Some Thoughts on the Chris Christie Bridge Scandal

Posted on 01/16/2014

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Chris Christie - photo from Streetsblog

Chris Christie – photo from Streetsblog

It’s only very tangentially related to bicycling… but I wanted to write down a few thoughts on the Chris Christie “Bridgegate” scandal. New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie, in apparent retaliation against local democrats, was responsible for closing lanes onto the George Washington Bridge, which connects the state of NJ with Manhattan. This is the most heavily trafficked bridge in the world, apparently, and the only surface connection for cyclists to go from NJ to NY (though cyclists can also take ferries, the PATH subway, and other trains.) The result was huge traffic jams in Fort Lee, NJ.

I can’t say exactly why I find this scandal so fascinating, but I do. Maybe it’s being a fairly new New Jersey resident. Maybe it’s watching politicians squirm. I’ve been reading and watching plenty of coverage – from hilarious to serious. This Bruce Springsteen parody video cracks me up over and over. Here’s a serious NJ Spotlight article that lays out the basics, just in case any readers are entirely unfamiliar with what’s happening. Bikas readers will likely appreciate this Streetsblog article that reminds readers that prior to the current bridge debacle Governor Christie’s anti-livability infamy was already well established in his prioritizing suburban driving over urban rail transit

What’s been on my mind are lane closures.

For the past twenty years (mostly in Los Angeles) I’ve been actively campaigning to convince politicians to close lanes. Mostly we cycling advocates are not even asking for lane closures; most of L.A.’s bike facilities (implemented to date), and basically all of Jersey City’s bike facilities (on schedule to be implemented by Summer 2014) only require narrowing of traffic lanes – no lane closures. Often though, we’re really pushing for slightly more ambitious projects including road diets – reducing 4-car lanes to 3-car lanes. Road diets can, in many cases (depending on turn volumes, etc.), make car traffic flow better – while making conditions safer for driving, cycling and walking. Sometimes we cyclists are pushing for full-on lane closures – for open streets events. This includes CicLAvia where we close ten miles of L.A. traffic lanes for 8 hours around 4 days a year.

When we cyclists approach a suburban car-centric politician, and we urge them to close a lane… well… they’re generally not very responsive.  We emphasize benefits to the environment, health and safety… but maybe these politicians perceive lane closures the way Governor Christie does. Maybe they see slowing car traffic as what you do to retaliate against your enemies. Maybe that’s part of why it’s so difficult to get many politicians to support implementation of bicycle and pedestrian facilities.

The other thought I had is about safety during the 4 days that Governor Christie snarled traffic in Fort Lee. As advocates, our trump card tends to be safety. Safety is apple pie; no one is actually against safety. Media coverage has highlighted issues with emergency responders unable to reach destinations in Fort Lee… but I have to wonder… was Fort Lee safer the days that the lanes were closed? Can we study traffic fatality/injury statistics and show they were reduced when speeds were reduced?

Chris Christie’s cohorts lied saying that the lane closures were for a traffic study… and maybe, in retropect, they did plant the seeds for something to be studied. I bet that Fort Lee, despite the horrendous delays, experienced fewer traffic fatalities and injuries. And I am sure that, even if this can be proved, it won’t comfort the wronged parties who were stuck in “Governor Chris Christie’s Fort Lee New Jersey Traffic Jam.”

I am not advocating the sort of brutal cold-turkey unannounced lane closure that Christie’s associates performed.  But if we can (again) show that slowing down traffic does result in increased safety… well… maybe there will be a silver lining to an otherwise despicable debacle.

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