Retrofitting New Jersey: A Transit-Oriented Smart Growth Vision for the Garden State

Jul 5 · 9 min read
NJ Transit-Oriented Development Smart Growth Map (Link)

New Jersey is at a critical juncture now with the final affordable housing settlements being made, millennials leaving the state, and the predictions for climate change looking more dire. Do we continue to allow for more auto-dependent sprawl or do we fix the mess that was created and make more great, walkable, bikeable, affordable, sustainable, low-carbon, vibrant places connected by public transportation? One thing’s for sure, we can’t continue the way we are going. While NJ boasts high levels of alternative transportation usage (some of the highest in the country), most people in the state have to drive to go anywhere. This is bad for quality of life, and it’s bad for the future of our planet. All this driving leads to wasted time & economic productivity due to traffic, impaired air quality, and an incredible amount of carbon emissions. In New Jersey, 42% of our carbon emissions (45.8 Million Metric tons) are from transportation; therefore, if we don’t do anything about automobile dependence, we are going to have a hard time meeting reduction targets — and EVs aren’t going to solve the problem alone.

New Jersey is the perfect place to continue growing. It is already the most densely populated state in the country and has excellent transit infrastructure, but it’s sprawled out and auto-dependent. Much of the state could be retrofitted and densified in a smart way. Now is the time to enact policies that encourages the right kind of growth. Growth that will connect much of our existing housing to easily accessible public transit; growth that will get people off the road, reduce traffic and carbon emissions; growth that will allow people to have a car(e)free lives and create better more vibrant livable places. It is possible, it can be done, and should be done. The future of growth in New Jersey should be about reducing and ideally eliminated dependence on the personal automobile in as much of the state, by concentrating development on existing public transit, limiting it everywhere else, creating new public transportation lines and building on them.

Ultimately, New Jersey should become a cluster-based polycentric metropolitan area, where every town and city has its own thriving, diverse local economy, where everyone can live within walking distance to their job, school and other amenities and could go anywhere else with a bike, electric scooter, public transportation, autonomous taxi or car-sharing. While there may be some existing housing that will not be within walking distance to mass public transit, in the future, they will have access to on-demand autonomous electric taxis/shuttles that will be able to take them to a center with public transportation quickly. And in some cases, where people live too far to access public transport or a taxi easily, they could still have to have a private automobile (which will eventually all be electric).

In order to visualize what needs to be done, I created the NJ Transit-Oriented Smart Growth Map. This interactive map shows all the existing NJ Transit lines, stations, and stops as well as proposed new lines, stations, and stops. The existing transit lines are different colors, the train stations have the train icon, and bus stops are back dots. Each train station has a ½ mile buffer around it — which is the standard distance people find acceptable to walk to a train station. And each bus stop has a ¼ mile buffer which it the standard distance people are willing to walk to a bus stop. These circles are where dense development should occur. This map also includes bus park-and-ride locations which also could be locations of Transit Oriented Development — as well as the stops along those commuter bus routes. Though, currently, we don’t have access to that commuter bus line data. Perhaps in the future, I will add the lines. Here are all the all private carriers in New Jersey (for reference):

In addition to the interactive map, I’m proposing three general policy recommendations for creating a transit-oriented smart growth New Jersey.

1. Incentivize growth around existing transit stops

The most critical first step toward a smart growth future is to incentivize development around existing transit stops. We need to enhance and build dense, vibrant, affordable, mixed-use, sustainable, walkable communities on public transit with all the facilities and amenities people need. The most important thing someone can do to reduce their carbon footprint is not to own/drive a car; therefore, we need to do everything we can to make that possible and easy in New Jersey.

The state has made efforts to promote transit-oriented development. They have the transit village program which prioritized state resources to areas that get the “Transit Village” designation. And New Jersey is looking to expand the program with the New Jersey Transit Villages Act. But much more needs to be done. Every transit stop should automatically be considered for the benefits of the Transit Village program, and substantial resources and incentives should be committed to redeveloping and developing those areas. Every half a mile around a train transit stop and every quarter mile around every bus stop should also automatically qualify for grants, permitting assistance, tax exemption, etc. This includes revitalizing our existing urban centers, retrofitting our suburbs and even developing on new land where applicable. The State should also consider overriding local zoning around transit stops to encourage density. This has been proposed in California and Oregon — both are home rule states. New Jersey should adopt something similar.

Furthermore, autonomous electric public shuttle buses should be designated for areas around train stops, where residents could request them on-demand. Public Transportation should also be much cheaper, and there should be free and easy transfers. There should also be tax incentives to keep and encourage office, commercial, and light industrial uses in the transit circles to create a diverse economy. We should also build to notch walkable magnet schools in the transit villages that would allow children to walk to school. The ideal built environment should allow people to live, work, play, and go to school without a car.

2. Discourage growth anywhere auto-dependent

There should be a complete moratorium on building high-density auto-dependent housing out in the middle of nowhere unless they could be strategically connected to public transportation now or in the near future. Municipalities should also preserve and down-zone any land that is not within walking distance to public transportation. The State should also work with conservation organizations and provide technical assistance and funding to purchase and preserve land that is at risk to more suburban sprawl and auto dependence. Programs such as Green Acres and farmland preservation should be ramped up to help protect vulnerable land.

While we don’t want to destroy communities, ultimately, the rural/exurban sprawl McMansion homes should be abandoned, deconstructed, and returned to nature or used for agriculture.

3. Create new transit lines and stops

Finally, along with concentrating development near existing public transportation, discouraging growth anywhere auto-dependent, we should be creating new transit lines and stops based on where there is infrastructure, right of ways, density, and opportunities. That means adding passenger lines on existing freight lines and previous right of ways. We need to reactivate old rail stations and create new ones where there is already high densities of people and abundant amounts of re-developable land on the lines such as warehouse parks, big box stores, strip malls, and suburban office buildings. Furthermore, we should be extending existing bus lines and adding Bus Rapid Transit lines along the major highway corridors.

The following are some of the rail lines in central New Jersey (yes, it does exist) that could/should be expanded or reactivated as passenger lines:

Princeton Dinky Line — While this is an existing line, new stops should be created along this route. Principally, at Canal Pointe Boulevard and Carnegie Center. The Canal Pointe Boulevard would be a perfect location for an expansion of Princeton University, and creating a stop at Carnegie Center would create public transit access to thousands of jobs.

West Trenton Line — This used to be an old commuter line between Ewing and Bound Brook, but was shut down. This historic line included stops in some historic towns such as Pennington, Hopewell, and Belle Mead. This line should be reactivated, and new stops should be created in Hillsborough and Manville. The Ewing stop should also be moved to the new town center they are constructing. There could also be a connection to Princeton by running a shuttle from Hopewell and expanding the 605 bus line to Belle Mead. And the Manville Auto Auction site could be redeveloped into a new large part of the downtown. The line could also connect with a semi-high-speed line from Philipsburg to New York or connect to Bridgewater or Bound Brook and the Raritan Valley Line.

Somerset Connector — This is partially based on an old train line that ran from Jersey Ave to East Millstone, and could connect to the West Trenton Line through a Transmission Line right of way and the former East Millstone line to the Northeast Corridor. This connector could provide a critical link between the two main lines and a way to get to New Brunswick and the Northeast Corridor from the West Trenton Line towns.

Sayreville Secondary — Currently, this line is a freight line that connects South Amboy to Milltown, but it could be converted into a light rail line that could stop in Sayerville, South River, Milltown and be extended to the south side of New Brunswick by Bristol Myer Squibb and Rutgers Cook Campus — there is a city bus that connects the proposed terminus to Downtown New Brunswick and there could be a shuttle bus that connects to Jersey Ave and other parts of the City.

North Middlesex Line (Port Reading Secondary Connector) — This freight line connects Bound Brook to Carteret and could be converted into a light rail line that could run through Piscataway, Edison, Iselin, and Avenel. This is an incredibly dense part of New Jersey with limited public transportation. And there is a significant amount of space in some of the warehouse parks along the rail line which could be redeveloped into new transit villages and create transit access to existing neighborhoods.

Middlesex Greenwayline — This used to be an old rail line and a portion was converted into a greenway. A light rail line could be added that would connect Piscataway to Perth Amboy and the greenway could run along it.

Lehigh Line — This freight line currently connects Philipsburg to Newark-New York. But this could become a semi-high-speed rail that could connect the Allentown, Easton, Bethlehem (and Philipsburg) metropolitan area to New York City. This line could create an important public transportation connection between the two major metropolitan areas and help stimulate the economy of the Lehigh Valley. There could be stops in Flemington and Manville, as well as several new stops in Middlesex County, Clark and then run along the Raritan Line to New York City.

Lambertville Connector (Black River & Western) — This line would connect the New Hope-Lambertville Metro area to Flemington and a potential semi-high speed rail into New York City

Camden Amboy Line — This line was once the Camden & Amboy Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad. A new light rail line could be created and connect Bordentown to Perth Amboy and have stops in Yardville, Robbinsville, Hightstown, Cranbury, Rossmoor, Jamesburg, Spotswood, Winding Wood/Sayreville, and South Amboy. Parts of this line would need to be recreated, principally in and around Hightstown, which would be tough — but is possible.

Dayton Connector Shoreline — This line would be based on a new stop at Monmouth Junction and would connect riders on the Northeast corridor to the Camden Amboy Line at Jamesburg as well as further down to Freehold and Manasquan and the North Shoreline.

That’s it for now — perhaps I will discuss possible BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) lines or other new stops and rail lines in North or South Jersey in the future. Or I might look into how some of these transit villages could be designed…

I should also note, the interactive map and these recommendations are meant to provide a general idea of what could be done to create a Transit-Oriented Smart Growth New Jersey; it’s far from the detail needed to describe everything. Much more needs to be said about how to implement the policies, how the transit lines could work and how to develop the land in each one of the circles and connect the surrounding areas — as well as how we can preserve land and discourage further suburban sprawl. Moreover, the new lines and stops are, of course, conceptual, and much more research needs to be done about the feasibility. But this is meant to put the ideas out there and get the conversation started. Hopefully, soon, we will have the political will to move in this direction and a new state plan that will begin to take these kinds of ideas seriously.

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