Early Saturday morning, my 11-year-old son and I rode our bicycles in the middle of Market Street, once the most automobile-congested street in the country. Of course, we could not do it without over a hundred fellow Newarkers, who joined the Brick City Bike Tour.
“That’s how it feels in a city without cars,” my son exclaimed. Most riders in the tour must have also shared this pleasure, in addition to another two overwhelming feelings.
Since the 1930’s, to accommodate an increasing number of suburban automobiles, the city has widened most streets, often by narrowing and even eliminating sidewalks. On many streets, curb-cuts serve cars for the Bayonne Boxes, but not wheelchairs and bicycles. Before we even started this pleasant “family event,” parents and children in front of City Hall had to witness a heated match of obscenity and middle-finger waving between two road-masters with swift cars fighting for a lane.
During the tour, red-faced escorting police officers had to shout at un-yielding automobile drivers. Last year, Prevention magazine ranked Newark at the very bottom of 100 cities nationwide for its “walkability.” Bicycle riding is dangerous in this city.
Organizers of the tour thoughtfully arranged the route through many city historic sites. However, the most profound streetscape, particularly in Downtown Newark, is sprawling empty garages and surface parking lots lying under the sunshine of this peaceful Saturday.
After World War II, the city rapidly lost its power of manufacturing, together with its once economic engines, the seaport and the airport. Along went almost half of its vibrant population. With over 60 percent of its properties exempt from local real estate taxes, the parking tax has become the most significant individual contribution of the affluent suburbanites to the city’s revenue.
Even with crude oil at over $140 a barrel, many private and public Newark institutions are still enthusiastically planning for new parking facilities.
For instance, a leading developer, on record, claimed last year that the central business district’s future depends on another 5,000 parking spaces. Rutgers University is still busy “creating at least 3,500 additional parking spaces” on the city’s most valuable land (see the city’s Broad Street Station District RFEI, p.18), while possessing 2,800 parking spaces (a figure from 2000, Newark Campus Master Plan, p.60) for its 10,500 mostly commuter students.
A Rutgers-Newark professor who makes $70,000 annually pays only .001 percent ($70) of his income for parking, the rest subsidized by poor Newarkers.
Two years ago, my children went to watch Al Gore drawing a doomsday scene of the world in the movie, An Inconvenient Truth. My son held my arm tightly, sobbing from fear. After that, they made the decision to take the daily trip to their school by train from Broad Street Station. During the train ride, we have made friends with train conductors and learned about the history of New Jersey’s mass transit. My daughter started a new collection—our monthly train passes.
Riding with them, I often thought about the words of Alexander Dumas: “How is it that little children are so intelligent and men so stupid? It must be education that does it.”
Education? Yes. I also cannot forget a conversation with the leader of a Newark public university. He told me in defense of his parking expansion plans, “I am an urban person, who also rides the train (from New York City) to work. However, I have no choice but to add more parking. You can’t expect one person to change the world….”
Change the world? As if by taking over the poor city’s extremely limited ratable for parking suburban cars, one has not changed the world. As if ignoring our children’s fear for their own future, the educator has not violated their humanity.
Mayor Booker said about the Brick City Bike Tour:
“Newark has a long celebrated history as a center of competitive bicycling. We are restoring that tradition as we revitalize Newark, and at the same time, providing our residents with recreation programs that improve health, unite families, and manifest excellence.”
I am sure, if by chance our mayor reads this piece, he will forever abandon his now-infamous new black SUV, and ordinary Newarkers will just approach him anywhere during his bicycle riding.