Planning Board members switch stance on bike paths in Montclair
BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
The Montclair Planning Board has yet to decide if the biking elements of the SAFE Streets plan should be incorporated into the township’s master plan even after two members flipped their position and now want to include them.
Since 2009, Montclair has had a Complete Streets Policy, which requires that future roadway improvement projects include safe accommodations for all, including bicyclists, pedestrians, transit riders and the mobility-impaired.
The township received a grant in 2016 to hire consultant NV5, which was tasked, with the aid of a steering committee, with drafting a plan to implement SAFE Streets throughout Montclair. It was completed in 2017 with the intention of making it part of the master plan.
At the June 22 meeting, a master plan subcommittee consisting of Planning Board members Carmel Loughman, Daniel Gilmer and Carole Willis proposed that the document be bifurcated to focus only on pedestrian safety at this time. Loughman said that bicycling could be revisited at a later date.
But at the July 13 Planning Board meeting, Loughman and Gilmer flipped their positions and presented a “majority report” with the recommendation that the entire SAFE Streets plan be incorporated into the master plan, contending the document is policy only that sets up a process. Willis, however, held to her original opinion, concerned with a map within the plan that lays out specific bike paths throughout the town.
The town does not currently have any dedicated bike paths, only sharrows that indicate that motorists must share the road with bicyclists.
Montclair’s 2015 Land Use and Circulation element of the master plan also recommends the town establish a network for both pedestrians and cyclists.
The SAFE Streets plan includes a menu of infrastructure upgrade options such as bike lanes or sharrows, pedestrian islands, clearer crosswalks and improved countdown signals depending on the type of street and the volume of traffic. But it has yet to be adopted into the master plan, with Planning Board members concerned that bike paths will permanently change the streetscape and result in a loss of parking.
But Loughman said, “I have been persuaded to change my position. It was a failure of my imagination. I believe we can do this and fully support it now.”
The “majority report” backs the procedure that notifies all property owners on both sides of the street of any proposed bike lanes on their street. A public hearing would be set, and if 30 percent of the property owners opposed the change in a written and signed petition, then the change could not take place.
But Willis suggested that the board be given more time to study the impact bike paths would have on the proposed neighborhoods, including loss of parking and how homeowners would pull out of their driveways, as well as the economic impact on business districts with the loss of parking. She was also concerned that the Planning Board not make a decision during the summer months.
Board member Anthony Ianuale said that the board needed detailed presentations that it asked for at previous meetings on the “100 different ways and 100 different streets” where bike paths are proposed.
“No one ever said that you can’t get around on a bike here. I disagree that we can’t share the streets, we are doing it now,” Ianuale said.
Gilmer said that it’s difficult to plan for just pedestrian safety on the streets when eventually those plans will include bike safety as well.
Township Planner Janice Talley said implementation of the plan would set up a township policy on safe streets that is needed when applying for grants.
“Our master plan already calls for [room on the road] for bicyclists,” she said, suggesting implementation of the plan would solidify the township’s commitment to complete streets.
Planning board member Keith Brodock, pointing to specific streets in the plan, said, “Where I get tripped up is where I see particular streets I don’t think work.” He suggested not naming any particular street in the plan.
Talley said the map in the plan is only a suggestion but addresses where bike paths make sense and connect to make a circuit.
The advocacy group Bike&Walk Montclair has been lobbying for incorporating the SAFE Streets plan into the master plan for years, but Planning Board members from the beginning voiced concerns with the bike path elements. The board’s recent move to bifurcate the plan was to at least push through the portion that would implement plans for pedestrian safety.
John Sullivan, president of Bike&Walk Montclair, contends the plan is a comprehensive, holistic, data-supported document that offers a clear vision of how streets and sidewalks should play a role for all modes of mobility, not just cyclists.
Prior to May’s municipal elections, Bike&Walk Montclair hosted a candidates forum in which the candidates were generally in support of the SAFE Streets plan.
Bike&Walk has issued a survey on bike paths, and as more Montclairians are biking and walking the streets since the pandemic hit, the organization has been lobbying to temporarily transform some residential and business-district roads and sidewalks into walking and biking paths as a way to test some streets.
Board members said that a public hearing would be scheduled for sometime in September.