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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—There’s plenty of blame to go around for a serious car accident involving a Rutgers University police vehicle and a student pedestrian last month near a popular campus bus stop on College Avenue.
Both the driver and pedestrian appear to have violated traffic laws, and an analysis of the city-owned street and Rutgers bus stop shows that the physical design of College Avenue makes pedestrian incidents like the one that occurred on September 19 much more likely.
That evening, Anthony Timbol Jr., a 14-year veteran of the Rutgers University Police Department who regularly patrols the College Avenue Campus, was driving about 20 miles per hour as he passed a double-length Rutgers bus on the right.
Just as Timbol’s car passed the bus, 21-year-old Ryan Sikder darted in front of him, well outside of a designated crosswalk. Sikder told authorities that the bus had stopped to let him go and that he was jogging to limit the time he delayed the bus when the marked Crown Victoria struck him and severely fractured his leg.
As we reported earlier this month, Sikder, a senior originally from Wayne, NJ, was forced to drop out of school for the semester by his injury and received a 60% refund for his tuition based on the school’s standard policy.
In the wake of the tragedy, our readers have expressed varied viewpoints on who is to blame, including several who said the area was poorly-designed and inherently dangerous.
The accident occurred at 5:24pm, during the city’s busy rush hour, just south of the bus stop located near Rutgers’ famous food trucks. At peak times, 62 buses stop at the bus shelter every hour, making it the most popular transit stop on the campus and among the top five at the University.
No stop signs or traffic signals regulate the flow of automobiles between Hamilton and Huntington Streets, which could facilitate stop-free travel if it weren’t for the tens of thousands of pedestrians that also use the busy street each day during the school year.
There are eighteen crosswalks between the two signalized intersections, many of them significantly faded. The accident occurred approximately half-way between crosswalks located to the rear of the bus stop and at the intersection with Hamilton Street.
Diagonal yellow markings in front of the bus shelter had once reminded cars and trucks not to drive the path that Timbol’s police car took. But those markings faded years ago, and were not replaced when that section of College Avenue was re-paved earlier this year.
“College Avenue is a very wide road,” the city’s Planning Director Glenn Patterson told the Traffic Commission this month. A road’s width can encourage drivers to speed up and make it longer and harder for pedestrians to cross, according to basic principles of transportation planning.
The street functions as a collector road, according to the city’s master plan. It connects Route 18 to the main campus of Rutgers, and was designed in a way that accommodates high speeds. The majority of the street measures roughly 40 feet from curb to curb.
The northbound side of the street consists of one lane of travel and one parking lane in most places. The southbound side offers no curbside parking, but it is equal in width, effectively creating a 20-foot travel lane.
When driving north, the presence of parked cars makes the road feel narrower and inevitably causes most drivers to slow down, but the wide southbound lane makes higher speeds feel safe.
Not all of New Brunswick’s streets are like this. George Street, between Route 27 and Livingston Avenue, consists of two lanes of travel measuring 26 feet from curb to curb. While this still allows for wide lanes, traffic signals at each intesection significantly limit speeds. It is rare to see a car speeding on this stretch of road.
Adding traffic signals to intersections is one form of “traffic calming,” a design strategy that involves building streets in a way that people automatically slow down.
The best-known yet least effective method is a speed bump. Other examples include four-way stops, narrower lanes, raised crosswalks and installing small artificial curves called chicanes.
Traffic calming features help to slow down traffic and create a safer environment for pedestrians.
In its current design, College Avenue helps to move as many cars, buses and trucks as quickly as possible, with little regard to the plentiful pedestrians.
Forty feet of roadway provides a lot of room for driver’s to work with and can lead to unsafe speeds. Alternatively, a boulevard could be created that would narrow the lanes of travel and create a place in the middle of the street for pedestrians to wait safely for traffic to clear.
By narrowing the sidewalk on each side of the street by 3 feet, it would be possible to have 24 feet of bus only space that would allow for buses to pull in and pull out without having to queue, a 6-foot median, and two 8-foot travel lanes for regular traffic.
Because most riders who get off at the stop are destined for one of the several lecture halls across the street, large numbers of students are constantly crossing the street in the vicinity of the stop, and not always in the 20-foot-wide crosswalk.
Adding a physical buffer between the bus stop and the roadway would mean that pedestrians no longer need to step in front of the buses and immediately into a lane of travel, vastly improving sight lines for pedestrians and drivers.
Adding stop signs for the traffic lane at the south end of the bus stop could allow buses to move faster as well as slow down other traffic. Raised crosswalks, or crossings that sense pedestrians and activate flashing lights, could create even safer crossings for pedestrians.
University spokesman EJ Miranda said that Timbol’s accident is the subject of an ongoing internal investigation by the Rutgers University Police Department.
First Transit, the contractor that runs the University’s bus system also assigned employees to help direct bus drivers pulling into the stop in the wake of the accident that injured Sikder.
“We’re just making sure that the buses don’t create a sight-distance problem,” Rutgers Transportation Director Jack Molenaar told the Daily Targum’s Amy Rowe.
“We want to see if there’s anything that we’re doing that caused [the accident]… we came out here and saw that our buses probably weren’t doing it the best way.”
This month, NewBrunswickToday.com released the only known video of the incident, captured by a campus security camera. The footage was used in an investigation by the New Brunswick Police Department that resulted in no summonses being issued.
Miranda said that no video of the accident exists from the police vehicle’s on-board camera. Each of the department’s vehicles have a dashboard video camera, but they only begin recording once the overhead lights and sirens are turned on, or the driver manually activates the recording device.
Miranda told NewBrunswickToday.com that the recordings typically include 30 seconds of footage from before the device was activated. But the only footage available begins shortly after the accident, according to Kimberlee Pastva, the University’s custodian of records.
Former Rutgers President Richard McCormick announced an ambitious vision to build up and modernize the university’s historic College Avenue campus in 2005. The most well-known piece of the school’s concept plan was the closure of nearly all of College Avenue to automobile traffic.
Each of five finalists in McCormick’s highly-publicized competition to dramatically re-design the campus were given $50,000 after they were selected that December.
But major budget cuts announced the following year by Gov. Jon Corzine, as well as an expensive expansion of the school’s football stadium, delayed any changes to College Avenue for several years.
The winner of the design competition TEN Architeqtos, a Mexico-City-based firm, unveiled a downsized version of the greening plan in 2008.
The “first phase” would only modify traffic patterns on a block of College Avenue between Senior and Bartlett Streets, where a one-way, bus-only lane that would be served by a transparent, futuristic bus shelter.
The design was eventually scrapped and, to date, none of the numerous develoment proposals suggested by TEN Architeqtos were ever implemented, perhaps because the city and university did not see eye-to-eye on the proposed greening.
In October 2009, the Targum exposed part of the discrepancy:
“It’s taking a little longer then we would have liked, but we are in a city, and they own the street, and they own the parking meters,” McCormick said. “They have responsibility for the flow of traffic and so you really need to cooperate with getting the answers they want.”
But the city disagrees with this assessment of the status of the project.
“I would not say that is an accurate characterization of what is going on,” [city spokesman] Bray said.
That same month, New Brunswick Mayor James Cahill spoke about the project at a meeting of the Rutgers Democrats student organization, according to a video report published on Moxietoday.com.
“If this plan is in fact the one that goes forward, College Avenue will be narrowed… It would become significantly more pedestrian-friendly, but nevertheless people will still have to cross College Avenue with bus traffic. So that’s what will happen with that.”
Cahill continued, “From the city’s perspective, we lose revenue. But the University is trying to get students to be less dependent on their cars… and there’s something to be said for that.”
But the next year, Cahill and McCormick announced that most of the plans to improve College Avenue and make it safer for pedestrians were being “postponed indefinitely,” despite the federal funds allotted to the expensive project.
“We will replace the ugly bus stop in front of the College Avenue Gym, we will get rid of the parking meters on College Avenue,” McCormick told the Daily Targum.
“It will look a whole lot better, but the basic transportation aspects will not be changed,”
Of course, the parking meters, a source of revenue for the city’s Parking Authority, remain in working order.
But the University did replace the bus shelter in front of the College Avenue Gym in 2010, abandoning the controversial futuristic design for something simpler.
The prior design was nearly identical to the stop where Sikder was injured, often referred to as the “Grease Trucks” or “Scott Hall” bus stop.
While the Scott Hall stop remained unchanged, a landscape and site construction company based in River Edge, NJ, Let it Grow Inc., earned $499,762 for re-building the shelter and improving the landscaping in front of the College Avenue Gym.
But officials at nearly every level of government had helped to steer far more funding to the College Avenue greening project, funding that remains in limbo today.
An October 2008 news release from the University read, “Efforts by [U.S. Senator Frank] Lautenberg, [U.S. Senator Bob] Menendez, and [U.S. Congressman] Pallone helped secure $150,000 to support the first phase of the greening project.”
“An additional $1 million is pending in a bill before Congress. Bank of America gave a $1 million grant two years ago. The university has committed $17 million for the first phase,” the release said
University spokesman EJ Miranda told NewBrunswickToday.com, “Those funds have not been spent pending redevelopment of the [Grease Trucks] location. The funds will be applied to a reconfiguration of the bus stop at that site.”
On McCormick’s last day in office, the University and city government unveiled a new attempt to transform College Avenue, one that would include new student housing and classroom buildings built by a private developer. The plan has drawn criticism for its potential to displace the “Grease Trucks,” a Rutgers institution that the developer insists they want to work with.
The developer, New Brunswick Development Corporation (Devco) has proposed a new student housing building and privately-owned plaza at the current site of the grease trucks parking lot.
If approved and financed, the development would likely include improvements to the bus stop and intersection. A website launched by Rutgers to promote the proposed developments said they are, at least in some ways, a continuation of McCormick’s original 2005 vision for changing College Avenue.
“The College Avenue Campus development project would achieve some of the primary goals outlined in former president Richard L. McCormick’s Vision for College Avenue, including enhancing the university’s oldest campus in ways that attract top students and faculty, improving the academic environment, and strengthening ties to the surrounding New Brunswick community.”
But the new plan is dependent on a $52 million tax credit the developer is seeking from the state’s Economic Development Authority. The state has not yet begun accepting applications for the credits, and may not award them for several months after the application deadline.
Both Rutgers and Devco have said that not getting the credits would be a deal-breaker for the complicated project.
In a recent letter to the city’s Planning Board, Devco’s attorney Tom Kelso said that the company expects to start construction on the first phase of the project, a parking garage for Rutgers faculty and staff on George Street, in March 2013.
So far, the only other piece of the $295 million plan to be approved is a new building for New Brunswick Theological Seminary. Plans have not yet been submitted for the Rutgers academic and housing buildings.
According to Miranda, the plan for College Avenue and its outdated bus stop still lacks specifics, but he expects the new Devco building will come with several “adjustments” at the bus stop.
“The redevelopment process is in the very early stages, so there are no details as to how any new construction will look, but we anticipate that adjustments will have to be made at that stop once construction begins.”
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.