New Group Aims to Make Jersey City More Bicycle-Friendly

From Portland, Ore., which has the most bike commuters in the nation, to Davis, Calif., which boasts bike routes so comprehensive that the city recently eliminated school bus service, many American cities are finally implementing bicycle-friendly policies, spurred on by — and further growing — the increasing number of people who are opting to travel by two wheels instead of four.

Closer to home, our neighbor to the east has been busy improving the cycling climate — and the real climate — under transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. In the last three years, New York City has created 200 miles of new on-street bicycle lanes, bringing the city’s all-around bike lane total, including those in parks, to 620 miles.

But in New Jersey, a state too often tarred as an asphalt jungle, progress has been a little slower to come by. For instance, the Garden State is one of only 10 states nationwide that still lacks a Bicycle Friendly Community, as designated by the League of American Bicyclists.

Jersey City’s bike culture is growing, if not quite to the extent that it is in New York City. But as anyone who rides here knows, it is not always an easy task.

Ten years ago, before the latest wave of cyclemania, a group of residents formed the Bicycle Advocates of Jersey City, an organization whose aim it was to make the city more bike-friendly. Best we can tell, despite staging the city’s first-ever bike rally in September 1999, the organization fizzled out not long after it was formed — a recent phone call found that its toll-free phone number was no longer in service, and little information can be found about the group online.

Now a new crop of bike commuters and enthusiasts hope to pick up the torch. They will gather at Zeppelin Hall this Tuesday at 8 pm to form Bike JC, an advocacy organization that seeks to improve bicycle safety in the city and promote increased bicycle use.

Organizer Carly Berwick, who has lived in Jersey City for over seven years, became interested in joining a bike advocacy group after a few close calls between cars and her two young children. She commends the city for the steps it has already taken towards fostering bicycle culture, including the bike plan that the Planning Board added to the city’s development Master Plan in 2006. But she and others think that the city could use organized support from the community in developing future policies. In particular, Berwick would like the city to examine successful models in other places, such as her hometown of New Haven, where she says “small things have made a huge difference” in creating a culture of sharing the road.

In addition to Berwick, local bicycle institutions will be leading Bike JC’s efforts. Grove Street Bicycles, which opened in April of this year, was for many a welcome — and overdue — shot in the arm for Chilltown’s cycling community. Berwick calls the bike shop “an inspiration” to the city’s bikers. Owner Mike Wilson says that safety for cyclists is his main concern for the group; many of his customers are “people who have not ridden a bike for many years,” and he doesn’t want them to be discouraged by Jersey City’s sometimes harrowing cycling conditions. “Even the seasoned riders find the roads unaccommodating for bike riding,” he says.

Wilson is an advocate of bike lanes, a policy that has provoked some controversy in cycling wonk circles; some advocates would prefer to pursue policies that encourage drivers do a better job of sharing the road with bikers. Disagreements like these are among those that Bike JC will tackle as it formulates its mission on Tuesday.

Other amenities that Wilson would like to see the city create include more bike parking racks and a bike and skateboard park. He is also keen on organizing citywide cycling events to promote bicycle culture.

Easy Riders JC is another recent addition to the city’s bike scene, having opened in June. The company, which offers bike rentals and guided bike tours of Jersey City, is owned by Christopher Englese and Damian Wieczorek.

“The city should recognize that cycling is growing,” Englese says. He’d like Bike JC to push the city to to create bike lanes and install proper lighting and signage along bike routes, as well as create additional parking racks.

Englese would like to see increased driver and cyclist education, as well.

“I don’t think a lot of [drivers] understand the actual laws about cycling,” a sentiment many a biker might share when recalling encounters with overly wary or overly aggressive drivers on Jersey City’s streets. By the same token, he says that because of a general lack of signage and bike lanes, many cyclists “don’t … pay attention and ride properly.”

In addition to inviting the community to Bike JC’s organizational meeting on Tuesday, the organizers are asking folks to show support for the group’s efforts by signing an online petition that asks the city to help make Jersey City “the most bike friendly city in the state.”