Towns and cities across New Jersey -- and all over the country -- are becoming more environmentally friendly and reducing traffic density with a fairly simple expedient: They're adding bike lanes. Jersey City and Camden are both involved in ambitious initiatives, as are rural townships, and tourist-centric municipalities on the Jersey shore.
But there's one place where lanes are not making significant inroads -- on state highways. And while safety concerns would seem to explain the situation, some folks think this omission is a mistake. What's more, there are some signs that bikes and lanes are being welcomed to some degree on larger, busier roads.
The place to start is with an assessment of how bicycle-friendly New Jersey actually is. According to the League of American Bicyclists, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit, the Garden State ranked seventh in its 2013 Bicycle Friendly States survey released in May.
And where there are bicycles, it follows that there are -- or should be -- bike lanes. New Jersey doesn't disappoint on this score either. There are hundreds of miles of bike lanes on municipal thoroughfares and county and state roads.
The question, however, is "Are there 'enough' bike lanes?" And that query raises a deceptively simple question of its own: Why add more?
New Jersey has not been spinning its wheels when it comes to bike lanes, with 66 towns and five counties approving a Complete Streets policy first adopted by the state in 2009. According to the state Department of Transportation, that policy calls for “safe access for all users by designing and constructing a comprehensive, integrated, connected multimodal network of transportation options.”
In other words, roads and streets have to be accessible to everyone -- including folks on bicycles.
That's the theory, at least. But reviewing maps of bike access and facilities in New Jersey reveals that few if any state roads have bike lanes running alongside them. (The state does not have a database of how many miles of bike lanes are located along its roads.)
Joseph Dee, a spokesperson for the Department of Transportation, said there are some obstacles that have to be considered when it comes to enabling bicyclists to use state roads.
“The challenges in creating bike lanes include high-speed and high traffic volume roadways where there might not be adequate right-of-way to create bike lanes or wide shoulders that bicyclists could utilize in a safe manner,” Dee said. “Another challenge arises when the sides of roadways are needed for vehicle parking,” he added.
The situation is changing, though.
Dee pointed out that the state’s recent $500 million reconstruction of the Route 52 Causeway linking Somers Point and Ocean City includes a 2-mile pedestrian/bike path, as well as a similar pedestrian/bike path being built along the Route 72 Manahawkin Bay Bridges project in Ocean County.
He said that bike lanes are also being designed into the rebuilding of a 12-mile portion of Route 35 running from Point Pleasant and Island Beach State Park, along rebuilt portions of Route 45 and Route 47 in Gloucester County and the renovation of the Route 7 Wittpenn Bridge that connects Jersey City to Kearny.
Dee also noted that some state highways -- like Route 29 north of Stockton in Hunterdon County -- feature wide shoulders that can safely accommodate bicyclists where there is not a designated bike lane.
But Janna Chernetz, New Jersey advocate for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, thinks the state is missing a great opportunity to increase tourism. In particular, she sees bike lanes on the Route 35 section being rebuilt after suffering extensive damage from Hurricane Sandy last year.
“Here you have a major road project where you have the bicycles convenient, it’s not like you have to go out there and take cyclists counts, there’s no one arguing that cyclists don’t use that roadway,” Chermetz said. “It’s just a matter of seizing that opportunity because if you don’t put the bike lanes in now when is the next time that road will be touched?”
Yet she concedes that the state can only do so much to make bike lanes happen, since the majority of roads are under the jurisdiction of counties and municipalities, which can help drive up the lane-count by passing Complete Streets policies and getting projects underway.
Jersey City is doing its part to add to New Jersey's bike-lane inventory after the City Council approved this month an allocation of $1 million in unused capital funds for street improvements that call for 63 miles of roads to have bike lanes and sharrows, street markings that lets bicyclists know that they can use a full lane. The state's second-largest city laid down its first bike lanes just last year, on a six-block stretch of Grove Street in downtown Jersey City that runs past City Hall.
Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop said $700,000 is going towards the project, which has already started and is scheduled to be completed by July 2014. Fulop called the bike lanes “important” to help Jersey City bicyclists navigate the city’s traffic and to move forward the city’s bikeway plan that started making some progress under former Mayor Jerramiah Healy.
That's good news for resident and biking advocate Dan Levin, who was among a group of fellow-bikers gathered at the corner of Grove and Mercer streets on a Friday afternoon for a bike tour that would go through much of the city.
"I think it shows progress. I think bike lanes elsewhere are seen as part of the street fabric," Levin said. "It does a lot of good besides providing space for bicyclists in the street," he said, "hopefully making it safe for bicyclists. But it narrows streets visually and hopefully slows traffic down and brings a safer streetscape for everyone.”
Also part of the biking group was Katie Brennan, who moved to Jersey City in May from Philadelphia, where she rode on the city's network of 200-plus miles of bike lanes and trails.
Brennan said she hasn't bicycled much in town due to the lack of cycle-friendly thoroughfares but is encouraged to bike more after hearing about the city's investment in bicycle infrastructure. She also hopes that other areas across the state will follow the examples of Philadelphia and Jersey City.
"I think that ultimately you see other countries where it's a dream and they have these bike highways and things like that, and I don't know if we are there yet," Brennan said. "I do think some of the interstate routes could easily lend themselves to bike lanes and would be a great alternative."
Meanwhile, Camden is usually in the news for its problems with crime and poverty. But it was in the spotlight in August for a more positive item -- the unveiling of eight miles of bike lanes, which are an extension of a network of trails known as the Circuit. Ultimately, it will encompass 750 miles in nine counties in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The lanes are on several roads leading to the Ben Franklin Bridge going into Philadelphia.
Camden County Freeholder Ian Leonard, who is part of the board that oversaw the construction of bike lanes throughout the county in the past few years, including the ones in Camden, said more bike lanes are in the works.
“I believe we can always do more in regard to improving the quality of life for residents in Camden County and bike lanes play a role in achieving that objective,” Leonard said.
Camden resident Akram Abed, an avid cyclist and project manager for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a Washington-based nonprofit that runs a cycling program with the YMCA of Burlington and Camden Counties, welcomes the lanes. Not only will they benefit local residents but also they will connect bicyclists from other communities surrounding Camden with the city itself. This is particularly true of cyclists who ride through Camden to get onto the Ben Franklin Bridge to commute into Philadelphia for work.
“Having these bike lanes near the bridge, once you get off the bridge, you now see that, 'Oh, in Camden I can ride on bike lanes for a little bit,' and they will see the city in a different way, as a place for biking,” Abed said. “Over time, I think it will help the city’s image.”