Princeton’s engineers held a public meeting last week to discuss planned upgrades to sanitary sewers and storm drains on Valley Road. As Princeton’s ‘Complete Streets’ policy calls for roads to be designed with all users in mind, the engineers also discussed opportunities for making the street layout friendlier to pedestrians and cyclists. Neighbors were invited to make suggestions on the kinds of improvements they would like to see.
The existing roadway has one wide lane in each direction for car traffic. On the south side of the road, on-street parking is permitted. A concrete sidewalk runs the length of Valley Road on the south side, and along portions of the north side. The proposed improvements will complete a path on the north side of Valley Road, which will be a great amenity for pedestrians. However, for cyclists, the proposed Complete Streets solutions raise several issues. The first option presented envisages 6-fit ‘multi-use sidepaths’ on either side of the street:
Shared-use sidepaths are found in many parts of the former Township, where they are intended to provide an option for cyclists. Where few pedestrians and driveways are present, or the road is particularly hazardous, they can be a good facility. In an area like Valley Road, however, a sidepath is problematic. First, cyclists are at risk from collisions at every driveway. Second, cyclists on a sidepath must, by law, dismount at every cross street, and walk their bike across. On Valley Road, there are five cross-streets between Witherspoon Street and North Harrison. That means a cyclist would have to get off their bike and walk it five times while riding a distance of just over half a mile. This is hardly a first-rate facility for a town that aims to incentivize bike use.
The third problem with these shared-use paths is that they are just too narrow. The FHWA is very clear: multi-use sidepaths should be 10-ft wide, or an absolute minimum of 8-ft. Building a 6-ft sidepath brings cyclists into conflict with other path users such as pedestrians and dog walkers. We know this from experience in Princeton and it’s a big problem. The issue is a simple case of bad design. If we build paths that don’t meet standard widths, it is no surprise that problems arise. Princeton’s Complete Streets policy specifically calls for best practice to be followed, so we shouldn’t be building any more 6-ft paths
Cyclists over the age of about 8 should really be using the road, which is entirely possible with a safe on-road facility. Cycling in the road is more predictable for other car drivers, and gives cyclists the same priority as other traffic at intersections. The state-of-the-art is a separated bike lane, or cycletrack that is separated by some physical means from car traffic. This is known to be the safest kind of facility, and the one that is most likely to encourage cycling. But instead of that, Princeton is being offered more painted bike arrows (‘sharrows‘). Sharrows are not intrinsically bad, but to safely pass a cyclist riding along a line of sharrows on Valley Road, a car driver would have to cross close to or over the center line. This encourages close passing, creating a risk of sideswipe collisions, and making cycling an unpleasant and dangerous experience.
To be fair to the engineers, Valley Road presents several constraints that make it hard to add physically-separated bike lanes in both directions. The roadway is relatively narrow, and lined with attractive, mature trees that make widening very controversial. One possibility, which was discussed at the neighborhood meeting, is to install an 8-ft multi-use sidepath on the south side of Valley Road. This forms the basis of option #2:
A wider sidepath has several advantages. Most notably, it is safer because there would be fewer conflicts between pedestrians and cyclists, and more space for drivers to see cyclists when exiting driveways. A few homeowners at the neighborhood meeting expressed concerns about the 8-ft sidepath option. Some thought it would be ugly, and others were not happy that it would require using a few feet of municipal right-of-way that people have ‘adopted’ as part of their front yards. These are real concerns, but it’s worth pointing out that a study from the University of Delaware found that proximity to bike trails typically has a positive effect on home values. The town also contracts to remove ice and snow on sidepaths, so homeowners next to the sidepath would get to skip that onerous winter task.
Several of the homeowners were also angry about the plan to close Terhune Road between Witherspoon Street and Route 206 to accommodate a new ambulance station. This plan has been in the works for some time, but has not been the subject of any neighborhood consultation. A new traffic signal at Valley Road and Route 206 will control the flow of vehicles, which will no longer be able to access Route 206 from Terhune. Several residents at the neighborhood meeting complained that this proposal risks increasing the amount of traffic using Valley Road:
Other neighbors were concerned about speeding vehicles on Valley Road, and the high rate of crashes at the intersection with Jefferson Road. The police traffic safety officer admitted that speeding is an issue, and that it is hard to catch speeders, because Valley Road is very straight, making it easy for speeding drivers to spot radar speed checks and slam on the brakes. An engineering solution would be more effective. The wide travel lanes on Valley Road make fast driving feel safe and easy. Reduced lane widths are well-known to reduce speed. As the police traffic safety officer said, “Nobody speeds across the Washington Crossing Bridge” (where two-way traffic is squeezed into a total roadway width of 15-ft).
To reduce speed, and improve options for cyclists, we should add a separated bike lane on the north side of Valley, heading west. This would mean that cyclists heading west have the best and safest type of facility. It would reduce the number of bicycles on paths, and help limit the speed of vehicular traffic. On the south side, an 8-ft sidepath, consistent with FHWA standards seems like a good fit, because it is hard to make a second on-street bike lane work with the existing trees. We should include new, attractive, pedestrian-oriented lighting to improve aesthetics and address neighborhood concerns about how dark the paths are at night. The concept would look like this:
Finally, if Princeton is going to continue building sidepaths in semi-urban neighborhoods, we have to address the intersection question. Intersections between bike trails and roads are a problem everywhere they exist. Improving lighting at intersections will help, but some kind of signage would also be useful. Local bike advocate Dan Rappoport suggested at the neighborhood meeting that trails should have ‘Stop’ signs at cross streets (as occurs in many other places). ‘Trail crossing’ signs could also be installed to alert drivers approaching the trail intersection that bicyclists may be present. Other jurisdictions have gone into great detail with planning safe trail crossings.
Valley Road, like every road in Princeton, presents some specific challenges when it comes to making it a true ‘Complete Street’. In the long-term, we have to hope that the town’s application for funding to implement a bicycle circulation masterplan is successful, because a holistic approach to bike network planning would be more efficient. But in the meantime, it’s worth taking the time to get Complete Streets right. Whatever changes are made to Valley Road now will last for a generation, so if we hope to get people to switch from cars to other modes, we need to implement designs now that make walking and cycling a first-rate alternative.
The full presentation from engineers on Valley Road can be found here.
Got thoughts on how to make Valley Road work for everybody? Let us know in the comments section below.