Street design. Word has it that there were a number of converts amongst those in attendance and that others took home good lessons as to what they should be striving for in their designs. This is very welcome news indeed and all of us here at WalkBikeJersey are more than happy to hear of NJDOT’s continued commitment to Complete Streets.

As you may already know, NJDOT’s work on Complete Streets doesn’t end there. Next week, NJDOT and its partners at the Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University will once again be hosting Michael Ronkin in a Complete Streets Summit for local municipal and county officials. Just as NJDOT felt that it needed to give its own employees a top-notch education on the topic, it also wants to give local officials the same opportunity to learn about Complete Streets from one of the best. NJDOT is hosting this summit because in the future, local projects seeking state aid will be evaluated for their commitment to the Complete Streets concept. The more complete a proposal is, the more likely it will receive state funding. This tying of state funding to Complete Streets will hopefully have a great impact on how local roadways are redesign since these local streets are where a vast majority of walking and biking already occur in New Jersey.

Bravo NJDOT!

Notes on Complete Streets:

  • A Complete Street is one that well serves the needs of all users, including automobiles, pedestrians and bicyclist, and where applicable transit users and heavy vehicles.
  • Complete Streets demands are context sensitive. What is appropriate to make a rural state highway “Complete” is not the same for where that same highway may enter a town and becomes that town’s long time, traditional Main St.
  • When designing a Complete Street there are a number of questions one should ask. Here are few that I came up with:

- Would you feel comfortable walking along this roadway?

- Would you feel comfortable riding a bicycle along this roadway?

- Would you feel comfortable walking along this roadway with a child in a stroller? Would you feel comfortable riding a bicycle along this roadway with a 10-year-old child?

- If near a school or other area frequented by children, would you feel comfortable allowing a 10-year-old child to walk or ride a bike along this roadway without direct adult supervision?

- Are crosswalks present? If there are attractors (destinations like shops, schools, residences, parks, etc.) on both sides of the roadway are crosswalks conveniently located or would pedestrians and cyclists need to travel a far distance (like 1000 feet) out of their way to the nearest crosswalk?

- Could an elderly grandmother cross the street safely or before pedestrian signal expires?

- Would you feel comfortable or even be able to travel along the roadway in a wheelchair? Would you feel comfortable or even be able to cross the roadway in a wheelchair?

- Would you feel comfortable walking a crosswalk blindfolded? This is essentially what your design will be requiring a blind pedestrian to do.

- Could you find the pedestrian signal button if you were blindfolded? (There are design standards for crosswalk button placement to address the needs on blind pedestrians.)

- Does the traffic signal require pedestrians to press a pedestrian signal button even though pedestrian traffic volume is high, if not constant?

- Could you press the pedestrian signal button if you had arthritic fingers? What about if you had no fingers? (Hint: Could you press it with your elbow or even just your shoulder.)

- If applicable are there safe areas for people to wait for transit service? Is there seating? Is the area sheltered from the weather?

- If there is bicycle parking demand (i.e. this is a downtown area with commercial establishments or other attractors), is bicycle parking provided for within the right-of-way if there is no room elsewhere? Is it properly located? Does the bicycle parking meet modern bicycle parking design standards? Does the bicycle parking provided meet the demand?