September 29, 2021

We’re creating a 30-year plan for our streets. Want to help? | Opinion

By Kathryn A. DeFillippo

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every aspect of our lives — how we work, how we maintain our health, how we learn, how we socialize and recreate, how we spend money, how we do business, and how we get around. With the virus suddenly making indoor activities a lot riskier, people have taken to the streets — literally. Outdoor seating, dining, sidewalk sales, and more have popped up in towns and cities across the state. The concept of ‘complete streets’ that meet the needs of everyone is no longer an academic planning vision but rather a Main Street reality.

Here in North Jersey we’ve seen towns quickly transform and use sidewalks and streets in creative ways as never seen before. Car use has been restricted to create more street space for walking, bicycling and outdoor dining. These changes help people get around while maintaining social distancing; but they can also help make communities safer for walking and biking, and reduce the focus on cars, which can help lower emissions.

Complete streets are streets for everyone. They are designed for all users, all modes of transportation, and all ages and ability levels. Complete streets balance the needs of drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders, emergency responders, and goods movement — based on local needs.

These street transformations represent significant local improvements not just during a pandemic, but beyond. They can bring broad benefits for climate change, public health, downtown small businesses, and equal access for all ages and abilities.

The North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority (NJTPA) has long been promoting the value of complete streets in our communities. Complete streets help create places where people want to live — communities for everyone, including children, people with disabilities, and older adults. Complete streets improve equity, safety, public health, and the environment while reducing transportation costs, traffic, and air pollution.

Simple and affordable changes in street design can have major impacts. Small things such as painting new pedestrian areas, installing low-cost street furniture or creating mini-parks out of parking spaces can serve as a catalyst for broader change. Coupled with community engagement – especially with those who live, work or use the street frequently – these small-scale changes allow people to experience the new design before permanent changes are implemented. Members of the community learn about the benefits and very often build strong support for further changes.

The NJTPA, the federally authorized Metropolitan Planning Organization for 6.7 million people in 13 counties in northern and central New Jersey, is looking at how we all get around today to come up with a transportation plan for the next 30 years that responds holistically to the region’s mobility needs.

The 2050 plan we develop should represent a regional transportation vision that shapes a positive and productive future for North Jersey — with or without a pandemic. But the changes to how we travel and use streets brought about by COVID-19 offer a glimpse of a future that’s better for everyone. Bicycling and walking have surged — bicycle shops are one of the few retail businesses that have flourished. The demand for open-air restaurants and outdoor seating is so great that manufacturers of outdoor street furniture can’t keep up. Street parking spaces being used for drive-by merchandise pickup and small pocket parks (called parklets) have proliferated.

Some of the biggest crises in history have also led to meaningful and necessary societal changes. For complete street planners and advocates, these changes are opportunities. The NJTPA is actively watching what’s happening on New Jersey streets and working on ways to integrate these changes into our next long-range transportation plan, slated for adoption in the fall of 2021. But we can’t do it without you.

While we support complete streets planning in our work, we want to hear from you as we draft Plan 2050. How are you getting around today? How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your transportation needs and desires? Are you walking and biking more? What barriers do you see to walking and biking around more? How safe do you feel letting your kids walk and bike? With your input, we can plan for a better, safer, and more equitable transportation future together. Visit our online site to share your thoughts.

Freeholder Kathryn A. DeFillippo is serving her third term on the Morris County freeholder board. She joined the NJTPA Board of Trustees in 2014 and became chair this year.

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