While returning from a hike in northern New Jersey, I stopped in the town of Newton. This town of 7,983 serves as the county seat for Sussex County. Whenever I travel, I look for different places to explore. I happened upon Newton and was attracted to it by it’s great town green. This is a traditional colonial town green, dating back to 1762. Throughout the years, the definition of space created by surrounding buildings has largely been preserved. The Sussex County Court House provides a great terminating vista from both sides of town along NJ 94. A block away is the First Presbyterian Church whose amazing steeple can be seen from a distance when coming in from the north on NJ 94/US 206. I drove into town from the north which was busy with people going to and from big box stores lining the highway. The downtown itself; dead. Given the rural nature of this area (yes, there are rural parts of New Jersey), it seems that the population is too small to have a large enough customer base within walking distance to support much activity. Though dead on the weekend, the presence of shops and restaurants shows that the workday population is large enough to support some commercial activity. Though the downtown was under activated, it has the urban bones necessary to create a great place.
The largest design issue that I saw with Newton was the sea of traffic lanes around the town green. Newton is not alone with this problem; Morristown has a horrid racetrack around its town square. Newton’s green is bordered by High Street, Park Place, Main Street and Spring Street, all of which are one way streets. Spring St., Main St., and Park Pl. all have three lanes, while High Street has two lanes. At each corner of the park, there is only one crosswalk allowing safe access to the park. Access to the square is further hampered by the fact that the sidewalk next to the on-street parking on Spring Street is physically separated from the park. Accessing the park is challenging at best and at times dangerous.
This is a site in need of a major overhaul. That said, the fact that these are two busy routes means that working the traffic situation out satisfactorily will be a challenge. According to traffic records from the State of New Jersey (here, and here) over 23,000 vehicles travel over 206/94 north of the square, over 12,000 travel over 206 south of the square and 14,000 travel over 94 south of the square. Throughout the day, nearly 25,000 cars travel through the square in total (17 per minute). Given the size of Newton, it would seem that there isn’t much capacity in the grid to accommodate any displaced through traffic. Furthermore, there are no convenient routes around Newton for this traffic.
Traffic travelling through Newton on the whole does not benefit the town. Focusing on bringing in new residents and businesses would actually benefit the town. Calming the traffic to the point that it would be safe and easy for families to access and use the square would be go a long ways towards this goal. Newton could be the quintessential walkable small town. Some people simply are not made for large cities. Often times their efforts at leaving the city behind involve purchasing a large exurban lot only years away from being surrounded by other suburban sprawl. When everyone wants to move to the country, the country disappears. Small towns like Newton provide an opportunity to break that cycle. Here the town can handle relatively high densities without becoming so populated that it loses its small town feel. One could walk down the street buying daily necessities from neighborhood shop owners while being minutes away from real nature (The Appalachian Trail is only 20 minutes away). Furthermore, with densities located in traditional towns, NJ Transit could operate express buses connecting town centers to employment centers making a car free commute from rural towns a possibility. With increased population living in Newton, more of the shops and restaurants could remain open on the weekend. Urbanizing this downtown could make for ideal rural living.
There is a challenge to traffic calming the town green. The streets in question are owned by the NJDOT, and thus any design changes would have to be approved by the state. While Newton could benefit from place making, the state DOT has a much more focused goal of moving traffic along 206 and 94. Given the lack of alternative routes, any attempt to calm traffic in Newton is likely to increase congestion and decrease the ability of 206/94 to serve their function as transportation corridors. New Jersey DOT has promoted progressive planning programs including the Transit Village Initiative and has helped promote the Urban Transit Hub Tax Credit through the NJ Economic Development Authority. These are great programs. NJDOT could take a step forward and work towards the goal of decreasing rural VMT. Focusing on the promotion of village centers and express transit could help to take cars off the road.
According to the US Census Bureau’s LODES (LEHD Origin-Destination Employment Statistics from 2011, 3,853 people in Newton work. Some important concentrations of employee destinations include:
- New York City: 128 workers
- Morristown, NJ: 72 workers
- Newark, NJ: 62 workers
- Dover, NJ: 32 workers
- Jersey City, NJ: 31 workers
- Patterson, NJ: 30 workers
These are cities that could potentially be served with express buses. While this only accounts for 9.2% of workers, this could fill six and a half buses assuming a capacity of 55 passengers. Obviously putting all of these workers on seven buses would not work. However, combining Newton with surrounding towns would increase the demand for each individual location. Furthermore, following the model from “Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age” by Paul Mees, creating a hub further out in New Jersey would allow for a concentration of bus riders and thus more frequent service to multiple destinations. In some ways, the foundation for this already exists. There currently is an express bus that travels from Newton, making several stops along the way including the Rockaway Mall park and ride before heading directly to New York City. It appears that other buses stop at this location, but information is hard to find. In many ways, this is a missed opportunity. It could be possible to have express buses running from Rockaway Mall to NYC, Jersey City, Newark, Paterson and other major destinations. As the system currently exists, it is nearly impossible to get from Newton to Newark or any other major New Jersey city due to the New York City focus of the transportation system. A multi-hub and spoke system connecting feeder routes to a series of express buses to major stops would fix this. Quicker and more efficient transit combined with wifi technology, allowing for productive use of time, many cars could be taken off the road as the most convenient form of travel becomes public transit.
With decreased traffic volumes, it would be possible to do some effective traffic calming around Newton’s town green. Routing 206 through Park Place to Main Street would allow the closing of Spring Street between Main Street and High Street. This would create a direct connection from businesses on Spring Street to the town green. The forced turn at Main Street and Spring Street would also slow down traffic to speeds appropriate for this downtown strip. Increased access and utilization of the green would increase the attractiveness of Newton. Given Newton’s distance from major job centers, this may not change settlement patterns all that much, though Newton doesn’t have to become a major destination, it would just need enough of a change to support businesses on Spring Street through the weekend. Nonetheless, Newton has great potential and could offer the ideal rural village lifestyle.