Jerry Foster was riding his bicycle on Alexander Road in West Windsor on March 11, 2015 when he was struck by a vehicle who sped past him too closely, clipping his handlebars. Fortunately, Jerry was one of the lucky ones; he was uninjured and was able to keep his bike upright, and continued on his commute to work that morning. However, most riders who are struck by vehicles sustain some type of injury or are killed.
Alongside Alexander Road where Jerry was struck was a sidewalk that he could have chosen to ride upon. But the state legislature is looking to remove that option from Jerry’s commute and that of countless others who ride on the sidewalk for safety reasons. Had Jerry chosen to bicycle on the sidewalk, he would not have been struck by the motorist, a choice that would not be available under the proposed legislation.
Adults and children alike ride on the sidewalk because they do not feel safe riding in the roadway. Our state legislators should be focused on making roads safer for bike riders rather than forcing riders onto heavily trafficked, congested, unsafe roads. Our state has done little to pass a safe passing law that would require motorists to pass bike riders and pedestrians at a safe distance (a “three foot” or “four foot” law), and even less towards adopting a Vision Zero plan that would eliminate road deaths statewise. Further, the state has had a Complete Streets policy since 2009 yet very little has been done in terms of street infrastructure to accommodate all road users, including pedestrians and bike riders, on state roads. Over 140 municipalities and eight counties have passed these same Complete Streets policies, but again, very few are actually implemented. Yet the state legislature appears eager to pass a bill that will force bike riders into the streets by ending sidewalk riding statewide.
Current New Jersey home rule allows municipalities to prohibit bicycle riding on specific sidewalks as necessary, as some have done. Rather than a townwide ordinance, municipalities under current law can decide which streets are included in the prohibition; it does not have to be, and in many cases is not, a townwide prohibition. For example, Hightstown, Princeton, and Morristown have ordinances prohibiting bicycling on the sidewalks in their Main Street areas, which have heavy pedestrian traffic. Outside of these areas, bicyclists may use sidewalks as they deem necessary for safety, with little conflict with pedestrians.
This current flexibility allows towns to accommodate the many people who do not feel safe riding in streets where there are no bicycle safety facilities for them- which is most of the streets in the state. It also enables towns to provide additional ways of getting around congested streets for purposes of convenience, safety and livability.
Under this approach, New Jersey municipalities have had decades to determine where bicyclists and pedestrians regularly conflict, and have appropriately legislated prohibitions where applicable. To ask them to now react to a change in state law that puts the onus on municipalities to allow bicycling on sidewalks where there is no conflict is nonsensical, and punitive to bike riders wishing to avoid conflicts with motor vehicles.
While many of these sidewalk riders are those commuting to work or to transit out of choice, there are also many who pedal to work out of necessity because they cannot afford car ownership or bus or train fare. A statewide ban on sidewalk riding would disproportionately target these underserved individuals who are merely trying to get to work and otherwise provide for their families.
New Jersey legislators should be endorsing policy that provides additional transportation options for all residents of the nation’s most densely populated state; they should be working on new ways for people to get around, to avoid congestion, to reduce travel and commute times, to have a better chance of catching the train or bus, rather than taking away one of the most basic ways of getting around -bicycling- for those who choose it as a convenience and for those who have no choice.
Sidewalk riding in New Jersey has long been accommodated by township ordinances preventing it on certain streets. Passing a statewide prohibition of sidewalk riding works against minorities, works against safety, health, environment, livability and quality of life issues for New Jersey residents. The state has no place getting involved in sidewalk riding and should leave current law alone, so that towns may continue to make these decisions, as they have been for decades.
Cyndi Steiner, Executive Director, NJBWC
Jerry Foster, President, West Windsor Bicycle Pedestrian Alliance