By Greg Saitz
For Ronne Bassman-Agins, getting around her hometown of Fort Lee on foot is a dangerous experience.
“It’s crossing streets. I live near the center of town, and I walk a lot. It is not safe,” said Bassman-Agins, 69, who began contacting the police chief and mayor last year about safety issues after retiring as a clinical social worker.
Situated at the foot of the George Washington Bridge, the 2.5-square-mile borough is often clogged with motorists. Pedestrian crossing signals at intersections, she says, are inadequate.
Accident statistics back up her concerns. Vehicles struck 67 pedestrians in Fort Lee in 2012, killing four of them. By May of this year, 16 pedestrians had been hit, and one had died, police said.
“We have a real problem here in Fort Lee when it comes to pedestrians and motorists,” said Tim Ford, borough deputy police chief, noting many of the victims were older.
But the borough is trying to improve. Last November, Fort Lee’s council adopted a “complete streets” policy, which directs transportation planners to take into account pedestrians, bicyclists and people with disabilities—as well as motorists—when constructing new roads or renovating existing ones.
High fatality rate for 60+
Other towns also could benefit from such plans, which is why AARP New Jersey and other advocacy groups are encouraging about a dozen localities to adopt a complete streets policy, said Brian McGuire, AARP New Jersey associate state director for advocacy.
The safety problems in Fort Lee—where 43 percent of the population is 50 or older—are also found statewide. Last year, 163 pedestrians were killed in the state, almost half of them 50 or older, according to the state police. The fatality rate for pedestrians 60 or older is nearly twice as high as for younger walkers, the nonprofit Tri-State Transportation Campaign reported.
“This is obviously a concern. We’ve got to do more,” McGuire said. “We’re looking at the larger towns that have safety issues that don’t have complete streets policies yet.”
To help, AARP is recruiting residents like Bassman-Agins in targeted communities around the state to get involved in the process and spread the word about the benefits of complete streets.
“Complete streets policies are a good first step,” said Janna Chernetz, New Jersey advocate for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. But, she added, “Having the policy is not going to change anything; you have to implement the policy.”
Aiming for every town
McGuire said he hopes more than 100 jurisdictions will adopt complete streets policies by the end of the year and that, ultimately, every locale in the state will follow suit.
In Fort Lee, part of the problem Bassman-Agins encounters is that that there are intersections that are controlled by different entities—the borough, the county or the state. Broadening complete streets policies to encompass multiple jurisdictions would help solve that problem, advocates say.
Several years ago, Fort Lee upgraded pedestrian crossing signals at 18 intersections with countdowns to alert walkers how much time they have to cross, borough engineer Edward Mignone said. Pedestrians should see the same upgrade to one of Fort Lee’s main intersections soon.
This spring, Fort Lee police conducted “Cops in Crosswalks” operations, in which plainclothes officers stepped into crosswalks and drivers who didn’t yield to pedestrians were pulled over. The crackdowns resulted in police issuing more than 140 summonses at $230 each.
To become part of the AARP New Jersey complete streets community team or to find out more about the policy and what volunteers can do to get their town to adopt one, go to action.aarp.org/completenj.
Greg Saitz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Madison, N.J.