The League of American Bicyclists recently awarded Princeton ‘Bronze Bike-Friendly Community‘ status. Princeton is now one of just 5 municipalities in New Jersey to receive this award (West Windsor is another). Mayor Lempert thanked the Princeton Pedestrian and Bicyclist Committee for putting together the application, and specifically mentioned the painting of ‘sharrows‘ on local streets as a demonstration of Princeton’s commitment to improving cycling facilities. However, not everybody is convinced that Princeton did enough to merit the award.
Over at the ‘Bike Princeton‘ Facebook group, questions are being asked about whether we even have enough of a basic facility like bike racks for people to lock bikes to (see photo above). Meanwhile, at the WalkBikeJersey Blog, a Jersey cycling advocate objected in vociferous terms to the League of American Bicyclist’s decision to make Princeton a ‘Bike-Friendly Community’. We caught up with Andrew Besold to ask him what the problem is…
Walkable Princeton: Andrew, you’re a dedicated cyclist, a professional bicycle-pedestrian planner and a League of American Bicyclists Cycling Instructor. Why are you upset about Princeton being awarded ‘Bike-Friendly Status’?
Andrew Besold: To me, a Bicycle Friendly Community (BFC) should instinctively feel bike friendly. There should be well used and well designed bicycle lanes on the streets and bicycle usage should be relatively commonplace, more so than places that are not BFCs. While Princeton has some elements of a BFC it doesn’t breach the threshold of bicycle friendliness in my opinion. I doubt anyone visiting Princeton for the first time would think that they are in a special and safe place to ride their bikes.
WP: The Mayor of Princeton described our ‘sharrows’ as ‘a major accomplishment’. You described them as “a total fail that is doing little to encourage proper cycling in Princeton”. What’s the problem with the sharrows?
AB: – I will give Princeton credit for likely being the first community in New Jersey to use sharrows (Hoboken or Ocean City may have been first). They can be a useful tool when used in the proper scenario. However their use in Princeton is far from ideal. I know that many of Princeton’s main streets are narrow leaving very little room for dedicated bike lanes without removing well used on-street parking. I also understand that removing on-street parking is a political “third rail” in most towns. This problem makes sharrows seem like an attractive and easy option but all too often they are used as a cop-out (See: Sharrows are not a bike plan). Unfortunately traffic on most of the streets where the sharrows were installed is very busy, too busy for all but the most courageous cyclists to control the traffic lanes as the sharrow placement would want cyclists to do. The end result is that most cyclists I see in Princeton ride on the sidewalk where sharrows have been installed. I think by any objective observation that’s a “total fail.”
Also, the last time I was in town, the Sharrows on Nassau Street were not positioned according to accepted design standards. Many were painted way too close to the parked cars and some where even painted halfway in the parking stalls. They were totally unusable, dangerous even! I really hope this has been corrected as the sharrow placement elsewhere in Princeton was at least done in perfect compliance with the standards.
WP: What in your mind should Princeton be doing before it can be considered a true ‘bike-friendly’ community’? Many people say our streets are too narrow for bike lanes.
AB: – Show me the bike lanes! People everywhere are always saying that “our streets are too narrow for bike lanes.” Yes, that might be true in some places in Princeton but not everywhere. Some of the streets where sharrows were installed could have easily accommodated bike lanes. Harrison Street east of Nassau is pretty wide and only has parking on one block and even that is lightly used. Sharrows should have never even been considered here and a bike lane could have likely been installed on both sides of the street. West of Nassau, here too Harrison was wide enough in most places. And in front of the Princeton Shopping Center?? “Forgetaboutit!” The road is so wide you could land a small jet plane if the median wasn’t there. And the sharrows just about disappear in front of the shopping center, where bicyclists need the most guidance to navigate merging traffic.
Even Nassau could have bike lanes installed on it between Witherspoon and Washington! And with clever tweaking maybe even a few more blocks further south. Other wide streets come to mind too such as Washington and Alexander, both of which are prime candidates for bike lanes. Oh, and I don’t want to hear any excuses like, “those are county roads.” Work with the county and get the bike lanes installed. This is what a bicycle friendly community gets done! Those roads are still critical bicycle routes for locals.
Some of the other places where sharrows were installed its going to be trickier. Wiggins is fairly narrow and a bike lane solution there would likely require the removal of parking. Looking from a distance, I don’t know how well that could work or if there are alternative locations to put displaced parking. However, I do have an idea for Witherspoon. Simply reverse the one-way direction of John Street one block over so that uphill traveling cyclists can slowly make their way peacefully up John, while downhill cyclists can just coast quickly down Witherspoon in the traffic lane on top of the sharrows.
Elsewhere, due to the narrowness of the main streets, alternate bike routes will need to be placed on quiet residential streets. This can work but only if the routes are well marked with clear, standardized wayfinding signage.
I know its going to be hard in some places but a town that is dedicated to bicycle friendliness will have to make hard choices to properly accommodate bicycles. That’s what makes a true bicycle friendly community.
WP: Don’t you worry that your comments are a slap in the face of people who are working hard to improve cycling conditions?
AB: I applaud all those local folks who are working hard to make bicycling safer in their communities. If you take a close look at my opinion on WalkBikeJersey, I praise the hard work of advocates and municipal workers trying hard to make their communities better places to walk and bike. However, if you simply don’t make the cut, you simply don’t make the cut. It’s nothing personal. My beef here is squarely with the League of American Bicyclists, which I am a member. You could also turn your question around and say that giving this award to Princeton is a slap in the face to people in other communities that had to do a lot more to earn their BFC status and I know some of those people aren’t happy about this. Simply applying for BFC status shouldn’t mean that you get it.
WP: Becoming a ‘Bronze Bike-Friendly Community’ could be seen as an encouragement for Princeton to do better. And the process of applying for the status involved a valuable stock-check of existing municipal bike infrastructure. Was it a good encouragement from the League of American Bicyclists to give Princeton ‘bike-friendly status’, or does it devalue the entire program?
AB: I hate to say this but I think the awards to Princeton and Montclair DO devalue the program. The League of American Bicyclists used to give out “Honorable Mentions” to applicants like Princeton. I simply don’t think that the League should have awarded Princeton (and Montclair) bike-friendly 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. By comparison Philadelphia had nearly 200 miles of well designed bike lanes throughout the city before they were awarded a Bronze level BFC in 2007. Philly had to work hard to earn their award.
I also want your readers to know that I took absolutely no pleasure in writing that opinion in WalkBikeJersey but I feel it needed to be said. These awards really smack of “grade inflation.”
WP: And what about you? What are you doing to help build bike infrastructure in New Jersey?
AB: Right now, I’m actually working in Idaho, where there is much greater momentum for building bicycle improvements. In some of the towns out here, so many people make biking a part of their daily lives that it’s a political issue. The mayor of Boise rides his bike to work and made sure people knew about that during his campaign. Since I’ve been here issues relating to bicycling and bicycle safety have constantly been on the front page of the Idaho Statesman, Idaho’s paper of record, almost every week it seems. And the reporting is VERY sympathetic to issues cyclists face, absolutely no victim blaming. New Jersey still has a very long way until cycling issues are as prominent in the public consciousness as they are out here in Idaho and make the headlines in such a positive manner. Cycling awareness and urban infrastructure in the West overall is just so much further along than it is in New Jersey. There is just no comparison.
As for Jersey, I’m from and absolutely love New Jersey. I will continue to write for WalkBikeJersey and I still act as an advisor to some the local and state wide advocacy groups in New Jersey. A year ago I lead a campaign that successfully restored bicycle access to NJ TRANSIT low-level train stations. Bikes and transit is a passion and a speciality of mine. My masters degree report when at Rutgers was on how NJ TRANSIT could improve bicycle access to all of it’s world-class services. Unfortunately I doubt many people at NJ TRANSIT ever even looked at it, but I know other transit agencies have.
Ultimately I would like nothing more than to come back home and help plan and design infrastructure in the Garden State. Unfortunately, I just don’t see the same level of opportunity in my profession back in Jersey as I do out West. That is such a shame too because New Jersey has so much potential to be the best state in the nation for cycling. We have many older “Main Street USA” communities like Princeton that could be VERY easy to retrofit for bicycling if only there was REAL political will. Also, northwestern New Jersey is a world class road cycling paradise which happens to start just outside Princeton. And NJ TRANSIT could be such an asset to cycling and cycling a major asset to NJ Transit, even if they don’t quite seem to realize it in the board room at One Penn Plaza. There is just so much potential for cycling in New Jersey and it just continues to be squandered. Such a shame. It’s also a shame that so many people with my talents who are either from or studied in New Jersey need to take their talents in this profession out of state. Things are changing for the better for cycling in New Jersey but it’s painfully slow.
Is Princeton a bike-friendly community as far as you’re concerned? Do you agree with any of Andrew’s criticisms? What else should we be doing to promote cycling? Should we install bike lanes? If so, where? Have your say in the comments below!