Far be it from me to publish a recap of a meeting that happened over 48 hours ago, but my kid is on Spring Break and I’m handling it poorly.
I attended the Safe Streets JC meeting on Tuesday night. TLDR upfront: it was amazing.
I go to a lot of these kinds of meetings – and sometimes I leave discouraged. Not tonight. Organizers Paul Bellan-Boyer and Kara Hrabosky (& the Safe Streets JC team) are ON POINT.
They’re organized (they had a slide show full of facts, photos, and relevant data), professional (the meeting had a clear agenda, and they managed to stick to it, including the timeline), compassionate (ground rules were set in the beginning, managing expectations and setting the tone) and influential (it was a legit who’s who of elected officials and rabble-rousers.)
If you’re looking for a group with whom to begin a foray into civic responsibility – allow me to recommend Safe Streets JC. They set the bar high.
And also – I can’t say enough about the crowd of Jersey City influencers at this meeting. Traffic is clearly a common concern in Jersey City, or maybe this is just an issue that everyone can enthusiastically get behind. Either way – it was amazing to see the commitment and dialogue between the Safe Streets JC team and the following dynamic group of people:
- Public Safety Director James Shea
- Mayor Steve Fulop
- Assemblywoman Angela McKnight
- Freeholder Bill O’Dea
- Council President Rolando Lavarro
- At Large Councilwoman Joyce Watterman
- Ward B Councilman Chris Gadsden
- Board of Education President Joel Torres
- Captain Anthony DeGennaro from the Sheriff’s Department
- Jersey City Parking Authority Executive Director Mary Peretti
- Community Advocates (not in any particular order) Mark Rowan, Esther Wintner, Kevin Bing, Nicholas Grillo, James Soloman, Bill Matsikoudis
- Bike JC (who LIVE TWEETED the entire event!)
- And somewhere around 100 others who stayed the duration and followed all the rules.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The meeting began with an introduction of the Safe Streets JC team, and a reminder that this group was founded because of the tragic death due to a pedestrian/car crash four years ago.
The ground rules were simple:
- The only topic to be addressed was traffic safety.
- All speakers were to be recognized by the meeting chairs
- All attendees were to respect one another in both language and use of time
We agreed. Especially to that last one.
The first person to speak (aside from the organizers) was Captain Anthony DeGennaro from the Sheriff’s Department, who gave an update on speed enforcement focused exclusively on Kennedy Boulevard. (This is the area targeted by the Sheriff’s Department based on a previous meeting with Safe Streets JC held in December 2016.)
Captain DeGennaro gave a litany of statistics surrounding increased summonses in the targeted area, but since I have no real understanding of their context, I can’t say they meant a lot to me. My understanding was that by beefing up summonses to drivers, a safer tone will be set.
*Note: If you want more specific information on those statistics, I encourage you to reach out to the Safe Streets team. They have the information, knowledge, and understanding to be able to answer questions or direct them appropriately.
In addition to the speeding summonses, Captain DeGennaro also discussed the county’s participation in the “U Text. U Drive. U Pay.” campaign, the “Click it or Ticket” program, a distracted driving crackdown, and Operation Slow Down, Save Lives, an initiative started over a year ago after the tragic death of two children in North Bergen.
Next up was Freeholder Bill O’Dea, who gave an update from the county on the engineering solutions that will contribute to safer streets. He discussed three separate grants that total $6 million dollars together for infrastructure changes – but again, I have almost no context for these grants so I don’t feel qualified to discuss them. If you’re interested in finding out more about that, I’d suggest going right to the source.
One thing that Freeholder O’Dea did mention was that the signal light timers have been adjusted on JFK Blvd to go off sooner “because The Boulevard is not a highway.” This final statement was met with applause and a couple of scattered calls of Thank You!
Next, Mayor Steven Fulop and Safety Director James Shea passed out a stapled packet of information on traffic safety, which included an expanded version of the same kinds of statistics touched on by the Sheriff’s Department earlier.
“There’s a lot of enforcement going on,” began Shea, “but there’s more components than just enforcing your way to a solution.”
He walked us through the packet, beginning with the page on collisions – “Because that’s what we really care about,” he began. Moving through the data showed a picture of slower average speeds (based on the digital “how fast are you going” speed collection signs) and an increase in ticketing of dangerous illegally parked cars – which, for example, could be a car parked too close to the corner, thus potentially preventing an emergency vehicle from getting through.
“We seem to have beaten everyone down – speeds are much slower. We’ve done a good job of knocking down the speed,” said Shea.
They’ve also been concentrating on ticketing drivers for cell phones, improper lane changes, and distracted driving, as these also lead to crashes.
We took a break at that point for some Q&A – and heard questions about concerns from other parts of the city. Jeremy Jacobsen, for example, asked about drunk driving enforcement downtown.
“We have dedicated people to the downtown area using a federally funded anti-drunk driving grant on Newark Ave,” Shea answered, commenting further that different areas of the city have different concerns regarding traffic.
“Accidents in the Heights are because someone stepped into the road and a car was moving too fast. Accidents Downtown happen because of a failure to yield, because of distracted driving,” he said.
A second question asked was about a little more intricate, but here’s the gist: When you’re fiddling with infrastructure changes, what do you take into consideration so that you make sure you get it right?
To which, Shea answered, “We take everything into consideration. Some people were complaining about speed bumps because they slow down the fire trucks. And it’s true, they do. Or if we adjust the lights, we might slow traffic down and that might cause a problem instead of solving one. We keep all of that in mind – it’s a constant adjustment. We stay on top of it all the time and listen to people in the neighborhood. We also have a traffic expert who investigates every concern.”
“Are there plans to start ticketing pedestrians for jaywalking?” someone asked.
“We have no plans to do pedestrian enforcement,” Shea answered. “The onus is on the driver. I agree that pedestrian error can sometimes be a concern, but based on what we see, it would be an overreaction to start summonsing pedestrians based on the limited amount of problems that they cause.”
Jermaine Woodard stood up. He cleared his throat, and after a starting his question, he was asked to move up to the microphone and begin again.
“Two years ago,” he said, “my son was struck by two people driving down the block speeding on Bostwick. (He paused.) I understand you’re talking primarily about the Boulevard, but when will we be moving to the other streets?”
The mayor spoke first. The room was silent. “First, every time I see you, I want to express my condolences.”
The room nodded. It was as if Jermaine slapped us into a different place – a quieter place – a place that we knew was there all along, but hearing him talk about the very real danger and devastation that traffic and streets can cause grabbed our attention and balanced it.
I’m not even sure I heard the rest of the answer the mayor gave – I think I was flashing pictures in my head of what it must feel like to wear your child’s likeness on your t-shirt because that’s where you are as a parent, and because your grief will never completely subside.
When I refocused, it was to James Shea answering another question about allocation of officers. “If I was working in a vacuum,” he said, “and this was the only thing I had to do, I can tell you for certain that this would be done already. If we see an uptick or if we see a need to increase it, and if we have the resources to do so, I’ll do it. I’m balancing traffic, crime, domestic violence… If you think I need officers somewhere else, let us know. But I can’t have a dedicated traffic unit at this time. Enforcement, yes. But a dedicated traffic unit? I just don’t have the resources for that right now. I had to say this at the safety meeting the other night too – I simply don’t have a closet full of police officers – and I don’t say that to be flip. But if I assign someone to this, that means I’m taking them away from somewhere else.”
And yeah – I think that was the moment that I truly understood what a complicated place a city is to run, and to live in, and to attempt to organize.
Everything is always more complicated than it seems.
Back to Paul, Kara, and the Safe Streets JC team, who has “been pretty busy” and is “happy to share what we’ve gotten,” specifically regarding outreach and data collection, education, and relationship building.
They shared results from a traffic safety concern survey they conducted:
And, after a few additional slides discussing perception of police prevalence and photographs demonstrating what they mean by “dangerous illegally parked” cars, Kara held fast to her commitment to the reason we all showed up in the first place.
“I know that parking is at a premium,” she said, “but it’s got to be safety over convenience.”
The conversation moved to a discussion about Complete Streets.
“We all know it’s easy to talk about problems,” Paul explained, “But we need solutions. One phrase we’re looking at is Complete Streets. This is a standard for road design that ensures all road users are taken into account, including pedestrians, people in strollers, and bicyclists. It’s a technical term.”
According to Kara and Paul, “Jersey City has officially committed to the idea of Complete Streets. But we’ve noticed that at least four departments are involved – including DPW, Parking, Police, Roads & Engineering, and Planning – which requires a lot of coordination. We think Jersey City needs a core team and a strong leader from the Mayor’s office to lead this cross-functional team. We would like to ask you Mayor, will you establish a team from your office who will partner with Safe Streets JC?”
All eyes turn to the Mayor for his response, which is an easy and quick affirmation. “Of course,” he says. “Yes.”
“And will you commit to coming back in September or October to follow up with us?”
Also, as a way of expanding the purview, the Mayor described a technology initiative that the city is working on that would allow residents to contact law enforcement directly with quality of life concerns, such as dangerous illegal parking. This initiative would be the first in the country, and the way that the rating system will work will help bring feedback and accountability to the police department.
And last, but certainly not least, Tracey Clifford addressed the crowd, speaking about her son Stephen who passed away after being struck by a vehicle on JFK Boulevard four years ago. It was this tragedy that inspired the dedication and organization of the Safe Streets JC team, and for that we are forever grateful.
Anyone interested in learning more about Safe Streets JC should check their Facebook page. Volunteers are always welcomed.
Thanks to Safe Streets for providing their slides to use in this article. The photo of Steven Clifford was taken from the Safe Streets Facebook page. All other photos are mine.