We already have (and promote) a walkable community. However, the traffic volumes on Old York Road stand to erode our downtown’s last vestiges of charm. Because no one wants to walk on Old York, no business that relies upon foot traffic will establish themselves there. It will all become about setbacks and allowances for parking.
At a late November city council meeting, local officials voted 4-1 to impose a six-month “emergency” moratorium on car-related retail throughout Columbia Heights. The breather would give planners a chance to study potential zoning changes that offer more control over the situation—with the hope of turning at least the main part of town into a place that’s much more friendly to pedestrians.
The Jenkintown 2035 Visioning Workshop turned out an impressive attendance last Thursday night, which included several Borough Council members, Mayor Ed Foley, and Jenkintown Borough Manager George Locke. The overall group seemed to represent a cross-section of Jenkintown society that didn’t have to commute long distances to and from work.
For anyone who’s never attended these exercises, think of it as a big brainstorming session. Organizers distribute the attendees into groups of four to eight seated at their own tables with a leader who takes notes and guides the discussion. The county officials running the show assemble all the notes, listen to all the visions, and then return to Norristown to process it all into a coherent plan.
At the end of workshop, hopefully everyone leaves feeling like they’ve contributed to their community. Only time — twenty years, to be exact — will tell. Whether or not that plan sits on the shelf and collects dust for the next twenty years depends on the priorities of our representatives, political opportunities, and fate.
For anyone who thinks that these plans amount to nothing, keep in mind that the 1962 plan for Jenkintown called for the removal of Old York Road’s on-street parking in order to make it a four lane “modern” highway. Be careful what you wish for.
Speaking of which, “fixing” Old York Road found support across the room. How people want to see that happen is another matter. We have said all along that making Old York Road a desirable place to walk requires not only slowing down the traffic, but also providing a safe, effective pedestrian buffer. The absolute best way to do that is to restore parallel parking on both sides of the street.
The extra parking this provides comes as an added bonus with minimal impact to the district’s current developed assets. In other words, no more demolitions and no more eminent domain seizures. People, however, have a hard time understanding the simplicity of this solution, mostly because they fear a line of traffic bottlenecked for five miles in either direction. They see current traffic and falsely assume all of it would still jam through Jenkintown.
The workshop focused on three areas: Land use, open space and parks, and transportation. Open space and parks seems hardly germain to any discussion about Jenkintown’s future since it has so little available. To provide more open space, the town would have to either accept it as a gift or to seize it via eminent domain. The former is unlikely, and the latter is unacceptable. And yes, someone suggested the latter.
We live close enough to some excellent parks in other communities. Unfortunately, we can’t use best of them, Alverthorpe Park. We support any effort to gain access for Jenkintown residents as well — within reason.
Regarding the other two:
Jenkintown has next to no land available for development. We do, however, have a very good mix of residential and commercial. We are a classic traditional community, developed well before the post-war, sprawl-making madness that destroyed most of the rest of the region. Old York Road remains the elephant in this room. Unless the state and county can address the walkability issues of downtown, the development pressures will favor anti-pedestrian policies.
Because people cannot park on the street itself, developers will push for their own parking, often through expansive setbacks that will further decay the pedestrian experience. Looking north along the road around IHOP shows a potential future for the rest of the district. Little buildings — big parking lots. I don’t think anyone at the workshop wanted this. If the Borough does not have design standards that prevent it, I don’t know what will stop it, especially when tax receipts are involved.
Besides its highly rated school system, Jenkintown lays claim to the busiest suburban train station on the SEPTA system. Aside from its rather inconvenient location downhill a half mile away from the business distict, it makes Jenkintown one of the best connected locations in the region. About the only thing missing from the transporation equation is more intersecting bus routes and better biking corridors.
Despite the volume of ridership that originates at Jenkintown-Wyncote, SEPTA runs only a single intersecting bus line, #77. This compels too many suburban riders to drive into the area and park on the street, something SEPTA wants to address with a new parking garage and station that hopefully it will never build. We would like to see SEPTA develop new bus routes, but given the topography and the lack of space for larger buses, this may have to wait until gasoline hits six dollars per gallon.
As expected, someone did suggest a shuttle to take passengers from the station to our downtown. Here’s the problem with shuttles: No one rides them. They only work where driving to your destination becomes impossible. That only happens in successful, densely packed, walkable districts, which we don’t have.
Bicyclists face another challenge. We have narrow roads, making bike lanes impractical. Also, because Jenkintown and its skinny streets sits on top of a hill, only the youngest and fittest of our residents will risk their lives to pedal anywhere.
I made the suggestion that SEPTA include a bike trail within its right-of-way, at least from Jenkintown all the way to Beth Ayres, where it could connect to the brand new Pennypack Trail. An extension south at least to Old York Road in Cheltenham would might present more opportunities for safe bike commuting. In most places, the right of way provides for plenty of space for a bike path.
Finally, some readers have wondered how all this concern for Old York Road relates to our sidewalk policy. The prideful mention of Jenkintown as a “walkable community” probably came up at least a few dozen times. Obviously, most residents place great value on this characteristic. It takes but a tiny leap to connect our embrace of our walkability as a community asset with making it a community responsibility. A more walkable Old York Road would therefore become the jewel in the crown that shows the world that when it comes to transportation, Jenkintown values foot traffic above all else, and as a community, makes itself available to support it.
For automobile flooding (congestion), the only way to deal with it and still have a successful economy is to address it at the source. We need to absorb those trips locally before they become a flood. Instead of building lanes, we need to be building corner stores. We need local economic ecosystems that create jobs, opportunity and destinations for people as an alternative to those they can only get to by driving.
This quote comes from an excellent essay by Charles Marohn at Strongtowns.org, and a recommended read before attending the Jenkintown 2035 “visioning” workshop. Keep it in mind as you consider what to do about Interstate 611 as its traffic tears through our downtown.
Marohn makes many valid points on the nature of traffic congestion and how to deal with it, and adding lanes, as he writes, is like buying bigger pants when you put on weight. Stop solving the symptom and start curing the disease.