A major task that the city of Newark will have to undertake to improve its downtown area is to make streets more pedestrian friendly. Currently, walking around downtown, the dominance of the automobile is easily felt. Roads like McCarter Highway allow large volumes of autos to travel through the city while making a dangerous crossing for pedestrians. Cars here are so dominant that the cross walks don’t even turn to walk unless someone pushes a button. 6 lanes of traffic turn Market Street into a cluster of traffic, parked cars and buses. Perhaps most absurdly, Park Place has three lanes of traffic and two lanes of parking on a short street that borders Military Park. After spending $3 million on a Bryant Park inspired renovation, and dealing with historical preservation challenges, the park is still separated from the city by a large street. In the case of Park Place, this is an unjustifiably large street. Not every street in downtown can become as pedestrian friendly as Halsey Street, but there is still a lot of work that can be done.
When looking at these streets, a primary observation is that Downtown Newark is oriented north-south. Several nearby north-south routes funnel traffic through the downtown area. The major east-west routes instead are spread out. In the case of Market Street, several east-west routes feed into this one street rather than individually arriving in downtown. To figure out what sort of street improvements and changes are necessary for downtown Newark, a first step would be to look at what larger purposes these streets serve. Starting with the north-south routes, the University Ave/Washington Street one-way couplet seems to move traffic smoothly north and south through downtown while in some locations providing bicycle lanes. Unfortunately, because of the several lanes of one-way traffic, this street tends to have high levels of speeding. Traffic calming is necessary and reverting to two-way traffic is a potential solution among many. Converting the existing bike lanes into protected cycle tracks along the entire length of these streets is a must. Ultimately this street couplet serves in a supporting role for other primary corridors. Halsey Street is a low speed, low traffic volume shopping street. It does not need any serious traffic changes, but any development that happens along it must work to improve the streetscape. I’m watching the new Prudential building closely to see if it will respect this street or turn the back of the building to Halsey.
Broad Street is a major route through the center of downtown. More importantly, it is a transit corridor. While changes should allow for relatively high volumes (but not speeds) of auto traffic, transit should be prioritized. This would be a good candidate for bus rapid transit (BRT). The BRT could section could run from the southern start of Broad Street all the way to I-280. With dedicated lanes, pre-boarding ticketing, greater distances between stops and signal prioritization, bus service would be faster and more convenient, thus attracting new riders. Obviously, this wouldn’t make for a long BRT system, but buses from other areas could feed into this corridor, thus allowing many bus routes to benefit from increased speed and convenience. The challenge with BRT though is that it takes up significant amounts of room (34 feet minimum for two 11 foot lanes and two 6 foot pedestrian islands separating the bus lanes from private auto traffic). This may result in the inability to include bike lanes along Broad Street. Nonetheless, it would be a drastic improvement over the current conditions. Mulberry Street is a street in middle of a transition. The northern part of Mulberry between Center Street and Green street has between 4 and 6 lanes of traffic. The southern section between Green Street and McCarter Highway has two travel lanes. The city, in its otherwise progressive 2012 Master Plan, is looking to widen the southern portion of Mulberry. The goal is to create an alternative to Broad Street. The problem here is that this is not the easiest street to access from either direction. Instead of trying to make this street handle more cars, it should prioritize bicycles as it serves as a close parallel to Broad Street. Protected cycle tracks would allow cyclists to easily travel north or south through downtown. Though Mulberry Street ends at Center Street, there may be ways to extend the cycle tracks all the way to Broad Street Station. McCarter Highway is designed to move high volumes of traffic through Newark. If there is any road that should be given to the private automobile, it would be this. North of Edison Place, there are things that can and should be done to make this street more pedestrian friendly, but south of Edison Place it is a pedestrian wasteland. There is much greater potential to improve the pedestrian experience along other streets in downtown. It will be a challenge to properly connect downtown with the Ironbound. Currently, the primary routes involve crossing 6-7 lanes of traffic with pedestrian walk signals that prioritize cars. If possible, a pedestrian bridge (one designed to improve the quality of the pedestrian experience and not the typical narrow fenced in human mouse tube) over McCarter Highway would be desirable. An obvious choice for this would be the old Central New Jersey Railroad bridge over McCarter Highway and the North East Corridor. Other areas could at least provide a pedestrian island through the elimination of some left turn lanes. Nonetheless, this is a street that can be sacrificed to the needs of automobiles. Looking to the east-west routes, there are three primary ones in downtown: Market Street, Raymond Boulevard, and Central Ave. Market Street and Raymond Boulevard provide the best transit connection to Penn Station as well as provide connections to Jersey City. In downtown, they typically have two or three lanes each way. While there may be some through traffic, driving in downtown is already a challenge and likely to deter many unnecessary trips. There is also a well developed grid which can disperse traffic coming in to downtown. I think it would be worth considering fully dedicated bus lanes on Market Street and on portions of Raymond Boulevard. On other sections of Raymond Boulevard, a road diet could be a good solution. By going from two lanes in each direction to one lane in each direction with a left turn lane, traffic flow will improve because left turns would no longer impede traffic. While Central Ave has some bus service, this would be another good street for traffic calming. Bike lanes may be useful in different locations, but there are several streets (William/Branford Place, Bank/Academy, Warren, and Bleeker) that provide safe east-west connections. within downtown. Bike lanes will be needed to improve connections between downtown and other neighborhoods, but that will have to be the subject of another post. Ultimately to improve the quality of Newark’s downtown, there will have to be changes to the street design. These changes will create some winners and some losers. Most notably, if downtown is to thrive, pedestrians must be given the priority they once had before the rise of the automobile. There may be cries that this is a war against cars, but this is actually a re-balancing of uses after decades of giving cars every possible priority. Making Newark safer for pedestrians will make it a more attractive place to work, live, and spend free time, thus helping local businesses and increasing tax revenues. What do you think? Post a comment below about how you would modify the streets of Newark.