Monday evening’s Valley Road Improvements Community Meeting started haltingly, with a detailed discussion of the condition of the London Plane trees along Valley Road and with attendees increasingly anxious to discuss the widened shared-use paths proposed by municipal staff members that would have consumed space in residents’ yards.
Eventually, it became clear that the shared-use paths proposed by Princeton staff members were artifacts of outdated municipality plans that were as strongly opposed by bicyclists as by residents. This recognition of shared concern was followed by a useful discussion of other possible improvements within the existing roadway along Valley Road that could improve safety for all road users – cars, pedestrians, and bicyclists – and community concerns turned to issues around the feasibility of those on-road options.
Looking ahead, municipal staff members will evaluate the on-road options discussed, and will return to the community after the summer with their conclusions. The Valley Road improvements are being funded by state dollars that require a construction contract to be awarded by the end of 2015.
A few observations about the Valley Road conversation Monday night and about this kind of planning more generally:
The reason that municipal staff members initially focused on widened side paths to support bicycling is that the town’s current master plan designates Valley Road for that kind of improvement. If the municipality eventually wants to advance options that DON’T include side paths, planning board approval would be required.
· Residents and supporters of bicycling and safety improvements – two categories with considerable overlap – were in total agreement that widened shared-use side paths were NOT desirable along Valley Road (though on routes with fewer intersections and driveways, such as Quaker Road, they are an appropriate solution).
· Speeding cars and traffic safety are legitimate concerns for residents of Valley Road.
· It is possible to design road features that reduce auto speeds; make street crossing safer for pedestrians; and make travel along the road safer and more comfortable for bicycling.
· The options available for on-road improvements range from sharrows – viewed by cyclists as “better than nothing;” all the way to protected bikeways with greatly narrowed auto travel lanes – viewed as the best possible improvement for cycling, other issues held equal.
· Narrowed car travel lanes are part and parcel of designs that increase overall safety and give more on-road space for bicycling (and that don’t impinge on resident’s yards).
· There is much evidence linking narrowed lanes with greater traffic safety (lower speeds, fewer, and lower-speed crashes for drivers and pedestrians) AND with increased bicycling activity. However, many in the community still associate wide car travel lanes with greater safety and convenience.
· There are tradeoffs between traffic safety improvements and the availability of parking for residents and home services; for events parking; for the unhampered movement of emergency response vehicles and buses; and for the disposal of leaves and brush.
· The important questions are:
a) whether traffic safety and bicycling improvements are broadly desired (by Valley Road and residents of the municipality more broadly);
b) whether negative effects we can foresee can be mitigated; and
c) whether the potential positive effects associated with traffic safety improvements are worth the potential negative effects.
· Traffic safety improvements along Valley Road might not result in large increases in bicycling activity for many reasons – among them the need for a more extensive, continuously connected network of routes safe for bicycling – but might be worth it anyway for the traffic safety improvements they offer.
· Low observed rates of bicycling are regarded by some as evidence of the futility of planning for bicycling safety, and by others as evidence of the NEED for improved bicycle safety – but with the preponderance of evidence suggesting that improvements to bicycle comfort and safety strongly correlate with increases in bicycling activity.
· Safety improvements along Valley Road are not intended for Princeton’s hardiest cyclists, for whom sharrows are adequate, but for Princeton’s less confident bicyclists, for whom a greater degree of protection and comfort would make the difference between cycling or not cycling.