Riding the Ancient Rails

Somewhere between South Jersey’s suburban towns and its popular seaside resorts lay a network of train tracks draped through the forests of the state’s seven southernmost counties. From 1933 until 1976, they bustled with passengers escaping to beach towns up and down the state’s coastline from crowded and sweltering neighborhoods in Philadelphia and Camden. The growth of private car travel and the opening of the Atlantic City Expressway in the mid-1960s reduced rail offerings to the shore down to just the Atlantic City Line, which still operates today. But at least a few times a year, you can take a ride on some of the historic tracks that ignited the Philadelphia region’s love affair with New Jersey’s southern beaches.

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Why isn’t Burlington City more of a thing?

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This is a pretty hot take (as far as urbanist hot takes go), as it’s based more of a few random visits than an in-depth look at history, but here it is:

Burlington City should be more of a happening place.

I don’t know the deep history of one of South Jersey’s most historic cities (if you have more insight, I’d love to hear it), but this idea comes from having taken the River Line train a few times for dinner at Brickwall Tavern‘s Burlington location (the other, in a fascinating bit of upper-south/lower-central Jersey cultural exchange, being in Asbury Park). It’s got a downtown on par in size and scale with Collingswood’s or Bordentown’s, both DVRPC classic towns, though for some reason it doesn’t feature on the site. It has frequent rail access to Trenton, Camden, and Philadelphia, something that might become even more of an asset thanks to the big projects going on in Camden thanks to a strategy of tax-incentivized development there and when the project to extended it to downtown Trenton offices comes to fruition. It also has old, historic buildings and neighborhoods thanks to it being one of South Jersey’s oldest cities incorporated in 1693 and it’s located along the Delaware River and its riverfront has plans for improvement. It seems to me to have a lot of elements of successful places, and it actually reminds me of many desirable historic Massachusetts towns.

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The case for better connectivity to University City through NJ Transit’s Atlantic City Line

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I’ve had this article sitting in my drafts folder for the past five months. Given the lack of interest in the subject on the part of NJ Transit, whenever I sit down to write it, I feel a little bit like I’m screaming into the void. But this morning I finally gathered the motivation to get it done after seeing Jake Blumgart’s tweet linking to an article from the Atlantic City Press that essentially equates the city’s declining fortunes with the fact that fewer people are taking the train line. If you think of the line as simply as a train that gets people to and from the struggling shore town, then it makes sense. With fewer attractions and jobs, there are fewer people to pull from as a potential customer base for the service. But that would be thinking too one-dimensionally. To understand the potential this line has for serving South Jersey, you have to rather turn your attention to what’s at the other end of the line: the white-hot job market being built in University City, Philadelphia, which hosts the line’s northernmost stop at 30th Street Station.

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Ghosts of City Hall: The PATCO station you’ve never seen

Map of downtown Camden and the City Hall station.
Map of downtown Camden and the City Hall station, including my estimate for the reaches of the closed off pedestrian tunnels.

If you’ve ever used PATCO’s City Hall station in downtown Camden, you might think it’s pretty simple. A red stairwell on the southwest corner of 5th & Market takes you down to a small concourse with fare machines, turnstiles, and a platform. If you’ve looked a little closer, you might’ve noticed a few interesting things, like the big steel doors that block off a passageway marked with a “TO COOPER ST” sign, or a gate that stops you from going anywhere but immediately through the turnstiles. Even if you could imagine that through those doorways lies a few extra parts of the station closed off over the past few decades, you might not have ever realized just how large a station City Hall really is.

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When trains ruled South Jersey

Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines
Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines, 1933–1976

A lot of my mental energy is taken up thinking about transportation. Specifically, about how the shift from dense, urban living in the first half of the 20th century gave way to sprawled out, distant living in the second half of the century that resulted in a wide array of social and physical ills, such as the soul-deadening sameness of the suburbs that so many people my age are currently turning away from. So it’s fascinating, and a bit depressing, to look at artifacts from the time in the state when our old downtowns were thriving and we weren’t yet obsessed with car-dependent sprawl. This map of the old Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines, active from about 1933 to 1976, is one such artifact.

As you can read about in such works as Leigh Gallagher’s excellent post-mortem The End of the Suburbs, the radical transformation of the American landscape was facilitated by a post-war housing boom that coincided with the mass production and affordability of the automobile. People were escaping dense, dirty cities in search of cleaner pastures. While the urge was understandable, the result is that we went from one extreme to the other without stopping to figure out if there was a happy medium in the process. As a result, our cities decayed as we built highways, strip malls, and massive sprawling developments. (It would be inappropriate to not point out that the decline of American cities was also intensified by the resulting negative stigma that the city-leavers held for their old residences and those who stayed, as can be seen by the widespread practice of redlining and, even now, the efforts of states like ours to keep the rich people in rich towns and poor people in poor towns.)

In the process of this outward expansion, we decided we no longer had use of passenger rail and massively scaled back its offerings, if not wiped it out completely. My parents fondly remember taking the Seashore Lines train down to Cape May for the weekend; my memories involve being incredibly bored stuck in traffic on the Atlantic City Expressway and the New Jersey Parkway going to and from the shore. What hand-wringing we perform to this day whenever we go to Ocean City, Wildwood, or Cape May, all stuck on highways in our SUVs, those supposed vessels of freedom.

Which brings me back to this image in the context of our present-day world. It’s incredibly vexing to see what used to exist as local governments are trying to bring their downtowns back and plans abound to bring back passenger rail service along those old freight lines in South Jersey. As the baby boomers who so bought into suburbia leave the state for greener pastures and thought leaders in the state work to retain and attract millennials, I can’t help but think that we had this all figured out for several decades before we went to the extreme and abandoned the old world for the new in our own state. As property taxes continually rise to support the sprawl and all of the functionally unsustainable infrastructure that goes with it, we could do with some retrospection into our past to see what worked and why for so many New Jerseyans for so long.

 

Stemming the tide of population loss in New Jersey

Kala Kachmar recently wrote an introspective article on the exodus of both retirees and millennials from New Jersey to other, less expensive states (in the case of the former) or more interesting locales (in the case of the latter), wondering aloud what the state can do to stem this loss. It’s something I’ve thought about frequently, and I’ve developed a few thoughts on the subject.

First things first: New Jersey’s property taxes are the highest in the nation and are often cited as a reason people are leaving the state. Our taxes are high for several reasons, a large part of which is to pay for our overly built-out, sprawling infrastructure (our water lines, our sewer lines, the roads to connect all of our towns). Given the traditional structure for each town to face these costs alone, a movement has sprung up to consolidate towns in order to save money in this area. Courage to Connect was integral to the decision several years ago by Princeton borough and Princeton Township to merge. Since that merger, the town has saved on municipal costs, according to a recent address by mayor Liz Lempert. At the legislative level, South Jersey Democrat and Senate President Steve Sweeney has been “the state’s foremost evangelist for service sharing”, the goal of which is to save money and lower property taxes.

Another important issue the state must confront is that a very large number of people entering the workforce after college don’t want to work in the soul-deadening office parks that characterized the state’s employment scene in the 20th century. WHYY’s Newsworks site has been talking about this, and towns like Holmdel have been trying to figure out how to give their sprawling office parks new life.

A related issue that goes hand in hand with where millennials work is where they live. NJTV News recently had an interview with Dean of Rutgers Bloustein School of Public Policy James Hughes who says “New Jersey needs to reinvent the suburbs to provide the equivalent of urban areas in the suburbs.” What this will mean in practice is refocusing on a unique asset the state all but ignored as it built up suburbia: its older towns with downtown commercial strips. People are increasingly drawn, even in South Jersey, to towns with old bones, due to their walkability and downtowns dense with shopping and restaurants. They truly offer a chance to capture some of the renewed interest in urbanized spaces at a time when it’s a motivating factor for young people leaving the state.

And for those people who do chose to stay and grow in New Jersey, it’s important to foster walking and biking as much as possible. The state right now almost exclusively caters to car traffic at a time when millennials are choosing a car-lite or car-free lifestyle and the elderly are finding themselves unable to continue driving. Much more needs to be done to foster the walkability and bikeability of New Jersey’s towns; we have a lot to offer that you won’t see as you speed by at 55 miles per hour on our 4-lane superhighways.

Complementing an increased effort to get people out of their cars is proper funding to maintain and expand public transportation, which is seeing record growth as people reject traffic jam-filled commutes in favor of taking the train to their jobs. PATCO, PATH, and NJ Transit are good systems in desperate need of care, but the bankrupt Transportation Trust Fund jeopardizes their future usefulness. If people are going to work in Philadelphia or New York and live in New Jersey, they must be able to rely on public transportation to get them to their jobs.

And if New Jersey residents aren’t going to work in cities in another state, then we need to make New Jersey attractive for the kinds of industries experiencing growth at this point, that being things like the service economy the majority of whose employees, again, want to be in interesting urban settings and not in office parks in remote locations. The state could learn from any number of its peers in the region about how to attract and retain 21st century jobs.

Hopefully somebody in the state legislature takes these considerations seriously, because if they don’t, New Jersey is going to continue to lose good jobs to other states, cementing itself as a niche bedroom community and not much else.

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.