By: Ian Watson
There are very few places in New Jersey where pedestrians can shop on the street without having to worry about car traffic. Somerville is one location where this type of road layout can be found. In 2010, the borough received a grant and laid out plans to widen its sidewalks on Division Street, a road made up of local businesses and located a block away from the main transit station. Prior to this pedestrian-focused move, the street faced a 50% vacancy rate. Moving away from traditional curb styles, the original plan was designed to expand on classic street formats. Improved seating on the sidewalks and lighting were two key features which the borough wanted to target. The borough also planned on reducing its vehicle lanes on the street from two lanes to only one.
As the project went through development, the borough began toying with the idea of having a “shared street” rather than focusing mainly on sidewalk expansions. This new idea included the addition of an all-concrete surface on the road. Visible demarcations and removable bollards were included as part of the design to mark off pedestrian areas and facilitate the use of space for local events and fairs. The withdrawal of curbs were also intended to make it easier for tables and booths to be set up for special occasions. By having an all-flat surface, both pedestrians and automobilists could optimally use the space.
By May of 2012, the “shared street” concept went through an unexpected change. To finalize the construction process, concrete was poured along Division Street for the purpose of combining pedestrian and vehicle space. Vehicles were not allowed to use the street for two months because of the time required for materials to harden. The process ended up exceeding the estimated time and, as a result, allowed residents to accustom themselves with this layout type. Many people who experienced this wanted to keep the design and permanently prohibit vehicles from using the space.
The idea of having a pedestrian street also grew on Somerville officials who eventually decided that a survey would be conducted on the matter. They wanted to find out if the community favored the all-pedestrian street format compared to the original “shared street” design. The results would then determine the possibility of a permanent pedestrian mall. Throughout the summer of 2013, 400 surveys were given out to local residents. When the responses came back, officials realized how strongly supported this concept was. They also examined retail data to reinforce their ultimate decision. The block had become fully leased during the wait period, up from a 50% vacancy rate before the project even took off. By September of that year, the borough council voted to permanently close off the street from vehicles.
Currently, Division Street continues to thrive and attract people from all across Central Jersey. The car-free atmosphere makes it easier for consumers to shop and for store owners to run their businesses. Partnerships between stores have also created a less competitive and welcoming environment for everyone. The new street design allows for special events and activities to be held, including movie nights and farmer’s markets. On top of these accomplishments, the borough is still planning out new ways to make the spot friendlier for pedestrians. New sidewalks are slated to be developed on nearby streets along with access improvements to the train station. Perhaps if other towns across New Jersey follow this model, they will experience just as many benefits as Somerville has.