the urban prospector

Searching for Golden Opportunities in America's Cities

Town Square Racetrack

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Newton, NJ has a great central green from the colonial era, but the expanse of pavement and traffic surrounding it make this green underutilized.

Newton, NJ has a great central green from the colonial era, but the expanse of pavement and traffic surrounding it make this green underutilized.

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.

Downtown Newton has several elements that define a great rural town; a beautiful commercial street, a church with a tall steeple on a hill and a courthouse in a prominent location. This city has high urban design potential.

Downtown Newton has several elements that define a great rural town; a beautiful commercial street, a church with a tall steeple on a hill and a courthouse in a prominent location. This city has high urban design potential.

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.

Seas of pavement surround Newton's green. Left: Park Place has three wide lanes and empty parking. This wide space encourages speeding through the town. Center: Main Street suffers the same overly wide street design as it heads towards Spring Street. Right: Spring Street, which just south east of the green is a calm two lane street with parking becomes a race track when opposing traffic is removed, lanes are added and parking is minimized.

Seas of pavement surround Newton’s green. Left: Park Place has three wide lanes and empty parking. This wide space encourages speeding through the town. Center: Main Street suffers the same overly wide street design as it heads towards Spring Street. Right: Spring Street, which just south east of the green is a calm two lane street with parking becomes a race track when opposing traffic is removed, lanes are added and parking is minimized.

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.

The major routes going through Newton are US 206 and NJ 94. Along the northern end, this route carried 23,615 cars a day in 2007, the Southern section of US 206 carried 12,465 cars a day in 2007 and the southern section of NJ 94 carried 14,583 cars a day in 2007.

The major routes going through Newton are US 206 and NJ 94. Along the northern end, this route carried 23,615 cars a day in 2007, the Southern section of US 206 carried 12,465 cars a day in 2007 and the southern section of NJ 94 carried 14,583 cars a day in 2007.

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.

 

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11 thoughts on “Town Square Racetrack

  1. Thanks for the article and salient observations. Newton is somewhat similar to La Plata, Md, located in Southern Maryland, 45 minutes south of Washington DC, with a 2010 population of 8,900. Over 60% commute out of the area to employment areas to the north. There is a state carpool lot in the town, providing daily bus service to Washington. Our “Main Street” is MD 6, a state maintained east/west highway, has a daily traffic flow of +- 21,000 vehicles. A bypass has been planned but is dependent on a private developer (from an annexation approved 20 years ago). The developer has suffered from serious financial stress and as a result, the bypass is many years (or never) from reality.

    The Town then needs to take action and engage the state and the community to address increasing traffic and pedestrian, cycling safety issues. This is particularly needed as the regional hospital continues its expansion. Their staff has difficulty crossing the street! This is also needed to support local businesses and implement policies in the the Town’s 2009 Comprehensive Plan .

    Any ideas and best practices is appreciated.

    • Looking at La Plata, there is a lot that can be done. Fortunately, the intersection between MD6 and US301 is fairly simple. US 301 can be modified to handle larger amounts of left turns while MD6 (for traffic coming through downtown La Plata) only needs to handle right turns. The challenge with Newton is the diverging routes with heavy left turns as well as other near by intersections. Using google streetview on MD6, it appears that on both sides of La Plata, it is a two lane street. While this might drive a traffic engineer nuts, I see no reason to increase that number of lanes (with the possible exception of a turn lane interrupted with median space).

      Across from the hospital, it appears that there is at least 6 feet of road space that can be given back to pedestrians. Furthermore, creating a verge between the sidewalk and the travel lanes will go a long way to improving the pedestrian sphere.

      I think the primary issue with pedestrian and cycling safety is the fact that many of the buildings here are fronted with parking. Encouraging development close to the street will narrow the sense of space of drivers and make them realize they are in a town and not a suburban corridor.

  2. Why can’t this downtown be made into a a car free zone? Europeans drive as much as we do, and inner city parking can be a horrific experience. Yet they have managed to get cars out of prosperpous town centers and much parking is either onthe periphery or underground. This New Jersey town clearly has potential to be beautiful, prosperous and people centered. Thee fact that we don’t do this here is one of the reasons we are about to leave for Dresden and Prague, both of which have gorgeous car free streets and squares.

    • I am a big fan of car-free zones and would love to have more examples here in the states. That said, I have to agree with Syd that given then context, a car free downtown would make things worse for Newton. The bypass might be one option, but that creates its own set of problems. Even significant traffic calming would cause problems given the through nature of the traffic. The question is whether or not Newton can reduce the amount of traffic through its downtown to a level that brings in business while not overwhelming the pedestrian experience.

  3. This town square can’t be made into a car-free zone since there are neither any bypass routes around the downtown, nor enough of a density of public transit to bring in pedestrians to the town center without using their cars. Unfortunately, building a bypass around Newton will likely negatively affect the downtown as well, since it would remove enough through-traffic from downtown to impact the apparent vitality of the downtown. There aren’t many great options to solve that traffic conundrum, though. One possibility would be the suggested traffic-calming measures that would negatively affect through-travellers and benefit those for whom downtown Newton is the ultimate destination; another may be to build a bypass far enough from the center of town that local through-travellers (those who are travelling from one side of town to the other) would still travel through downtown, but longer-distance through-travellers (say those travelling from ten miles outside of town to a destination ten miles outside the other side of town) would choose to take the bypass.

    A good question for the author is what time of day and week did he visit downtown Newton? Needless to say, visiting a location at a slow time of day can impart a negative impression on the vitality of a downtown; at the same time, slow times of day can also indicate potential for increasing pedestrian activity and vitality at that time of day.

    • I was there on July 5th in the afternoon. It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon, and if it was dead then, my guess is that it would be dead on weekday nights as well (an assumption that could be wrong). If that’s the case, the vibrancy of the area is severely hampered because the stores there have to rely on one rush hour (maybe two if you count breakfast) each weekday for business rather than having an additional 7-8 busy periods.

      • I believe Newton has a relatively busy downtown during the weekday due to the county offices there. The businesses there likely see a busy period during the lunch rush, and fairly decent foot traffic the rest of the day. In general, Saturdays in suburbia are the days when people generally do their major (i.e. big-box store) shopping, so retail activity likely shifted over to the strip-mall area on Rt. 209 north of the town green. That being said, Saturday, July 5 likely was even quieter than usual since this year many people took advantage of the long Independence Day weekend to get away (like yourself) or to have backyard barbeques that day.

        Still, that doesn’t mean that Newton’s town green can’t use some sprucing up to attract more pedestrians. Having the town green as a glorified traffic circle is probably the safest for pedestrians using the buildings around the green, even if it means the traffic circle creates a lot of left turns. Still, speed-calming measures like pedestrian tables/speed humps, sidewalk bumps at crosswalks, and reducing the width of traffic lanes, are reasonable measures to improve pedestrian safety at this town green. Reducing the width of the left-turn lanes on Main Street between Park Place and Spruce Street would especially be a great step, since that location practically invites speeding with northbound traffic on Main Street going from one to three lanes after crossing Park Place.

  4. The streetscape of Spring isn’t too bad. I also like the alleys between the buildings. Something needs to go in there that will be enough to distract people away from the strip malls. Oh well, there’s always Chipotle.

  5. I have the advantage of not knowing anything about any of these towns but the comments above which suggest that the square and its environs is empty at good times and therefore probably at poor times seems like the key here

    Any car free zone I have been in in other countries is teeming with reasons to be there as a pedestrian and that is why both they are necessary and why they work. I currently live in Mexico and I can attest to the fact that its squares bustle day and night both with and without a traffic border. Have you ever been in Mexico city? …. a multi lane traffic edge going full blast 24/7 but a HUGE square none the less filled with activity in the entre. All the usual suspects of shopping, cafes and entertainment and so forth are present(and in Mexico city perhaps a little political unrest to top it off but in other Mexican communities it is music and laughter) . Getting rid of the car without attention to this half of the issue will probably just lead to an everything free zone..ie a great big dead nothing space of no value to anyone except perhaps the criminal element

  6. Poynton in the UK did a fantastic job of taming a central street intersection that was auto-dominated. The town didn’t want to eliminate vehicles, but rather, to have them “share” the space. Hence the term used in the great video “Shared Space.”

    The Newton, NJ square looks like a candidate for similar treatment.

    • I don’t know how Poynton’s experience could apply (design wise) to Newton, but that is definitely a model worth investigating. The transformation of that intersection is absolutely beautiful. This is the ideal street design.

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