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.