Sunday, October 27, 2013

Op-Ed: No joy in "Mudville" over Montclair and Princeton gaining BFC status.

Can towns without bike lanes really be bicycle friendly? 

The below opinion reflects that only of the author and is not that of others that contribute to WalkBikeJersey. 

By Andrew J. Besold

In years past I've been absolutely ecstatic when some of the first New Jersey towns gained Bicycle Friendly Community (BFC) status.  Previous awardies, West Windsor, Hoboken and Ocean City had all made very tangible bicycle safety improvements to their communities often being the first to to bring well design conventional bike lanes, sharrows and bicycle boulevards to New Jersey.

However when I read that the League of American Bicyclists awarded Bronze Level BFC the other week to both New Jersey candidates, Montclair and Princeton (Borough and/or Township??), I nearly coughed up my morning tea.  While these towns are intrinsically easy to bike around, due primarily to their Pre-War modified grid layout and denser suburban form that they were lucky to inherit, last I checked neither town had a bike lane and in both, proper bicycle parking (that actually meets APBP Bicycle Parking Guidelines, a BFC prerequisite) was in limited supply.  I take no joy in saying this but the awarding of BFC status to both of these towns, rings very hollow to me.

Yes, both towns have active bicycle and pedestrian advocacy groups that have made significant inroads within there local governments.  Bike&Walk Montclair in particular is a standout local advocacy group in New Jersey.  And Montclair made state and national news with its first in New Jersey, Complete Streets Policy.  However Montclair Town Hall has been blocked repeatedly in the past by an obstinate county government that will not allow the town to install bike lanes or traffic calming measures on the main roadways that traverse and bisect their community that are under county control.  While this is no fault of Montclair, and accolades need to lauded upon them for trying, the end result has been that properly engineered bike lanes were never installed in Montclair where they are needed most and would provide the maximum benefit.

Princeton Borough is also notable in that it was the first community in New Jersey to install well designed European / West Coast style traffic calming measures and with its use of conventional Sharrows (Ocean City had previously used its own Sharrow design on its Haven Avenue bicycle boulevard).  The traffic calming, while VERY innovative by New Jersey standards, is mostly in one residential neighborhood at the edge of town. However, the sharrows were not at all well thought out and in some places, like Nassau Street (NJ 27), they were improperly installed by being painted in parking stalls (it is not known whether this problem was corrected even though an official from NJDOT said the improper position of the Sharrows would be corrected).  The harsh reality regarding Princeton's sharrows is that where installed, most cyclists still ride on the sidewalk!  At total fail in my opinion that is doing little to encourage proper cycling in Princeton.

Is innovative traffic calming alone enough for a BFC designation? 

By comparison, the City of Philadelphia which has very well design bicycle lanes over most of the city, as much as 200 miles worth by 2007, finally received Bronze BFC Status in 2008 after years of  receiving only "Honorable Mentions."  Like both Montclair and Princeton, Philadelphia too has a grid street network that can aid those wishing to bike around the City.  However it seemed back then that the League of American Bicyclists really wanted to make sure that Philadelphia earned that Bronze BFC Status.  Only in 2012 did Philadelphia move up to Silver Status even though Philly has the highest bicycle commuter mode share out of any large American city.

So the question remains.  Should the League of American Bicyclists have award these communities BFA status even at the modest Bronze level when on the face of these towns, very little infrastructure has been built to aid and encourage cycling?  Would a stranger on a bicycle feel like they are in a community where bicycling is really encouraged?  Do Princeton and Montclair match up to BFCs that earned their Bronze status years ago or even ones that have such status out in the West, where usable, well engineered on-street bicycle amenities, like bike lanes, are commonplace?  Unfortunately, the answer is a big "NO" to all three of these questions.  And unfortunately the awarding of BFC status to these two communities by the League of American Bicyclists does nothing to promote cycling in New Jersey or in the Nation as a whole.

No Bike Infrastructure =  No BFC Status.  Period!  And The League if American Bicyclists should know better.


SFB said...

Hi Andrew,
Great question. I live in Princeton and have sat in on the PBAC meetings where local bike advocates worked hard to get the bronze certification. Was it worth it?

Many of us in town were amazed/too busy laughing when we heard Princeton was getting bronze bike friendly status. Commitment to cycling here is very weak. There is a risk that politicians will use the bronze certification as 'proof' that they have taken steps to make Princeton more bike-friendly, whereas in fact they have often done the minimum (i.e. badly painted sharrows).

There is another way to look at this- that it's the first step, and an 'encouragement' for towns to take cycling seriously. Princeton's bike friendly designation was also awarded subject to several requirements (increasing bike parking is one). If we don't achieve these requirements, we will lose our certification. That might focus a few minds. If the bronze award is the start of something, and not 'mission accomplished', then it's a good thing.

Please check back in a few years and check out our local bike-walk advocacy groups at:
Princeton Bike Pedestrian Advisory Group:
Walkable Princeton:
and 'Bike Princeton' on Facebook!

Andrew J. Besold said...


Thanks for the frank and telling response. I applaud your personal efforts and that of your PBAC couleages in Princeton but your response to Princeton's award doesn't speak much of the LAB.

My writing that op-ed was also in response to the risk you mention, that politicians will think they are doing enough when they aren't. I simply don't like that LAB is changing their requirements even if its an effort to get towns hooked on BFC status which they can only keep if they do more in the future. Sounds like grade inflation to me!

I like the Walkable Princeton Blog! I will add it to our blog role!!!

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