By James Sinclair
On August 18, 2015, the City of New Brunswick, Middlesex County, and Dewberry Consulting held a public forum on proposed changes to Livingston Avenue. This was the second public meeting on the project, which proposes to make Livingston Avenue safer for pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists. The 60-foot-wide corridor currently offers two travel lanes in each direction, along with on-street parking in both directions, a design that has proven dangerous due to the high speeds it allows. Between 2012 and 2014, there were 271 reported collisions, of which 30 involved a pedestrian or bicyclist. Last year, in response to a collision involving children in a crosswalk, an emergency road diet was put into place in front of two schools. That project eliminated the two center lanes and replaced them with a bidirectional turning lane. Dewberry has since been hired to draw up plans for a permanent solution.
After a brief introduction of the stakeholders to the audience of about 40, the reigns were handed over to Janet Sharkey of Dewberry to explain the proposals. The Ms. Sharkey began by explaining corridor-wide concepts that they would like to incorporate, including high-visibility crosswalks, curb extensions at intersections, and facilities for bicyclists. She also noted that any project would update all signalized crossings to the latest standards, including pedestrian countdowns and audible push buttons, accompanied with detectable warning surfaces to alert the blind.
Ms. Sharkey then described proposed changes to the intersection of Livingston Avenue and New Street. For motorists, Dewberry proposes alterations in the signal timing, along with the addition or modification of left turn lanes. For pedestrians, they want to realign crosswalks to be more direct, and potentially introduce a crossing phase exclusively for pedestrians.
She then announced that they have come up with four different design alternatives for the rest of the corridor. Here is how they differ from the existing conditions:
Alternative 1 – Hybrid Road diet
In this plan, Livingston Avenue receives two different treatments. The southern end, from Elizabeth Street to Sandford Street, has very little turning volume, according to traffic counts the team conducted. As such, a motor vehicle flow can be accommodated with one lane in each direction. The extra space would then be converted to a buffered bicycle lane, which they showed as a 5-foot lane with a 5-foot buffer. Parking would remain at the curbs with a 9-foot width.
What makes Alternative 1 a “hybrid” is that it would be different from Sanford to New Street. Here, a 12-foot center turn lane would be included to accommodate vehicles. However, rather than have a bicycle lane, the team proposes a shared 15-foot lane in each direction.
Alternative 2 – Center Median
As with Alternative 1, Alternative 2 would be divided into two segments. From Elizabeth Street to Sandford Street, the plan would also include one lane in each direction, along with a buffered bicycle lane. However, the buffer would be smaller (3-feet rather than five). The extra space would be used to create a center median, dividing the directions of traffic. This median would prohibit all left turns from Livingston, which would increase pedestrian and bicyclist safety, but inconvenience motorists.
The northern end, Sandford to New Street, would be identical to Alternative 1 – a center turn lane and a shared 15-foot lane in each direction.
Alternative 3 – Classic Road Diet
For the classic road diet, Dewberry proposes a single treatment for the entire corridor. In this alternative, a 12-foot center turning lane would stretch from end to end. A single 11-foot lane would allow vehicles to flow in each direction, and a 5-foot bicycle lane would sit between the travel lane and parked cars.
Alternative Xa – Inside bicycle lane
For Alternative 1-3, Dewberry raised the possibility of locating the bicycle lane between the parked cars and the curb, rather than between the parked cars and the active travel lane. However, no additional design work was presented on this possibility.
Alternative 4 – Multi-use Path
The final possibility presented was the most unique – and most expensive – of the options. In this scenario, the sidewalks on each side would be widened, so bicycles could safely share the space with pedestrians. The roadbed striping would be identical to Alternative 3, simply without on-street bicycle lanes.
One major benefit of this design is that it would narrow the roadway, lessening the distance pedestrians have to cross, and promoting slower speeds. However, the cost of moving curbs is significant, due to the need to relocate drainage and potentially utilities. Further, the team did not go into detail on how bicyclists would be kept safe at intersections. Without proper design, sidewalk riding can be dangerous for bicyclists, as drivers cannot see them when turning.
After concluding a description of the alternative plans, the team presented some preliminary cost estimates. The first three proposals would have very similar costs and estimated timelines, with Alternative 2 being slightly more expensive due to the construction of a median. Alternative 4 would cost the most and take longest to build. The team also presented a “benefit-cost ratio” but did not go into detail as to how these ratios were obtained.
At the conclusion of the presentation, the floor was opened to questions from the public. One of the first questions was about how the proposed exclusive pedestrian phase for the Livingston Avenue and New Street intersection would work. The consultants stated that pedestrians would be limited to only crossing during the exclusive phase, and that diagonal crossings would not be allowed due to timing restraints. When asked how the design would prevent vehicles from blocking the crosswalk while waiting to make a right turn, the design team stated that was an enforcement issue they could not design around.
Attendees at the meeting also questioned the consultant as to some of the design decisions they decided to show, especially related to proposed widths. The consultants were asked why they decided to show a 15-foot shared lane rather than a conventional 10-foot travel lane and a 5-foot bicycle lane in two of the alternatives. They were also questioned on the proposed center median, depicted at 4-feet – too narrow for trees – when space exists for a six or seven-foot median that could accommodate lush vegetation. Finally, they were asked about the unnecessarily wide width of the parking lanes (9-feet) and the center turn lane (12-feet), rather than allocating that space for other purposes.
In response to these queries, the team stated that the measurements were simply concepts. While it is true that that this presentation is still early in the process, it is unfortunate that the design team decided to highlight measurements that would continue to allow for rapid vehicle speeds, rather than applying best practices for a bicycle and pedestrian friendly urban corridor.
Other concerns were raised related to bicycling. In the “A” alternative, a bicycle lane was proposed between the parking lane and the curb. However, this design only showed a 5-foot width in Alternative 3, which does not meet modern design guidelines that call for a 3-foot buffer in addition to the lane. The consultant stated that this buffer is not necessary.
Regarding Alternative 4, the team was asked what designs would be included at intersections to protect cyclists from turning vehicles. The team stated they had only thought about signage, and that bicyclists and motorists would learn to be careful as they became familiar with the corridor. Unfortunately, this response could put bicyclists in severe danger of collisions.
In regards to lighting, the team noted that they conducted a study and found it to be adequate. They also stated that the traffic counts do not support an additional traffic signal.
Members of the public were invited to submit written comments before leaving the meeting. Additional written comments can be submitted to by mailing Ken Preteroti at the Office of the County Engineer, 333 Townsend Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901.
Additional information can be found on the City of New Brunswick website.
The presentation can be downloaded HERE.
No additional public meetings have been scheduled, although Dewberry indicated that their contract called for up to four public presentations. The consultant and the stakeholders will take the comments gained from this forum and use them to narrow down their options. From there, the project will be presented to the city council for a decision on which Alternative should move onto the next phase of the design process.