by Betsy Harvey, MCRP '12
Earlier this week I biked out Route 27 towards North Brunswick. I’d never travelled down there before, and my bike map of Middlesex County indicated that it was a good road for biking, highlighting it in red. So I decided to go down 27 until I got to Cozzens Lane and take that to Jersey Avenue, which would then lead me back to New Brunswick.
Let me say this straight away: Route 27 is not a pleasant road to bike on, even on the weekend. I’m baffled as to why the Middlesex County decided to put it on the bike map of the county. It became clear to me about a mile down that only someone as foolish and curious as me would tolerate four lanes of traffic whizzing by 50 mph without a shoulder. There is a narrow sidewalk but it ended quite suddenly (and just when I needed it most) after 2 miles or so. Cozzens Lane is a pleasant, winding road through residential neighborhoods parks. That is, until it suddenly hits Route 1, and you wonder where Jersey Avenue is and if you’ll have turn around to trek back down Route 27 in shame, while motorists stare at you as they hurry by. Checking my map, I saw I was just a few blocks from Jersey Avenue. I found it quickly and took the straight shot back to New Brunswick. Being much less busy and having only two lanes, the road was not a bad ride. But its depressed surroundings served to highlight an easily forgotten aspect of transportation: streets are not isolated entities; their quality and purpose are bound to the quality and purpose of the land that surrounds them.
I try not to disdain New Jersey’s poor quality roads, though they take some getting used to for one accustomed to small, rural New England towns. But I do struggle to excuse rundown roads – anywhere – not when they are so important to quality of life. It must have been every other building on Jersey Avenue that was shuttered up and for sale or rent. The roads are decrepit, the stores are empty, and now what do we do with them? As planners, how do we make the road pleasant for all users and how do we bring businesses into those boarded-up buildings? Those are not isolated questions; busy, diverse street life is important for a healthy neighborhood. Who lives there, what are their needs, and what are the best transportation solutions to accommodate them?
One last lesson I’m taking away from my bike ride is the importance of planners visiting neighborhoods and travelling their roads on bike and on foot. The car is too easy; problems seem to disappear. By walking or biking you see the small things: the decay of a crumbling sidewalk, the gravel and glass that chew up your bike tires, and the neat little garden that someone has planted on their front lawn. People care for their places, their homes, and as planners we must put forth the effort to understand the intricacies of neighborhoods. Only then can we properly provide their residents and visitors with what they need.