looking backThere’s been a lot of discussion lately about sidewalks in West Windsor. Ever since the start of the pedestrian and bicycle group that has tried—with some success—to turn people on to using something besides an automobile on a road to get around the township, more and more West Windsor residents have taken to the idea.

It’s by no means a new idea, since developers have been installing sidewalks along the roads in new rural housing complexes for decades, but discussion of the subject has picked up in recent years as the overall character of the town has changed, and some specific areas have become the focus of sidewalk discussions.

Now, the presence of sidewalks is not the only factor in how well a road can meet the limitations of its use by pedestrians and cyclists, but it is an important one. That is not to suggest that the presence of a sidewalk will indicate that cyclists will be safer on a road that has one, but simply to indicate that pedestrians have better choices if there is a sidewalk on a road that has both car and bicycle traffic.

How effective a safety feature a sidewalk is depends a lot on what other specific things are present. What about trees? If the sidewalk has trees along its edges, they may be difficult to avoid hitting if your bicycle gets too close. It also matters if the tree is on the road side or the house side.

Some of West Windsor’s most prominent sidewalks have been here for a very long time. Many date from 30 or 40 years ago when substantial residential development was taking place. One, not far from where I live, runs along the north side of Clarksville Road east of Princeton-Hightstown Road.

Because it is nearby, I sometimes walk it during the day for exercise, but I have rarely encountered another walker. And that is a common observation I have about many of our sidewalks. People just don’t seem to be using them for regular exercise.

I sometimes notice how many of our sidewalks sit there unused. Two that I see frequently are those on both sides of Rabbit Hill Road from Cranbury Road to Bennington Drive. I use that way to get from my house to the Southfield Road shopping center, and I make that trip three or four times a week. Counting a mile on Rabbit Hill Road and another mile on Bennington, that’s two miles each way as part of my trip.

Then, there’s another half mile on Southfield before I reach the store. Having made that trip several times a week for over a decade, I have yet to see one person walking on any of the sidewalks along the way. Not even a cyclist, although they are supposed to stay on the road. And within the developed areas along Bennington there are also sidewalks on all the streets. So, it seems to me that a reasonable question for developed areas like this is, “Why do we have sidewalks if nobody uses them?”

Sidewalks are supposed to add to the safety of the road for use by pedestrians. That sounds like an obvious answer. But suppose pedestrians don’t want to walk along the road. That’s what we have cars for. It seems that a large majority of people would rather use a car, depending, of course, on how far they are going. And that depends on what the objective is.

If it’s shopping, it depends on how far away the store is and what you might have to carry. If it’s visiting, it depends on how important the visit is and how far away it is. If it’s more than a few houses away or just across the street, you’d probably drive your car.

One major road that has sidewalks on both sides is South Mill. It runs from Route 571 all the way to Dutch Neck, nearly a mile and a half. There are sidewalks on both sides, including many that are located along the rear of building lots. That is, if there is a house on the lot, a sidewalk will run along the rear edge of the lot. In fact, some lots have sidewalks along both the front and rear edges. That’s another area in which I have never seen a pedestrian using the sidewalk.

There are unusual sidewalk situations at many places in West Windsor. Many are the result of special situations that developed during the building of a “subdivision,” i.e. a bunch of houses all in one small area. As careful as contractors think they are, they still make mistakes, and something like a section of sidewalk can be left out that way.

One of the most complex sidewalk ideas in recent memory concerns Cranbury Road in the area between Grovers Mill and Princeton Junction. Ideas for the “upgrade” of Cranbury Road in that area were under serious discussion a couple of years ago.

The discussion involved residents who were new to the area who felt that changes like removing parts of the old “landscape” was all right if the change provided improved access to the region, both on foot and by car. Traffic safety was also deemed important. It was finally realized that there were a number of “special” problems along that section of Cranbury Road that would require special design considerations and that would involve expense far beyond what might have been expected to start with. At this time, the next step — if there is one — has yet to be determined.