Development

Watching the suburbs become more unwalkable before your very eyes

If you’ve ever thought that the debate over suburban walkability was simply an abstract concept, now’s your opportunity to see it unfolding before your very eyes. The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, an organization that “works to foster regional cooperation in a nine-county, two state area, to address key issues, including transportation, land use, environmental protection and economic development”, recently published the agenda for its July 24th meeting. On it is action item 2a, or, “Route 30, and Evesham Road Intersection Improvements”. The full text of this item can be found here, but the gist is this:

“This project will address safety and operational deficiencies of the Route 30 and Evesham Road (CR 544) intersection in Magnolia Borough by widening US 30 to add a two-way, center left-turn lane from Ashland Avenue to Evesham Road, as well as add exclusive left-turn lanes on both directions of US 30 at the intersection. This left turn movement will be protected by left turn signals (green arrow). On the eastern part of Evesham Road, the road will also widen to add two through lanes and an exclusive left turn lane. Similarly, the western part of Evesham Road will widen to add one through lane and an exclusive left-turn lane. The project will further include the installation of a new traffic signal, new signs, new curbs and sidewalks, as well as reconstructed pavement, drainage improvements, and the relocation of utilities.”

The projected cost? $6,805,000.

You might be thinking, “sounds nice, what’s the problem?” Let me explain. I’ve driven on this stretch of Route 30 almost my entire life. I understand that it’s sometimes boring to wait for people to turn left. But what this amounts to is spending nearly $7 million to turn a merely busy roadway into an extremely pedestrian-unfriendly “stroad”, which is a “very dangerous environment (yes, it is ridiculously dangerous to mix high speed highway geometric design with pedestrians, bikers and turning traffic), that’s enormously expensive to build and, ultimately, financially unproductive.” Basically, this means ignoring the mountains of evidence that show that walkable, pedestrian- and bike-friendly communities are the future, and that the preference for car-dependent suburbia as we know it is a thing of the past.

The imperative to foster walkability in South Jersey’s extremely car-dependent suburban environment is driven home at this very intersection by the fact that there is a recently-built mixed use “town center” style development called CooperTowne Village a short walk from where NJDOT wants to do this work. Millennials like myself have sent the signal that we’re driving less and choosing where to live based on walkability, retail density, and access to public transportation, and developers have listened. The fact that a previously suburban-style, drive-in retail center now hosts a mix of retail and residential shows that we’re slowly moving on from a car-only mentality. Unfortunately, the New Jersey DOT neither understands nor cares about this, seeing the throughput of cars as their only metric for success. Simply put, they aren’t concerned with, and actively work against, making New Jersey’s communities nice places to live.

The DVRPC agenda item highlights that this is a very dangerous stretch of roadway, that it “ranks 15th out of 100 intersections with the most severe accident history due to lack of any left turn lanes on US 30.” Improving a dangerous road is a great idea, but not at the expense of cementing this densely built up part of South Jersey as a completely unwalkable, and thus very much not desirable, place to live for decades to come. With substantial residential development extremely close to this stretch of roadway, the new mixed-use CooperTowne development, and the Ashland PATCO station nearby, there is just no excuse not to foster a genuinely harmonious relationship between cars and pedestrians. Widening this roadway to accommodate only cars is absolutely not the way to do that.

Ultimately, I strongly urge the planning commission to reject this $7 million bad idea and instead work to fix the dangers the roadway presents in a way that adheres to Camden County’s Complete Streets policy. If you feel as strongly about this as I do, you have until noon on Wednesday, July 23, 2014 to comment by email at public_affairs@dvrpc.org, or you can attend their board meeting on the 23rd by following instructions on their website at http://www.dvrpc.org/GetInvolved/BoardActionItems/.

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Development, Sustainability, Transit

The New Whole Foods in Cherry Hill has a bike rack, but will anyone use it?

About a month ago, the Whole Foods in the Ellisburg Shopping Center at the intersection of Haddonfield Road and Route 70 in Cherry Hill finally opened. Taking over the old Genuardi’s location in the plaza, it became the second Whole Foods in South Jersey, with the first being in Marlton on Route 73. It’s got all the modern trappings a new Whole Foods would have: wide, well-stocked and spacious aisles; fresh produce, meats, and fish; a large prepared food section and a bakery in the back. But it also has a few things on the outside that are rather progressive for its location. There’s an electric car charging station, outdoor seating, and a few bike racks. While this is right in line with the Whole Foods brand and social initiatives, I can’t help but feel like it bumps up uncomfortably to the reality of current day Cherry Hill. That is, it remains, in 2014, an utterly unwalkable haven for automobiles.

Let’s look at the environment the Whole Foods finds itself in. Outside its doors and past the row of tables lies an ocean of parking. Like every other New Jersey shopping plaza, the shops are separated by very large distances from the road by parking lots that never get full. Moving past the gluttony of empty parking spaces, the plaza itself is bordered by Haddonfield Road, a.k.a NJ Route 41, and the Marlton Pike, a.k.a. NJ Route 70. These are, without a doubt, stroads, horrible combinations of streets and roads where drivability is the only concern, leaving pedestrians and bikers with little or no place to go. As Streets Blog has recently discussed, state departments of transportation are not concerned with making communities livable, enjoyable places to exist. Rather, their only metric is car throughput, regardless of the very undesirable reality this inflicts on local communities. NJDOT does not care if Cherry Hill, Marlton, or Mount Laurel are successful communities. It only cares that people can drive to them from Interstate 295 or the Turnpike. And if you’ve ever been to these communities, you know that they’re what people talk about when they call South Jersey a sprawling mess.

Another recent article discusses issues of traffic and congestion that New Jersey planners would do well to read. In short, they explain that merely concerning yourself with car throughput is a losing battle, since building larger roads creates induced demand, and that there exists a 1:1 correlation between how much roadway you build and how many people use it. But there’s another interesting point that the state should pay attention to, one that says if you reduce roadway capacity, you don’t see the cataclysmically negative responses that traditional road planners imagine would happen. Cities have removed entire expressways through their downtowns and replaced them with streets that handle fewer cars, and yet congestion has remained the same, not worse. The takeaway is that building more roads simply makes congestion worse, and that paring down lanes does not increase it, but in fact improves local communities and their desirability as places to live. What I’m getting at is that New Jersey should be working to turn these stroads built for the middle of the last century into walkable streets and boulevards for the future at a time where people are choosing towns to live in based on different things than they did 60 years ago. Maybe people buying homes for the first time today want things like good public spaces, walkable communities, and efficient public transit, all of which many South Jersey communities, like Cherry Hill, tend to lack.

Speaking of public transit, that’s something that can work in Cherry Hill’s favor if it does in fact pare down its stroads. There are many busses that travel through the town between Camden and Philadelphia and the rest of South Jersey. Take Route 70 for example. NJ Transit bus route 406, which connects Philadelphia with Berlin, travels down a very built up part of the road between its intersection with US Route 130 and the Turnpike. But its schedule is dreadful. It’s very irregular, sometimes coming every 20 minutes, and sometimes coming only once an hour. If car capacity were lessened on Route 70, those who haven’t opted to walk or bike would benefit from increased and more regular service on this route, making it possible for the many houses near the road to go car-lite or car-free to jobs, shopping, and entertainment.

To sum it up, Cherry Hill is at an interesting crossroads. Its proximity to jobs in Philadelphia and the surrounding area will keep it relevant enough, but to truly capitalize on that proximity and the trend of the new generation to drive less and prefer to live in towns with strong cultural amenities like walkable downtowns, the township has a lot of work to do. And while they recognize this and have in fact adopted a complete streets policy, I’m worried that they have no say over the state roads that go through the town, and that this will hurt them for decades to come. New developments like Whole Foods and Honeygrow coming into town are a good start at keeping up with the 21st century, but some very important things need to be addressed to reverse the decades-long obsession with the automobile the township has had.

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The Shore

Voting with our feet: South Jerseyans choose urban density year after year, even if they don’t realize it

Like many kids who grew up in South Jersey, my parents took me down the shore every year. It was nothing particularly fancy; we went wherever we could afford for a week. I was probably less than ten years old when I got my first taste of the beach, the amusements, and the wonders of the New Jersey shore town boardwalk. Pretty much since that first visit, I was hooked, and I’ve been back every year since. To say that I, along with so many other tourists, take the shore for granted seems like an understatement. We’re so used to the ice cream shops, the pizza places, the arcades, that we sometimes think of as a separate, perfect place, apart from the wider world at large.

Or at least I did until someone on Twitter brought the shore town I’ve gone to for a decade and a half crashing into my every day world view. On June 28th, well into the vacation season, Baltimore walkability advocate PedestrianError tweeted:

“I’ve often wondered why so many people choose walkable vacations spots year after year, but choose to buy homes in sprawl.”

This really stopped me in my tracks. I’ve been a proponent of urban, walkable environments for years, but I never stopped to think about how the shore towns I grew up visiting play directly into this passion. When I really started thinking about it, it all made sense.

One of the first things you’ll notice when you get off the parkway (or the train) and into a shore town’s downtown area is just how many people you see walking around. At the height of the season, tourists clog the sidewalks, spill out onto the roadway, make their way down the boardwalk, and walk to and from the beach. Think about the intersection of JFK and Landis Avenues in Sea Isle City, 96th Street in Stone Harbor, Washington Street in Cape May (one of the only successful pedestrian-only streets I’ve seen in the United States), or the boardwalk in Ocean City. These are areas of extreme walkability, where you can park your car for the day, or walk from your hotel or rental, and explore shops, restaurants, and attractions for hours on foot.

And why are they so walkable? Because they essentially have the same dynamic as dense city cores. They are very densely packed with things to do and see, often in a mixed-use environment with apartments or condos on top of shops and restaurants. Storefronts are right up against one another, with no setback from the sidewalk, meaning you can hop from one to the other effortlessly. There are very few parking lots, because the land is too valuable to merely let empty boxes sit on it all day. So parking is tight and always metered, forcing high turnover to maximize how many people can visit an area in a day and to incentivize arriving by foot or other means. Basically, the commercial districts in shore towns are the opposite of the suburbs, where single-use zoning prevails and shops are far apart, forcing you to drive to get around. And what do people do in the face of this extreme shift in their built environment? They go crazy for it, every year, for generations.

If you look at the numbers, this all makes sense. The summertime populations of these shore towns turn them into microcosms of urbanity. Take Sea Isle City, for instance, whose population increases from a few thousand in the off season to around 40,000 from June through August. This brings the town’s population density to around 15,800 per square mile, putting it more on par with Patterson or Jersey City than a sleepy barrier island town. It’s a similar story with Cape May, which hits around 18,000 people per square mile, or Ocean City, with around 12,000 people per square mile. These towns swell to densities far above those of most of the states towns.

With this urban density comes the kinds of things we’re only just now seeing in cities in the US but which have been a part of the shore for decades. When I started thinking about how shore towns adhere to many of the principles of new urbanism, I thought immediately of the sharing economy. Think, for instance, about how such a high percentage of people who go down the shore rent their places for a week instead of buying, since the price of a shore home and the maintenance thereof is insanely prohibitively expensive in both time and money. This results in a massive sharing of physical spaces for a week at a time. Or think about renting a bike to get around. While bike share programs have only just begun to pop up in American cities, renting a bike has been a part of the shore for as long as I can remember. There are huge common spaces throughout the shore towns in the form of squares showing outdoor films in the evening, soccer and baseball fields, basketball courts, and of course, public beaches for everyone to use.

Maybe this is why, when I got older, I fell in love with urban spaces. When our week was done at the shore and we made the traffic-clogged drive back to our suburban town, I immediately felt the lack of liveliness, of exciting things to do, of places I could go near my house. Going to the shore served as a window into what’s possible when you put a bunch of people somewhere they really want to be. I’ve never lost that love, and it might be in no small part thanks to a few islands off the coast of New Jersey.

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