One quality of life issue that unites people of all ages is the need for safer streets. Professionals from pediatricians to gerontologists know that to live and feel healthy, Americans need to be spending more time outdoors, walking or biking several times a week for common activities like short trips to the store. Streets that accommodate such active living are called “Complete Streets” (CS), and municipalities that want to take advantage of grants and initiatives to improve safety, health, and economic vitality are well-advised to adopt CS policies that make it easier to connect their residents with places they’d like to go.
New Jersey adopted the country’s most comprehensive state Complete Streets policy in 2009. Since that time, many municipalities and organizations have come onboard to form an active transportation movement that has become an important element of the state’s new strategic plan and main focus of a plethora of transportation, health, and safety organizations including Safe Routes to School programs throughout the state.
This year I have been working as a lead ambassador as part of the New Jersey Bicycle and Pedestrian Resource Center’s Ambassadors in Motion program. The program employs four forms of outreach (i.e., on-street, classroom, event and municipal/county), and its mission is to increase the number of people walking and biking throughout the state, while also decreasing the number of injuries and fatalities. Through its municipal and county outreach efforts, the program is spreading the word about CS, offering technical assistance, and encouraging the adoption of new local policies. The program is funded by the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT), and as of April 2012 (program launch date), can be credited with leading and assisting several municipalities through the CS adoption process. To learn more about the program, please go to www.njbikeped.org
What’s good for you is also good for local economies. There is ample evidence from economic data and research that property values increase with walkability. This is best seen in the residential housing market, where the worst drop in housing prices has occurred in sprawling suburbs where there are few opportunities to walk while areas with amenities within walking distance have maintained their value. As sustainable development-guru Chris Leinberger has so eloquently stated, “people raised on Seinfeld, Friends, and Sex in the City aren’t looking to live in McMansions… they want to hang out in their local neighborhood coffee shop and walk to work”.
Many of the elements of Complete Streets are dirt cheap and will pay for themselves with increased commercial property values. Take for instance the $1.1 million improvement to the Township of Montclair’s downtown streetscape in which the hub of our central business district was transformed from a hazardous thoroughfare and parking zone into a leafy public commons with amenities for pedestrians along with adequate space for cars and parking. This investment was made possible with the enthusiastic support of our most fiscally conservative budget committee, and will benefit the city for years to come.
AARP has joined NJDOT in making a major push towards making communities more walkable by advocating for Complete Streets throughout New Jersey. To date, over 30 municipalities and three counties have adopted CS policies. With a membership of over 1.3 million people in NJ, this powerful organization is investing its resources so seniors can live healthier and longer by “aging in place” in walkable communities rather than becoming increasingly isolated in places where driving is their only convenient option.
Meanwhile, the Complete Streets movement has been equally embraced by those who advocate for youth. Shaping NJ, the state’s public/private initiative to reduce obesity and promote a lifelong habit of active living, has adopted a goal of increasing the number of CS policies and Safe Routes To Schools programs.
So with all these initiatives, how can citizens make sure Complete Streets is an engine of economic growth, quality of life, and health and safety for young and the old in THEIR community?
The key is elected officials. Although many technical experts like municipal planners and engineers have learned about Complete Streets through NJDOT outreach, only elected officials are in a position to communicate with the public effectively. They are simply in the best place to make the case for a change in policy and workflow to make sure that our most extensive public commons, our streets, are accessible to ALL users: not just cars but pedestrians, transit-users and cyclists.
How do elected officials get on board? A 2013 campaign, “I Want My Complete Streets”, will feature NJ celebrities, policy makers, and average New Jerseyans including senior citizens and kids for whom safer streets is simply a matter of life or death. Like the “I Want My MTV” campaign, the main goal is to introduce what is a new concept to most people, the notion that our streets are a precious resource for people, not just thoroughfares for vehicles. At the same time, it will raise awareness of the many health, safety and economic benefits, direct people to online resources, and ask people to speak with their Mayors and representatives to address the issue directly. There will be Public Service Announcements that can be customized to add the voices of local officials and community leaders to those of statewide figures, buttons, t-shirts, bumper stickers, and other signs that can be posted in stores, on bikes, strollers, wheelchairs and walkers.
In Montclair, it has been inspiring to see the diversity of supporters of Complete Streets. They come from virtually every sector: senior citizens, PTAs, skateboarders, business groups, retailers, police, the YMCA, hospitals and healthcare providers… everyone who likes outdoor activities. Many homeowners understand the fact that a walkable, more vibrant community is simply more desirable for homebuyers than places that aren’t . It certainly helps when one demonstrates the $1million in grants and $1/2 million in zero interest loans that the Township has received for pedestrian and bicycle enhancements and the burgeoning reputation as one of New Jersey’s best destinations for dining, arts, recreational and cultural activities.
Policy makers in Trenton including the Governor, Commissioner of Transportation, and Economic Development leaders have all endorsed the essence of smart growth development and the primacy of investing in areas of the state that are transit-friendly, livable, and truly mixed-use… places where seniors can age-in-place, where more residents can shop and work close to home and those who commute can choose to leave their cars at home and utilize mass transit most of the time. Although our state suffered from many of the auto-centric mistakes of post-war American development, over a third of our residents live in older suburbs that are ripe for invigorating redevelopment. Many also live in cities that are undergoing significant investment and the rest live in newer communities that can be opened up to healthier living and a more dynamic community life by retrofitting roads and connecting up housing with more retail stores and public amenities.
On November 14th at 2 PM at the NJ League of Municipalities conference in Atlantic City, I’ll be joined by representatives from the key groups advocating for Complete Streets on a panel entitled “Complete Streets – Redefining our Transportation Network”. Please join us and learn about a transformational $5 million Housing and Urban Development planning grant that will guide future efforts at connecting our communities and laying the foundation for increased economic development, health, and safety throughout New Jersey.
To learn more about how your community can become healthier, safer, and more economically sustainable through Complete Streets, please go to www.completestreets.org and contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how to get a Complete Streets media kit and materials.
-This article was originally printed in the December 2012 issue of the NJ League of Municipalities Magazine. Jerry Fried is a Lead Ambassador for NJ AIM, and the former mayor of Montclair, NJ.
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