Pamela Lampitt remembers what got her to start thinking about street safety. She had heard about a pedestrian in Cherry Hill, part of the district she represents as a New Jersey state assemblywoman, who was struck by a car and killed. “That draws your attention to the issues,” Lampitt says.
It wasn’t only pedestrians. Lampitt had also become aware of the dangerous conditions for bicyclists in South Jersey. “Do we have enough bike lanes?” she asks. “Do people in suburbia know to abide by certain bike safety rules?”
A similar urgency has been taking root throughout the state. More than 560 people died on New Jersey roads last year, according to state police. That number includes 173 pedestrians and 17 bicyclists, up from 11 bicyclists in 2014. New Jersey remains one of the more dangerous states for walking, with about 1.88 pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 people, according to the latest numbers from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
That puts it among the top 10 states with the most pedestrians killed per capita. (Pennsylvania, meanwhile, saw 1.26 pedestrian deaths per 100,000 people.)
Inspired by the troubling statistics, Lampitt decided to take action. The state senate had already seen legislation, introduced in October 2014 by North Jersey’s Nia Gill, that would create a commission to study pedestrian safety. Later that year, Lampitt became the bill’s primary sponsor in the General Assembly.
Drawing members from various state agencies — including the Department of Transportation, the Motor Vehicle Commission, and the Division of Highway Traffic and Safety — the Pedestrian Safety Study Commission would study risky behaviors on the roadways, as well as the laws, regulations and educational resources that could curb them. It would report its findings to the legislature and the governor.
“The goal of the bill is to bring all of the stakeholder agencies together for the first time ever in New Jersey transportation history,” says Cyndi Steiner, executive director of New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition, an advocacy group that helped redraft the bill so the commission would also cover bicycling. “The DOT can’t do this work in a silo.”
An initial version of the bill passed both the senate and the assembly. But when it reached Gov. Chris Christie’s desk this past January, he took no action and instead let the bill expire. His move was an example of a “pocket veto,” which unlike ordinary vetoes requires no official explanation from the governor’s office.
“I would love to be able to understand how the mind of Chris Christie works, but I don’t,” Lampitt says. “I don’t think anybody does.” With no cues as to why Christie wouldn’t sign the bill, both houses of the New Jersey Legislature took it up again. But things have changed for the governor since January, giving advocates hope that his response will be different now that he’s out of the national spotlight.
“Last time he was running for president,” Steiner says. “We hope that this time around, he will be thinking about New Jersey and not his presidential campaign.”
A Centralized Approach
The need for such a commission in New Jersey underscores the challenges of planning for road safety in such a dense, suburbanized state. Most towns throughout the state are caught up in a patchwork of local, county and state-run roads, with the responsibility for maintaining and improving these roads falling to various agencies at three different levels of government.
Assuring a more centralized approach to road safety in New Jersey would involve the participation of its Metropolitan Planning Organizations. Known as MPOs, these entities oversee the spending of federal money for transportation projects across entire metro regions. New Jersey has three: the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority, the South Jersey Transportation Planning Organization (SJTPO), and the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, which also covers Southeastern Pennsylvania.
Alan Huff, senior transportation planner at SJTPO, writes in an email that MPOs cannot advocate for or against legislation. “Regardless of the ultimate outcome of the bill,” he writes, “SJTPO will work rigorously, alongside our MPO and State partners, to advance safety in whatever way we can.”
“I would love to be able to understand how the mind of Chris Christie works, but I don’t. I don’t think anybody does.”
Another way to bring about a statewide vision for road safety is through legislative policy changes. Right now New Jersey doesn’t have any rule mandating how much space cars should give cyclists when passing them on the street. A bill suggesting a four-foot passing law, similar to what Pennsylvania has on the books, cleared the New Jersey Assembly in 2014.
But while state Sen. Nicholas Sacco, who chairs the Transportation Committee, approved the bill that would create a bike and pedestrian safety commission, he refused to even post the four-foot passing bill.
“There are a lot of issues with that bill because every town has different width and space clearance on the roads,” a Sacco spokesperson says. “So the one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work.” The bill remains stuck in committee.
As far the needs of walkers and bicyclists, New Jersey hasn’t yet had the conversations that have been going on for years in Philadelphia, New York and other East Coast cities. In a state where suburban interests tend to have the most power — where, indeed, an old joke has it that residents use the nearest highway exit to reference where they live — this shouldn’t come as a surprise.
“We’re seeing our cities embrace complete streets and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure,” Steiner says. “Out in suburbia it’s a much heavier lift.”
Even among the lawmakers who are drawn to bikes and pedestrians, attitudes haven’t quite evolved along with the vanguard of safe streets advocacy. Lampitt, concerned about distracted walking, introduced a bill this past spring that would punish the “use of hand-held wireless telephone by pedestrians on roadways.” Anyone caught texting while crossing the street, for instance, could face a fine of up to $50, akin to a jaywalking ticket.
“I believe that in many cases, [pedestrians] are causing accidents that are unbeknownst to them because they’re in their own little bubble,” Lampitt says. “We all have our part to road safety.”
“We’re seeing our cities embrace complete streets and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. Out in suburbia it’s a much heavier lift.”
News of the bill spread far and wide, accompanied by breathless headlines. (“Will cellphone use while walking be banned in N.J.?” asked Philly.com. “OMG, lawmaker wants to ticket pedestrians who walk and text,” quipped NJ.com.) Safe streets advocates weren’t happy.
“This bill is misguided on a number of levels,” Steiner says. “For one, hands-free walking? Hands aren’t needed for walking. It begs the question, where will this stop? Will pedestrians need to march in rank and file next?”
It also seems unlikely to come up in the state senate. “There’s been no talk about doing that,” Sacco’s spokesperson says when asked about the distracted walking legislation. “We believe that’s more of a case for personal responsibility.”
This debate, between a well-meaning lawmaker who wants to protect her constituents and advocates more steeped in the nuances of transportation policy, shows how street safety is still a novel concept in New Jersey. But the fact that the conversation is happening at all could signal something else: that a state known for its highways and busy thoroughfares is finally ready to consider its walkers and bicyclists.
It also means that New Jersey has room to grow on the issue. While defending her distracted walking bill, Lampitt mentions that this is exactly the sort of situation where a safety commission could help clear the air and recommend more “positive” changes — where to install bike lanes, for instance — as opposed to punitive ones.
“I’m hoping that developing a council of this sort of nature will come up with other recommendations that we should be implementing,” she says.
Illustration by Ann Dinh