While biking becomes increasingly popular in cities across the country, South Orange has struggled to make cycling a viable suburban transportation alternative. Common complaints are that the streets are too narrow, motorists speed and don’t pay attention, there aren’t signs to help with sharing the road, and, in general, car culture has run amok.
New bike lanes have doubled in New York City in the past three years (totaling an enviable 400 miles), and free bike maps and helmets have been distributed. Bicycling Magazine’s Best Cycling City in the country, Portland, Ore., continues to lead the way with creative solutions to the challenges of urban riding. But recommendations made four years ago in the Bicycle and Pedestrian Circulation Plan, an 84-page report sponsored by South Orange, have largely not been implemented due to budget limitations. Signage, the striping of roads, connectivity between parks and easy bike access to schools have not been realized.
However, more attention has been paid to the potential of biking as a transportation alternative. The South Orange-Maplewood school district revised its policy on bike riding to school last spring, and fifth through 12th graders are now allowed to ride to school, provided they have permission from their parent and principal. In addition, a secure area for storing the bikes at school is needed. At Maplewood Middle School, there is an indoor area for bike storage because students have requested it. But according to Judith Levy, the district's communications coordinator, no one from South Orange Middle School has raised the issue. On the side of the building sit three rusted, bent and empty bike racks.
Village President Doug Newman would like to see students take up their bikes and ride to school. “Not only would biking reduce traffic, congestion, pollution, and our carbon footprint, it would be a wonderful contributor to student fitness and wellness,” said Newman, who has offered to work with the SOMS administration to facilitate adding new racks to the school to make cycling a more attractive option.
All is not bleak for South Orange riders. Last fall's completion of phase 1 of the Rahway River Greenway project—which included a well-lit bicycle/pedestrian path from Mead Street to South Orange Avenue behind the middle school—and the Village’s investment in adding more bike racks in parks, downtown, and at the train station are recent improvements. This summer, work began on an extension of the bicycle/pedestrian path from Mead Street to Meadowbrook Lane, part of phase 2 of the project, which will make the Village more accessible to walkers and bike riders.
“If you build it, they will come,” is a phrase that applies to bike racks. Montrose resident Bryn Dowds has been bike commuting to the train station for eight years. “Whenever we add bike racks, we fill ‘em,” he observed.
Avid cyclist Tom Reingold, who does as many of his errands on a bike as he can, noted that there is no bike rack at the Pathmark on Valley Street. But Eden Gourmet, in the center of town, does have one—to the left of the rear exit, near the parking garage. The presence of the rack encourages workers and shoppers to ride, and it’s a small sign that South Orange is gradually becoming more bike friendly.