Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the interviewee and do not reflect the opinion or position of the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center, New Jersey Bicycle and Pedestrian Resource Center, New Jersey Department of Transportation, or Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.
Welcome to the first edition of NJ Commuter Spotlight! This series will highlight New Jersey residents who travel to work car-free.
In this issue, the spotlight is on Glenn Patterson, Director of Planning, Community, and Economic Development for the City of New Brunswick. Glenn has authored over 20 redevelopment plans and plan amendments for the revitalization of New Brunswick, which have formed the basis for over $1 billion of new investment in the city over the past 20 years. His work has contributed to the rehabilitation of more than 500 housing units and the development of over 500 new affordable housing units for low and moderate-income households. He is also responsible for establishing the Urban Enterprise Zone in New Brunswick, which has fostered economic development in the city. While Glenn’s long list of achievements is remarkable, NJAIM was interested in learning about how he rides his bike to work.
When did you start commuting to work by bicycle?
I’ve been doing it forever, about thirty years or so, but not always on a regular basis. Luckily I’ve been able to ride to most of the jobs I’ve had. Even when I was driving beer trucks in college, the job was only 5 miles away and occasionally I would bike there. I’ve been in New Brunswick for over 20 years and used to hop on my bicycle during nicer weather, but for the past four years it’s been the only way that I commute. It’s just a lot more fun to commute to work that way.
How long is your average commute? Is this your mode of travel year-round?
It’s about a two mile trip each way, depending on the route I take. And I do it year-round – every day, rain or shine. Once I started biking daily, I quickly got over things like the weather. I’ll just throw on some rain pants or a pair of shorts. You can bike in any weather, really. It’s actually a lot of fun riding in the snow.
What influenced your decision to use your bicycle for transportation? Do you also ride your bicycle for recreation or for trips outside of your commute?
I ride my bike for everything. I ride because it’s fun. When you commute in a car, even on a short commute like mine, you sit in traffic and everyone is in a rush. You just feel frustrated. On a bike, the commute is the fun part of my day. So I thought – well, why don’t I do this every day? I actually used to walk to work before I started biking. I realized that I could save a lot of time if I just rode.
If you were not able to commute by bicycle, would you be able to make this trip otherwise?
As I said, I could walk. I could also head over to Buccleuch Park and catch the bus, so I have a few non-drive alone options available. Biking is better though!
So you think that biking is more fun than other modes, but do you face any challenges during your commute?
You always need to be aware of your surroundings, just as with driving a car or walking. But for the most part, the rides are pretty uneventful. I tend to avoid the main thoroughfares though. New Brunswick has a well-developed street grid so there are plenty of streets that can get you to your destination almost as directly as the more heavily traveled and congested routes. Instead of riding on Easton Avenue, you could ride on Guilden Street or Delafield and have essentially a car-free trip. We’ve put bike lanes and sharrows on those side streets to encourage people to use these routes and avoid conflicts on roads like Easton Avenue. These side streets have less traffic and are really pleasant to ride on. Using these routes doesn’t take any longer either.
Does your perception of safety affect your route choice?
I wouldn’t say that safety is the main reason – it’s just a more pleasant experience to take these routes. I don’t have to deal with traffic either, although I don’t usually mind it. One of my favorite places to ride is New York City. I love riding in Manhattan and I love riding in Brooklyn. It’s exhilarating. For me, traffic is more of a safety issue when you’re out in the suburbs. There was a seminar in Princeton a while ago and I took my bike on the train to get there. I then had to bike from Princeton Junction to the Princeton library. People were driving close to 50 miles per hour and weren’t expecting bikers. In some places, there wasn’t a shoulder either. That’s when I find traffic scary. Drivers tend to be more aware in an urban atmosphere because they expect pedestrians and cyclists to be around.
What are some infrastructure improvements that you would like to see in New Brunswick?
I’d like to see more bike lanes and we’ve adopted a Complete Streets policy to do that. We are also taking a look at the possibility of bike share. We just started day-lighting some intersections too. The first ones are over on Joyce Kilmer Avenue at Redmond and Welton, where we just put up some pylons. I’d like to see some bump outs but that’s a lot more costly. We’ll be putting more in the 5th and 6th wards and it should be interesting to see the reaction. Technically you are not losing parking spaces when you install these. However, people illegally park in these areas near the corner all the time. Ian Sacs had some success with them in Hoboken, which hopefully we can replicate down here to make neighborhoods nicer to walk and bike in. These improvements make it more pleasant for drivers too. Sometimes you can’t see when an SUV is parked right at the corner and this will prevent that. The goal is to make the city more pedestrian-friendly and walkable, which will ultimately help with economic development. The millennial generation tends to look for places where they would like to live and then they find a job, as opposed to finding a job and picking a nearby place to live. Car ownership rates are also down. We are lucky to have a densely developed city with great transit options and we are doing all we can to make it an even more interesting place to live.
Does your perspective as a pedestrian and bicyclist influence your work as a planner?
Oh yeah. It’s a different perspective, especially when talking with other professionals, whether planners, engineers, or public administrators. If you’re driving on Route 18 everyday, you have a different perspective than if you are walking or cycling. I’ve been doing it for years so they occasionally have to remind me what the driver is confronting. There is a lot of congestion here and people find getting into New Brunswick frustrating, but I don’t encounter traffic jams. In four years of riding, there was only one day that I can remember getting delayed in a traffic jam. There was a fire or some major incident and police had stopped traffic. I don’t encounter congestion so I know what time I’m getting home because my trip only varies by a minute or two. I’ll go out of my way sometimes, like on a nice day like today, I’ll go find a longer route. It’s like – hey, I can bike longer today. It’s pretty rare that people in cars think – oh let’s take the really long route. Biking gives you a different perspective and there aren’t a lot of people with that perspective. The majority of people are still driving and you have to accommodate that.
What do you think are the best ways to encourage walking and biking?
Talking about it in a positive light. Safety is a concern but don’t try to scare people before they hop on a bike. Most people are pretty unfamiliar with biking in traffic. I’ve got two guys from my office biking to work now but they didn’t know how to do it at first. One hadn’t biked in ten years.
Building dedicated lanes rather than sharrows can also make people more comfortable. Doing so requires more money but building the infrastructure helps, especially in car-centric areas. I read a Mikael Colville-Andersen article on Copenhagenize a few months ago and he made the point that when you plan out road or rail systems, you plan an entire system. Bike infrastructure is more like – hey look at that, I think we can fit a bike lane there. It doesn’t usually get planned as a system – it’s more opportunistic. Looking for these opportunities is key.
What is your most memorable bicycling experience?
I remember riding on the Chesapeake & Ohio canal one day and I ended up going close to 70 miles on a mountain bike, which was double what I thought I’d end up be doing. I kept thinking – this doesn’t look so far, I’ll go there – and all of a sudden I realized I went much further than I thought. Part of the canal was washed out so I had to portage my bike with only a few feet of room on a bluff. I was carrying my bike on one side because there wasn’t enough room on the other. It was 20 or 30 feet down to the Potomac and I had been riding for 6 hours, was out of water, and was thinking – if I make one wrong step, I’m dead. That was one of the more memorable experiences. When I got back I thought – man, that was a great day. It was stupid but I got through it – didn’t fall into the river.
As the world becomes more multi-modal, how will this transformation impact communities of the future?
Cycling and walking are certainly on the uptrend right now. As I was saying before, the millennial generation is showing less reliance on single-occupancy vehicle for travel. They also tend to want to live in places like New Brunswick, Jersey City, New York, and Philadelphia where non-car alternatives are easily accessible. I think it will depend on the economy too. It will be interesting to see what impact the recession has had on influencing people to bike and walk. I read an article in the Bergen Record about how there is a net migration out of the county and into New York City, as young families want the walkability, the art galleries, the coffee shops, and other amenities in the city. So that’s a sign that this could be a long-term trend that isn’t driven by economics, but the Great Recession has had a such an impact on how people do things and it will be interesting to see what happens if the economy starts roaring again. Maybe people will want the Mcmansions and SUVs again. Or maybe the younger generation will think Mcmansions are passé and would never want to live in a car-dependent, five-bedroom house on an acre of land. Hopefully the trend of people living in densely populated places continues and that will affect how we get around. The biggest challenge will then be figuring out urban schools.
What is your favorite Complete Street in New Jersey?
George Street in New Brunswick is a great complete street, despite not having a bike lane. The dedicated walking and biking paths along Frank Sinatra Drive in Hoboken are really neat too, although it’s almost more than a complete street. The waterfront park is right there too. I’ll go with that one.
It’s not in New Jersey but I also love riding on the east side of the East River. Kent Avenue in Williamsburg and Greenpoint is a favorite over there.
What is your opinion about bicycling and the media?
I get frustrated sometimes when blogs continually harp on bicycle accidents and safety issues. It is important and we need to do things to make biking safer, but I think the best thing you can do to enhance safety is encourage more people to become regular bicyclists. I don’t think focusing on people getting maimed and killed on what seems like an incredibly frequent basis is getting a whole lot of new people on bikes. I have a few guys in the office biking to work now but they were originally in trepidation of doing it. But after you get out there, you realize that it’s not that bad. You just have to be aware of your surroundings. Cars aren’t trying to hit you. Most accidents occur when someone isn’t paying attention. I don’t tend to wear a helmet during my commute although I do when I take longer trips, but I see people doing incredibly stupid things, like wearing earphones while they ride. You need to hear when you’re on a bike.
Would the passage of a vulnerable user law make you feel safer on the road?
I think it could be something to incentivize drivers to take more care. A problem right now is a feeling that roads are for cars. In some car-dependent places, you might be the only one walking or biking and people don’t expect you to be out there. A lot of European countries have such strict liability laws but people are also more aware. In Copenhagen, people expect to see walkers and bikers. People also follow the rules more there. A lot of people in New Jersey jaywalk. In other places like Paris and Toronto, they have a lot of mid-block crosswalks, which reduces conflicts with turning vehicles. I used them in Toronto and the minute you put your foot off the curb, people stop. I think that having more cyclists and pedestrians out there will make roads safer as drivers become more cautious and aware.
For the record, we’ve also adopted a three-foot law in New Brunswick, which can better conditions for cyclists. Enforcement is another issue though.
Stay Tuned and Nominate Car-Free Commuters!
Stay tuned for the next entry of NJ Commuter Spotlight in June! If you would like to nominate a car-free commuter for this series, please contact us at the email below: