If there is one thing that pedestrians, motorists, and cyclists can all agree on it’s this: the congested streets of Jersey City have become battle grounds as cars, feet, and bike wheels compete for limited space as everybody tries to go about their daily tasks.
Cyclists complain about drivers who hog road lanes and crowd them up against parked cars and curbs. Pedestrians complain about drivers who won’t yield and speeding bikers who cycle as if traffic laws don’t apply to them. And drivers have a whole list of complaints about jaywalkers and absentminded pedestrians who seem too busy texting to pay attention to walk signals and right of way laws.
While residents jokingly referred to local streets as racetracks, a number of serious accidents in recent months are a reminder that pedestrian and cyclist safety is a serious issue.
In April, a man was seriously injured after being hit by a car at Monmouth and Second streets. Later that same month, an off-duty police officer allegedly struck and killed pedestrian Stephen Clifford as he tried crossing Fairmount Avenue (an investigation is ongoing). In June, Natasha Caicedo was hit and killed by a motorist as she rode her bike on Marin Boulevard. More recently, a little boy was hit by a car on 8th Street near Hamilton Park.
To address the problem, Ward E City Councilwoman Candice Osborne has developed a proposal to increase pedestrian safety in her downtown ward. While her recommendations are specific to the ward she represents, she said she has shared her proposal with her City Council colleagues who represent other parts of the city.
Her proposal has also been shared with the administration of Mayor Steven Fulop and various board members from the downtown neighborhood associations, who helped Osborne collect some of the anecdotal data used in her proposal.
Osborne: ‘We have an obligation’
Osborne admitted that some parts of her traffic calming proposal – which calls for the creation of bump outs, new traffic lights, de-synchronized traffic lights, improved street lighting, painted crosswalk lines, and a ticket writing campaign by the police – might not be popular with drivers. But, she said, “As a city, we have an obligation to proactively pursue policies that make residents feel safe, whether walking, biking, or driving.”
Osborne, who took office on July 1, said pedestrian safety has emerged as a top concern among her constituents.
“I was already working on this plan. But complaints about pedestrian safety and the need for traffic calming have been coming in steadily since I took office,” she said. “I’m getting, like, 10 complaints a day at this point.”
‘I’ve had a few close encounters with cars.’ – Barry Critafoli
Based on this research, Osborne is now recommending an array of solutions throughout Ward E.
Among other solutions, she is recommending the end of right turn on red at several intersections, mostly along Grand Street, where traffic can often top 50 miles per hour. Among the intersections where right turns would be banned during red lights are Grand Street and Grove Street; Grand and Jersey Avenue; Grand and Van Vorst, and Grand and Washington Boulevard.
Under Osborne’s plan low grade speed humps would be installed on what she called, “our worst speed streets: Erie Street, Monmouth Street, Manila Avenue, Brunswick Street, and parts of Washington and Van Vorst.”
One suggestion that might win broad support from drivers and pedestrians alike is Osborne’s recommendation that the city create an all-walk traffic light sequence at Columbus Drive and Grove Street, an intersection where pedestrians often jaywalk and cross against the light. She would also like to lengthen the amount of time people have to cross the street along Marin Boulevard, a street that cuts through several large shopping areas.
Under her proposal, 21 intersections would get all-way stop signs and four –Second Street and Marin Boulevard, Van Vorst and Grand Streets, and Newark Avenue and Division Street – would get new traffic lights.
There are a number of intersections that currently have yellow “yield to pedestrians” signs posted along sidewalks. Osborne would like to see these signs replaced with triangular “stop for pedestrians” signs that sit in the middle of crosswalks. While Jersey City has a few of these signs, they are more commonly used in Hoboken.
“Evidence shows that these in-crosswalk signs are 35 to 46 percent more effective that the signs by the side of the road,” said Osborne.
This evidence, she said, comes from the Pedestrian Safety Countermeasure Deployment Project, which was done by the Federal Highway Administration.
(Interestingly, a recent anecdotal study of a few intersections in Hoboken where there are signs in the middle of the street showed that a majority of drivers did not yield to pedestrians.)
Still, Osborne would like to see in-crosswalk signs installed at 86 intersections downtown.
“I wanted to get to the root issues [of the problem] as quickly as possible,” Osborne said, although some of her recommendations, if adopted by the city, will be implemented over a period of several months.
According to Joe Dee, spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Transportation (DOT), Jersey City can likely make most of these changes without state approval.
“There was a law enacted in Dec. 2008 that repealed certain sections of a [previous law] requiring approval of the DOT commissioner,” Dee said. “The purpose of the repeal was to make it easier for municipalities to enact local laws that make the most sense for their residents… There are a few exceptions where state approval is still needed. Jersey City can make changes so long as the location where the change is taking place is not within 500 feet of a state road. If it’s within 500 feet of a state road, then state approval is still needed. Another exception has to do with commercial traffic. Any proposed changes that attempt to restrict commercial motor vehicles – meaning trucks – still needs to be approved by the state.”
Fulop, who represented Ward E before being elected mayor, has seen Osborne’s proposal and said he supports it.
“It is impressive and important the work on traffic calming that Candice completed with the community,” Fulop said. “We are going to start this month on implementing the plan so it is the residents who own the streets – not the vehicles.”
At press time last week, only a few residents had seen the plan, although Osborne plans to post it to her website soon to get broader feedback from the public.
When told of the plan, however, several Ward E residents and people who work downtown said they support its intent, even though they weren’t aware of any specifics.
“I live on Grove Street and take the PATH a lot,” said Lily Martin. “I have a car, but I seldom use it. It stays parked most of the time. I walk a lot for the things I have to do. Drivers will see you standing at a corner, see that you have the right of way, and keep going anyway. It’s really frustrating.”
Martin said she feels particularly vulnerable when crossing streets when drivers are making turns.
Barry Cristafoli, a Jersey City Heights resident who walks downtown frequently, said, “I’ve had a few close encounters with cars. Grand Street is dangerous. Washington Boulevard is bad. Parts of Grove Street are dangerous. So, anything that can be done to improve street safety for people is something I would support. I would just hope that whatever they do here [downtown] is duplicated elsewhere in the city, because I feel just as unsafe on Central Avenue as I do on Grand Street.”
Ellie Smalls, Cristafoli’s wife, agreed. “Drivers seem to be a little more cautious when I’m with my toddler. When I have my daughter with me, a driver will yield to me and I don’t feel rushed to cross. But if I don’t have her with me, forget it. I used to try to ride my bike [downtown] to do my grocery shopping. Now I just drive, because I don’t feel safe, either on my bike or when I’m walking.”
Smalls described Newark Avenue as “an Indie 500 track.” Similar analogies were made about other streets by others who were interviewed last week.
While most of the feedback to Osborne’s proposal was positive, a few drivers argued that pedestrians have to do their part to be safe on the streets, too.
“I’m on foot a lot, too. So, I am sensitive to complaints about dangerous drivers. But I see just as much ‘bad walking,’ if I can use that term, as bad driving,” said Mary Bentley. “When the signal says ‘Don’t Walk,’ why does everybody walk? When a light is clearly green, why is there always some pedestrian who is determined to race across the street anyway? I know New York City at one time gave jaywalking tickets. If they are going to crack down on drivers and implement traffic calming laws on drivers, I want to see something done about ‘bad walking,’ too.”
Bentley and Martin both said that more also needs to be done to discourage pedestrians from texting and talking on the phone when they should be paying attention to traffic and traffic signals.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.