Bringing the Benefits of the Urban to the Suburban: An Interview with Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh
The Township of West Windsor in Mercer County, New Jersey is home to one of the busiest train stations in the country, US Route 1, and some seriously forward thinking bicycle and pedestrian development. The Township’s Mayor, Shing-Fu Hsueh, spoke with us about successes in making West Windsor more bicycle and pedestrian friendly, and efforts made by the community to bring together transportation, health, and sense of place. Here’s an example of local government practicing what it preaches, and exemplifying the goals of Pro Walk/Pro Bike® 2012: Pro Place.
The circulation element of West Windsor’s Master Plan includes a goal to: “Create a pedestrian and bikeway system that makes walking and cycling a viable alternative to driving, and which improves bicyclist and pedestrian safety.” But isn’t West Windsor mostly suburban? Why emphasize biking and walking.
We can classify our community as a suburban community, so for people in West Windsor to enjoy all of our communities, walking and bicycling are very important. Our train station, Princeton Junction, is one of the ten busiest train stations in the New Jersey Transit system. On any given day more than 7,000 passengers board there, so we are trying to bring high-density housing around the station, and encourage biking and walking in this area to minimize the use of vehicles. We are also in the process of developing a town center around the station.
Is there a relationship between Placemaking and land use, and biking and walking? Can either excel without the other?
The reason you have a sense of community and a sense of place is because of people. In West Windsor most of the future projects are private development, whether they be commercial or residential, and they’ll all be required to have a bicycle and pedestrian friendly design to get people out and about. This is what we are focusing on now, policy-wise, and so far we have been moving forward without any difficulty. The program has been received very well.
Can you describe some of the steps West Windsor has taken to improve its biking and walking infrastructure?
I think the first thing is that we have a Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan, the primary emphasis of which is to facilitate transportation improvements for bicyclists and pedestrians. It is also included as part of the municipal master plan. In it we try to identify opportunities and new ideas for extending bicycle paths and sidewalks in different parts of the West Windsor community. Unfortunately, funding for implementation isn’t always readily available, but step-by-step we are getting there. Annually, we have around $200,000 for these projects, and we also look for funding from both the federal and state government. In the last ten years, we’ve met a lot of goals.
West Windsor was one of the early recipients of a bicycle planning grant from the NJ Department of Transportation. How important do you think it is for state and federal agencies to assist communities with creating walkable and bikeable communities?
We used that grant to develop the Bicycle Pedestrian Master Plan. It’s very critical because without that kind of support it’s extremely difficult for local governments to influence people on the importance of bicycle and pedestrian friendly design. With this grant, new doors have opened up and people have been inspired to become more devoted and come up with new concepts and ideas. If you don’t have that kind of initiative from the state and federal government, at the local level you are not going to have change.
What other kinds of support (non funding) do communities trying to achieve Livability need from state and federal agencies? West Windsor has been working with several NJ state programs, is that correct? Can you describe your relationship with them?
Since the master plan, a group of people has come together to create a nonprofit called the West Winsdor Bicycle and Pedestrian Alliance, and they have really opened up more opportunities to help the communities in our area. Also, for nine years running we have held the West Windsor Bike Festival; this year we had over 500 participants. I think seeing hundreds of people riding their bicycles really inspires a lot of people.
We also have a very good relationship with NJ DOT, which funded our bike/ped master plan was funded by NJDOT in 2003.
Princeton Junction is one of the busiest train stations, yet there never seems to be enough parking! Can you describe your vision for increasing the viability of biking and walking to the station?
This is one of the reasons I wanted to do a transit village around the station, for which we have already received official designation from the NJ DOT as the state’s 24th Transit Village. This designation “recognizes and supports West Windsor’s mixed-use development within walking distance of NJ TRANSIT’s Princeton Junction train Station.” The transit bridge is actually the first to be built in a suburban community.
I think this will open up opportunities for turning the whole neighborhoods surrounding the train station (although a lot of people don’t like the terminology, this is the reality) into a new-urbanized area. You really need to encourage high density around a transportation center in order to reduce the use of motor vehicles. Over the past two years, we have already covered the area around the train station with bicycle and pedestrian paths, and one step at a time we are creating more connections in the West Windsor community to these paths so one day more people can walk or bike to the station.
Have you worked on building connections between mobility and public health interests? Is West Windsor’s Health Department involved at all in your efforts to increase walking and bicycling?
No question about that! I think that’s one of the problems we have with society: a lot of people living as close as two houses away from their destination choose to drive, and I’d like to change that kind of habit by showing the link between transportation and exercise. Every year, for example, our Health Department personnel support programs with the Bicycle and Pedestrian Alliance to encourage kids to walk to school.
Do you think it’s important for elected officials and municipal employees to attend conferences like Pro Walk/Pro Bike: Pro Place?
Yes. The topics being covered at the conference are very much in line with what I am working on right now. I try to build communities that rely less on personally owned vehicles, and can walk and bike to come together for more community events. One example is the annual National Night Out, which we host in our community park where organizations like the Bicycle and Pedestrian Alliance partake to provide the public with education. Last year we had over 2,000 people in attendance, and we expect that number to grow this year. We also have a farmers market which always has a stand to promote walking and biking. Pro Walk/Pro Bike: Pro Place is an excellent example of community members and experts sharing the knowledge necessary to bring together sustainable transportation, health, and local development, which make towns and cities happier places to live.
This article was cross-posted from the PPS Placemaking Blog. Click here to visit the original post.