Why Can't My Street Have Better Priorities?

Hoboken is a dense, pedestrian-oriented city. So why is its road space overwhelmingly dedicated to personal automobiles?
By Antonio Grana | Dec 05, 2018 |
By Antonio Grana | Dec 05, 2018 |

This title may sound like another “anti-car” fume. After all, the negative impact of single occupancy vehicles in dense urban environments is a common discussion. Yet the real issue is not simply about vehicles, but shifting the local paradigm towards mobility vs. driving and parking. In my view, this comes from an underlying lack of focus on choice, transparency of costs, and the resulting disproportionate subsidy of driving and parking.

In many ways my city of Hoboken, NJ, is a walker’s paradise, as reflected in it’s 95 Walk Score. There is access to 24-hour transit, and most services operate from early morning until late in the evening. This service level is a reflection of transit’s 59% mode share for commuters. Bike Share is also making it’s impact felt in the city (there are 29 dock stations in roughly 1 mile square with over 17,000 monthly single rides).

Schools are crowded, commercial services need places to expand, and yet council meetings, political campaigns, and social media discussions focus on slicing up the remaining space for vehicles. The city has commissioned study after study on increasing traffic throughput, Level of Service (LOS), and made multi-million dollar investments in municipal garages.

The city failed politically to approve a cycle track through the CBD because residents said it would interfere with the ability to have effective double parking. The price for street parking in the CBD has been kept artificially low for businesses who say it will impede customers and employees from access to cheap parking. This makes little sense in a city where the population density is roughly 39,000/sqmi, and whose city limits are little bigger than one mile. The majority of movements in such a community are simply going to be non-vehicle oriented (except for the usual traffic spikes at peak hours).

A typical Hoboken street.

What’s more, the sidewalks on my street have new and competing demands. More children are in the streets playing and walking to school, restaurants serve outside diners, and street furniture has been added. While sidewalk widths vary, in many or most places it’s no more than 6 feet. Bicycles compete, sometimes dangerously, in mixed traffic, and this often forces them onto sidewalks. Yet at least 67% of the infrastructure maintained is geared to vehicles. As - the population continues to increase, so will the demands.

Why can’t my street have better priorities?

The challenges I see on my street are a classic case of transportation and infrastructure investments following political processes. This will always be the case, but what’s missing is the transparency of the costs to support different uses, and how to price them. These are the demand vs. supply signals my community badly needs. Here are some of the improvements I would suggest:

  1. Road maintenance costs are not transparent, and need to be managed like a utility.
  2. Vehicle storage (permit parking) is massively subsidized ($15 year). This should be increased.
  3. Double parking is encouraged in the CBD because the price of parking does not reflect the demand that this behavior represents. A whole new pricing scheme should be in place to encourage turnover parking vs. long term parking.
  4. The median age in Hoboken is 31. Which means bicycles, e-bikes, and e-scooters should have much more designated infrastructure at a price that reflects the lower impact of the use.
  5. The pedestrian realm needs expansion, in a way that will support small-scale commercial.
  6. Zoning in my neighborhood still requires significant parking minimums for any redevelopment project. We won’t solve our school, open space, commercial, or high housing costs by requiring this.

Change is hard for everyone, and politics reflect this. However, if a dense, urban city like mine could establish transparency and metrics around the service vs. cost relationship, it might facilitate new conversations around supply and demand that are needed in city hall today.