The city of Hoboken, New Jersey has had no traffic deaths in the last four years.
Here in Connecticut, three pedestrians were killed in West Hartford – a comparably-sized city – last year alone. Add to that the three people killed in a two-car crash on Christmas morning, the truck driver who perished in a seven-vehicle collision on I-84 at the beginning of December, and a motorcyclist left dead back in March after he struck a car at the intersection of Trout Brook Drive and Lawler Road.
Both are suburbs in the same area of the country, in the same time zone, with the same weather patterns. The median household income in both is considered upper class. Hoboken has a population of 60,000. West Hartford’s is 64,000.
What does Hoboken have that West Hartford does not?
Part of what’s going on is that the New York suburb is a densely populated two square miles, making it already more walkable than West Hartford’s 22 square miles. More walking and cycling, plus strong transit, means less driving. That’s a first step, and it seems that Hartford’s suburb is slowly getting on board with infill development that would reduce some demand for motor vehicles. It can’t all be explained away by Hoboken’s proximity to New York City.
Leadership matters. In Hoboken, Mayor Ravi Bhalla launched a Vision Zero initiative in 2019, along with a task force and action plan. Within two years, the city’s bike lane network expanded 38%, with bike lanes on almost half of Hoboken’s streets. Those lanes are not done perfectly, as most are not protected by physical barriers, but the commitment to improving them is there.
Many of Hoboken’s roads are one-way, with one travel lane and one or two parking lanes, plus the bike lane. When bike lanes end, instead of warning cyclists with a small, easy-to-miss sign, there is a large notice painted on the pavement in the motorists’ lane, returning the bulk of the responsibility for safety to the road user who can cause the most harm. There are also merge arrows painted in the bike lane. The grid is legible.
CitiBike, New York City’s bike share program, expanded to Hoboken. Some parking spaces were removed within 25 feet of crosswalks and vertical posts were installed to “daylight” intersections, giving drivers a better view of all other road users. At crosswalks, the city implemented the leading pedestrian interval; this means that pedestrians get a headstart by a few seconds, which makes them more visible to motorists. Also in this time, 40 curb extensions were added; pedestrians spend less time in the roadway in conflict with vehicles. The citywide speed limit was reduced to 20 mph.
Since making a strong commitment to safety, Hoboken has seen a 41% decrease in injuries caused by crashes, and to say it once more, they have had zero traffic fatalities in the last four years.
Meanwhile, West Hartford, mystified by how to deal with a nationwide problem, announced the creation of another task force – redundant to the Pedestrian & Bicycle Commission, an advisory group created in 2017. They’re conducting yet another study. It’ll be different this time. They promise.
Without hesitation, West Hartford converted portions of Farmington Avenue and LaSalle Road into outdoor dining spaces during the pandemic. They did not drag their feet with endless studies and task forces. The priority is commerce, make no mistake.
If there’s any question about that, turn your attention to the so-called “road diet” on North Main Street, announced as permanent in June 2022, about a week after a pedestrian was killed on a median in the town center. For a project that began with studies in 2016, you would expect this to be the Cadillac of road diets. It’s not. This is a paint-only project, removing one car lane. The bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure is wanting, with feeble half-attempts at bike lanes in which you’ll find postal trucks parked because there is no political will in the form of physical barriers to keep dangerous obstructions out. A planned bike lane on Farmington Avenue was undone by fears about where landscapers would park. People walking and cycling get their lives protected in West Hartford up to the point that doing so poses an imaginary threat to drivers’ convenience and unrestricted capitalism.
The reconfiguration of West Hartford’s North Main Street has been touted as a sign of progress, but it lacks imagination and effort. If someone needs to go from the Bishops Corner area to West Hartford Center by bike, they can risk it in the narrow-and-then-disappearing bike lane on North Main, or, detour to the Trout Brook Trail – an off-road bike path – and then back up and around. Doesn’t that say it all about priorities? Those in a car can expect direct routes, while those cycling are thought to be out for pure recreation. Why would cyclists, or pedestrians, expect their time to be respected when their lives certainly are not?
Meanwhile, Hartford has been picking up its pace, putting its wealthier neighbor to shame, even while coming up short on some of its projects.
The capital city is currently looking at changes for Asylum Avenue, and while the tentative plans include barrier-protected bike lanes in part, these lanes vanish when level-of-service (speed of cars) is prioritized over safety. Part of the plan unfortunately mimics what happens across the town line on Asylum Avenue near Elizabeth Park, with no bike lane for those cycling uphill. There appears to be no plan to install medians, curb extensions, or wider sidewalks. But on Wethersfield Avenue, the city lined a bike lane in one direction with flex posts and added large barriers in the middle of the road, making it more difficult for drivers to race one another.
The intersection of Russ Street, Park Terrace, and Sigourney Street was converted to a roundabout. Several blocks of Russ Street were converted to one-way, with barriers shunting off thru-traffic; it now feels more like a neighborhood street than a cut-through.
New Britain Avenue has a long way to go, but posts were added in key places to encourage slower speeds and make pedestrians more visible. Efforts have been made to daylight other intersections with flex posts, including Sheldon and Prospect Streets. Speed humps have been sprinkled citywide; as soon as one is added, residents on nearby streets ask the DPW when they can have their own. You can feel the difference when you walk or cycle in places where Hartford has done street redesign right, and you can look at the data and see how dramatically crashes have decreased – particularly those resulting in injury. That’s the goal: reduce serious crashes.
We pay the price for misguided priorities. In Connecticut, the cost was the lives of 74 pedestrians and cyclists in 2022. For anyone capable of recognizing patterns, road design played a role in the vast majority of these: interstates with inadequate breakdown lanes; state routes lacking sidewalks and safe and reasonably convenient ways for people to cross; and streets where the clear goal is moving motorists as quickly as possible.
If last year’s carnage did not wake up dormant leadership statewide, it’s hard to say what will, but when municipalities don’t show urgency, they can be pushed to act when their town’s precious reputation is on the line. And when this happens, it is up to the people to demand that leaders pivot as quickly to end street violence as they did to prevent restaurants from closing their doors in the pre-vaccine days of the pandemic.