By Elaine Van Develde
To know Fair Haven Mayor Ben Lucarelli is to know that he is an avid bicyclist and troubadour for safe bike and pedestrian travels. It’s also to know that the cycling he loves has taken two of his friends, people he cared for and admired, in the past two years, and walks across the street took two other members of the community before them.
So, the issue of bicycle and pedestrian safety on the streets where he lives hits home in more ways than one for Mayor Lucarelli.
Councilman Jerome Koch succumbed to injuries he sustained in a tragic accident with a motor vehicle while riding his bicycle last year. And triathlete Cole Porter died in 2013 after a mishap in the Tour de Fair Haven race when he collided with a race officiator on a closed borough-wide course.
Besides Lucarelli’s friends falling victim to fatal bike accidents, in the early 2000s a man was killed when hit by a car crossing River Road. A woman was killed in 2009 crossing the same main street in the same area of the 1.6-square-mile borough.
So, when the mayor was offered the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) Mayor’s Challenge for Safer People, Safer Streets, he eagerly accepted and headed to a summit “to identify and remove barriers to improving non-motorized safety” last week in Washington D.C..
The mayor is passionate about the idea of safely integrating pedestrian and bicycle traffic with motor vehicles. For him, that passion emanates from those focal home-base tragedies to encompass a community, even worldwide spectrum.
“We have people utilizing the roads right now and bad things are happening,” Lucarelli said on Wednesday. “It’s been very difficult (trying to come to terms with Porter and Koch’s deaths). To a certain extent, the effort I am putting forth with everything I’ve got is to honor both Cole and Jerome.”
While the mayor pointed out that there was a distinct difference in the cyclist tragedies — Porter’s being on a closed, motor vehicle traffic-free course — the legacies of the two are a persistent source of motivation. He was in the race Porter was in, yards away; and he had passed Koch on the road not long before before his accident.
“Jerome was just a regular guy — a father, a grandfather — out riding his bike around,” Lucarelli said. “It was an accident, an extremely tragic one that hit me hard. Unfortunately, it was also an example of how society is not yet acclimated to the integration of bikes in the flow of motor vehicle traffic — a growing, natural trend that’s becoming more and more necessary.”
For Lucarelli, it’s all about the general populace growing in accordance with a simple measure that keeps pace with ever-changing demographics, community revitalization, a healthier environment and pure economics.
And, for him, the mission begins at home, where his heart is.
Now after attending the Safer People, Safer Streets summit, Lucarelli says he’s even better prepared to be an ambassador for pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly streets his own town and promoting the innovation in the surrounding area. And he is equipped with what he sees as a trove of information he’s anxious to share.
“While in American society the motor vehicle is the predominant mode of transportation, almost to a debilitating degree, there is now a greater demand to use roads for bicyclists and pedestrians, so that demand needs to be facilitated,” Lucarelli said. “Society’s changing in this direction and I think it’s for the better for everyone. We have to learn to use the roads in a more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly way. Suburbia needs to wake up and find these facilities.”
The mayor explained that statistics show that as the population increases, the demands on the infrastructure become more strained.
For instance, according to U.S. DOT estimates, the country’s population is slated to increase 25 percent in the next 30 years, or by about 80 million people, up from roughly 319 million.
In 2013, according to U.S. DOT statistics, there were about 4,300 vehicle-pedestrian accidents that resulted in death. The same year, there were 471 fatal vehicle-bicycle accidents.
Both the federal and state DOTs recognize that the shift becomes a more natural one with the statistic change and encourages nationwide involvement to the extent that, Lucarelli said, many of the grants available will be given more liberally to the municipalities that embrace the concept.
“It makes sense. There’s not enough money, or room, to widen roads to accommodate the coinciding increase in vehicular traffic,” he said. “So, we need to rely more on a combination of mass transit, pedestrian and bike traffic so that vehicular traffic is reduced. When bicycle and pedestrian lanes are added to roads, and people acclimate to knowing they are there, it’s for the better.”
In Europe, Lucarelli noted, the acclimation has been historically consistent. Europeans are less reliant on cars as a chief mode of transportation and more on bikes, so the roads are naturally more bike- and pedestrian-friendly.
And it’s cheap to make the change, he said. It involves, in most cases, a bucket, or few, of paint. As part of the state DOT Complete Streets initiative, bike lanes are painted onto the existing main roadways with what’s dubbed sharrows, on-road signage to signal narrowing.
It’s also much more difficult to get a license to operate a motorized vehicle, including motorcycles, he noted. The licenses are graduated with the power of the vehicle. For instance, he said, it would take six years to get a license for a 100 horsepower motorcycle in France, whereas in the United States it’s more a matter of months, if that.
And in Europe, where cyclists outnumber drivers, there are no helmet laws, just by virtue of the fact that drivers are naturally more aware, Lucarelli said.
“Here, in the United States, you need a vehicle to survive,” he said. “So, the standards are different.”
And the U.S. DOT is busy fulfilling what officials there have said is a salient need to bring bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly travel to the states.
For the immediate area, including Sea Bright, Rumson, Fair Haven and Red Bank, the mayor said he’d like to see a marked main roadway paths for cyclists in stretches from one bordering town the other.
The roads are county roads, so that must come with county road improvements. Fair Haven has been implementing its own Streetscape program for the past several years. The NJ DOT Complete Streets end of it he said he hopes to see come to fruition by 2016.
And he’s been adamant about pushing it.
“The change is happening, the DOT is backing it and we’re going with it,” Lucarelli said.