By Mike Kublanov
New Jersey State Route 27, stretching from Princeton to Newark, has an identity crisis. In downtown Princeton, NJ-27 is a vibrant, slow moving main street (Nassau Street), while just a few miles to the north, NJ-27 is virtually a country road, running alongside a lake with no pedestrian or bicycle facilities. Further north still, NJ-27 ventures through several downtown areas, including New Brunswick, Highland Park, Metuchen, and Elizabeth, where it once again slows down and morphs into something more than just thru-traffic paradise. One might wonder how each segment of NJ-27 was designed and why different segments seem so different from one another. The answer to this question is multi-faceted, but ultimately boils down to the context of the street in each segment. One of the most important design challenges that planners and engineers encounter is how to adequately transition state roads from car-centric speedways into slow, pedestrian friendly main streets.
One of the challenges of having state highways as main streets is that the two typically serve different functions. State highways traditionally have higher speeds, efficient traffic controls, and prioritize vehicles over non-motorized traffic. Their main concern is to move vehicles efficiently from point A to point B. On the other hand, main streets cater to pedestrians along commercial activity in downtown districts. Main streets prioritize circulation, safety, and human scale over speed of vehicles. Contextually, main streets typically have higher populations and job densities, which require lower speed limits and thus more traffic calming measures. Speed limits however, are not the same as design speed. If you have ever driven on a state highway into a downtown district and found it virtually impossible to adhere to a 25 mile-per-hour speed limit, you have likely witnessed a case where design speed and speed limit do not match. It is imperative for main streets to be designed for low speeds, not only marked for them. There are several options for achieving these lower speeds. A balanced combination of several will likely yield the most effective results.
Before a state highway becomes a full-blown main street, it must make a transition. Transitioning into a main street can include replacing a shoulder with a parking or a bicycle lane, narrowing the lane width, introducing curvature such as roundabouts, and utilizing “gateway” treatments, such as landscaping and signage, installing medians, curb extensions, and decorative pavement. All of these measures, carefully coordinated with gradually reduced speed limits, will result in much slower traffic entering the business district. Slower traffic makes crossing easier and safer for pedestrians, and makes walking downtown more pleasant. The main street must function as part of the district, not be ignorant of it. As a result, sidewalks must be wider, trees must be planted, and places for resting, such as benches, must be installed. At these lower speeds, drivers are much more likely to make eye contact with pedestrians, and thus yield to them. The desired result is compatibility between all modes of transportation.
Albany Street in New Brunswick (NJ-27) lacks many of these features and as a result, walking across, or along this stretch of road can feel dangerous. Albany Street can be transitioned into a main street by way of reduced and narrower traffic lanes, widened sidewalks, increased tree cover, curb cut installation and more pedestrian crosswalks. These improvements could reunite the train station and the College Avenue Campus with downtown New Brunswick and deter drivers to other thoroughfares that are designed to move high volumes. Historically however, municipalities have had to defer these improvements to facilitate long-distance through-travel.
State highways are typically owned and maintained by their respective states. Many states simply do not recognize the need for context sensitive design. Engineering handbooks written many years ago dictate road design that prioritize the movement of cars, regardless of context, which can cause downtowns to fall flat. Fortunately, in recent years, many states have adopted Complete Streets policies that recognize the importance of designing streets for all transportation modes. As of April 24, 2015, 30 states and Puerto Rico have statewide Complete Streets policies, or at least specific bicycle and pedestrian accommodation legislation. These policies are vital to foster cooperation between municipalities and states to make all roads context sensitive. The argument that a state highway cannot be made pedestrian friendly because it is owned by the state should not be a reason that hazardous main streets continue to harm their communities.
Fortunately, the New Jersey Department of Transportation has one of the strongest Complete Streets policies in the country. In the policy, NJDOT outlines plans to create comprehensive multi-modal networks and provide safe and accessible accommodations for bicycle and pedestrian facilities, such as accessible sidewalks with curb ramps, crosswalks, countdown pedestrian signals, signs, median refuges, curb extensions, pedestrian scale lighting, bike lanes, shoulders and bus shelters. NJDOT even outlines ways to gauge the success of these improvements by establishing performance measures. A prime example of Complete Streets principles implemented on a state highway in New Jersey is none other than NJ-27 through the Borough of Highland Park. In that section, just a stone’s throw from New Brunswick, there are adequate sidewalks, plenty of pedestrian crossings, slow moving traffic, comfortable street furniture, attractive tree cover, curb cuts, bicycle sharrows, pedestrian-scale street lighting, and well-marked on-street parking. NJDOT is committed to continue using these Complete Streets principles in the future as construction projects materialize across the state. With Complete Streets on the agenda, we can all look forward to more pedestrian friendly state routes.