Along rural roadways is where many seek to escape from the urban morass of city centers like Newark and Trenton, replacing the entanglement of the cityscape with scenic vistas which provide a temporary escape from New Jersey’s chaotic urban centers. But an essential and rudimentary feature is almost always missing in this delightfully uncluttered scenario: protected bicycle lanes and pedestrian walkways as well as corroborating signage which users may otherwise take for granted in urban areas. This idyllic setting for drivers can be unwelcoming to bicyclists and pedestrians looking to safely access these areas, since commonplace features in urban centers which include sharrows, crosswalk signals, and safety barriers are missing from most rural roadways. Though bicyclist and pedestrian traffic on rural roads is infrequent compared to urban centers, the lack of physical design elements meant to remind drivers of bicyclist and pedestrian travelers inadvertently perpetuates the idea that drivers are not expected to share rural roadways with other users, which can lead to a lack of vigilance, putting bicyclists and pedestrians who do access these areas at increased risk of harm.
The hazardous nature of rural roadways is not limited to bicyclists and pedestrians. Data collected from the National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA) has shown a concerning trend that recurs year after year: the majority of motorist deaths in the United States occur along rural roadways. According to results from the 2013 US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, roughly 19% of Americans live in rural areas, yet 54% of all traffic fatalities that same year occurred along rural stretches (US Census Bureau). This regional trend compared to statistics from urban areas, as well as generally lower volumes of bicycle, pedestrian, and vehicle traffic, shows that the likelihood of fatalities occurring for each of the three categories (bicycles, pedestrians, and drivers) on rural roads is higher in the event of a collision. Crash data collected from New Jersey’s 21 counties shows Essex County has an inordinately high number of pedestrian fatalities. Bergen County has the highest number of bicycle fatalities out of all New Jersey counties, with four fatalities recorded in 2015 (Figure 1). Cape May has an inordinately high rate of bicycle and pedestrian fatalities (Figure 1.2). This high incidence of pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities in New Jersey’s rural municipalities can be attributed to a number of factors including lack of roadway dividers, increased speed of adjacent traffic, limited space, and a less prominent law enforcement presence. Some of these contributing factors can be mitigated through a redesign or addition of safety features to New Jersey’s rural roadways.
Cape May County is a prime example of a region with low population density and high bicyclist and pedestrian fatality rates. In comparison to other New Jersey counties, Cape May has regularly been ranked as having one of the lowest population densities in the state due to its secluded location at the southern-most tip of the state, located away from major urban centers. To give an idea of its population density attributes, Cape May’s largest city is Lower Township, with a 2016 population estimate of only 22,007 according to US Census Bureau’s QuickFacts. Ranked as the second smallest county in terms of number of total residents (second to Salem for consecutive years dating back to 2012) Cape May, witnessed a total of 5.3 bicyclist and pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 people in 2015, showing a troubling correlation between sparsely populated areas and deleterious conditions for pedestrians and bicyclists. It can be affirmed that in 2015, Cape May ranked number one as the county where residents were most likely to be fatally injured while walking or cycling, out of all 21 New Jersey Counties.
New Jersey witnesses higher proportions of pedestrian and bicycle fatalities than the country as a whole. The table below (Figure 1.3) features crash data compiled by NHTSA and State Police of New Jersey for calendar year 2015 and includes fatalities solely resulting from pedestrian and bicyclist crashes involving motor vehicles.
Road hazards encountered by rural bicyclists and pedestrians can be completely different than the ones encountered by their urban counterparts and thus deserve special consideration. These hazards may be unique to rural areas and may not be covered in today’s urban bicycle/pedestrian safety outreach efforts. Speed limits tend to be higher along county roads, rural roadways are inherently isolated, and there is less room for maneuverability in terms of limited pavement width. Other unique conditions of rural roadways include high-speed wind gusts from passing vehicles, eroded and unkempt road shoulders, and the lack of ‘eyes on the street’- an aspect of cities which is lauded as a key safety feature in the urban landscape. Additional hazards could include standing water, wildlife, gravel which migrates from private driveways, steep and uneven drop-offs along shoulders, cars which are turning quickly as they enter and exit the roadway, and cracks in the road due to less frequent paving and maintenance. Rumble strips, a feature added to roadways designed to wake drowsy drivers who drift over the median, can prove hazardous to bicyclists because the front tire can destabilize when contact is made with the ridged surface, thereby creating instability and loss of control of the handlebars (Figure 1.4). Increasing funding for routine maintenance and redesigning existing elements can reduce roadway hazards in lieu of costlier roadway improvements such as road widening or installing rigid traffic barriers.
A growing need for varied transportation options for Americans of all walks of life necessitates an increase in education and awareness efforts, in light of foreseeable changes in the near future as as driving becomes cost-prohibitive for more people. Trip generation and other forecasting models can help planners to predict infrastructure demand, but ensuring safe passage to a wider range of transportation modes is what will truly help planners to meet increased future demand. Encouraging rural bicycling and rural walkability is vital in these areas which lack an abundance of transportation options enjoyed by urban dwellers such as ride share, regular bus service, and expansive interconnected transit hubs.
The suitability of a roadway for bicyclist and pedestrian use can be influenced by the condition of the roadway’s shoulder, traffic speed, pavement quality, pavement type, drainage characteristics, and longitudinal grading. Studies done by Sorton and Walsh (1994) as well as Lebsack’s 1995 study in Washington DC have attempted to identify and assess factors which stress bicyclists out. These studies have generally shown that as vehicle traffic speed increases along a roadway, the stress level of users who occupy the shoulder of roadways increases. It has been found in these studies that innate characteristics of rural roadways make bicycling on the shoulder of secluded rural roads one of the most dangerous and stressful forms of bicycling. Small townships with limited budgets and wherewithal may not see enhancing rural walkability and bikability as being urgent issues, since pedestrians and bicyclists are rare sights in rural areas of New Jersey, but the need to mitigate the harmful effects and risks of accessing rural roadways of New Jersey is just as important as increasing roadway safety in more populated areas.
Reports and studies for further reading:
Lebsack, Jeffrey W. Calculating Bicycle Stress Factors for a Bicycle Map. In 1995 Compendium of Technical Papers. Institute of Transportation Engineers, Washington, D.C., 1995, pp. 441-444.
National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA) https://www.nhtsa.gov/
New Jersey State Police, Fatal Accident Investigation Unit (report run: 3-jan-2017)
Sorton, Alex and Thomas Walsh. Bicycle Stress Level as a Tool To Evaluate Urban and Suburban Bicycle Compatibility. In Transportation Research Record 1438, TRB, National Research Council, Washington, DC, 1994.
United States Census Bureau https://www.census.gov