Lessons From the Cranbury Road Sidewalk Campaign

The WWBPA congratulates the residents along and near Cranbury Road for their advocacy and persistence to get a sidewalk built along one side of the road (that’s the black porous asphalt you see in the photo above). We think it makes the area feel much more like a community, and we are thrilled to see so many people using it.

But it wasn’t a slam dunk. We’ve compiled some lessons from that success that can be applied to other neighborhood advocacy efforts.

1. Organize the neighbors

You want government officials to take on a specific project. But one person asking once or even three times isn’t enough. You need to show broad support to have a chance at making your desired project happen.

In this case, credit two Cranbury Road residents for taking the first step. They went door to door to explain the idea to their neighbors and to get signatures on a petition. (Get emails too – you will need them for communicating updates. Maybe cellphone numbers too for a text group … think of it as starting a broader neighborhood chat about all kinds of things.) A few block parties helped bring people together.

The group also mobilized residents to attend council meetings and speak (or at least applaud) during the public comment portion of the meeting. That was an early visible sign of support to our elected officials. Then 60 people attended a Saturday morning meeting with the mayor and township officials – in August.

Later, residents blanketed their lawns with the better part of 50 printed signs that asked for a sidewalk and for motorists to obey the speed limit.

While neighborhood support doesn’t guarantee success, it does mean you are more likely to get your request considered. It’s much harder if the neighborhood is divided.

2. Show the need

Safety was a big argument for the Cranbury Road sidewalk. There was no shoulder at all, and an embankment that went down to the road was particularly nasty.
Residents didn’t just speak at council meetings about how dangerous walking on Cranbury Road was; they showed it. A group walk from Stobbe Lane toward Sunnydale Way made it obvious how unsafe conditions were. 45 people attended, including some elected officials and candidates for office.

They also pushed for police enforcement of the 25 mph speed limit, a concern that many neighbors voiced during the sidewalk discussion. They offered up their driveways to police officers doing enforcement.

What else might help convince elected officials? For example, will businesses benefit as well as residents? If the project means residents can walk to nearby businesses, that might be an extra point that resonates with local officials.

3. Know who owns the land

Homeowners might think their property extends to roadway. Maybe not. In this case, the government generally owned a 33-foot strip of Cranbury Road (the public right of way), and the traffic lanes used only 22 feet of that. That meant there generally was room for either a sidewalk or a bike lane – but not both – without needing to acquire land from homeowners. That made it much easier for public officials to say yes to a sidewalk, the option preferred by residents. (Construction easements are separate – a temporary right to go on private land.)

If the land isn’t already in public hands, one person saying no can kill the project because it’s expensive and unpopular to invoke eminent domain.

That still leaves the money question – see No. 7.

4. Find a champion in government.

It’s always good to have the mayor on board. But a couple of champions on the council can make a difference too. After all, the council can insist that a project gets added to the budget. Talk to everyone, no matter their politics.

5. Who else can help?

Try for press coverage to help get the word to a wider audience. In West Windsor, the WWBPA can be a source of insight as well as assistance. Just remember that this has to be a neighborhood-led project.

6. Follow up. A lot.

Be polite but persistent. Don’t stop at just a council resolution. You want to see the money. And there will be many steps that need money. Pay attention when the budget is put together to make sure your project is on the list.

With Cranbury Road, the first money step was to fund a study that examined all the options and flagged the obstacles. And getting the study required an RFP so that engineering firms could describe what they could do and what it would cost.

After the study came public input on the options. And then making sure the township’s long-term capital improvement budget included money for the actual design and construction.

Even after all that – and that was a lot — there were still regular check-ins, whether by email or at council meetings, to make sure the sidewalk was still coming. (The mile or so from Princeton Hightstown Road/CR 571 to Van Nest Park was built in 3 phases. We’re hopeful there will be a fourth phase to Rabbit Hill and the Trolley Line Trail.)

If you don’t stay on top of the project, it’s easy for it to be pushed back … or dropped.

7. Who will pay?

With Cranbury Road, we learned that the county doesn’t pay for sidewalks unless it’s part of a bigger project. In West Windsor, we were fortunate that the township was willing to foot the bill (assisted by grants). You may not be as fortunate.

If you want local government to foot the bill, you need to get the project in the budget. Here’s the short version of the budget timeline in West Windsor:

West Windsor’s budget year starts July 1. The administration starts working on it the previous fall. The council gets the budget from the mayor and administration in March, then holds many public workshops to dig into the details. Changes can get worked out here. It eventually introduces the budget and then holds a public hearing before adopting it in May or so. But don’t wait until the public hearing to push for funds.

8. Say thank you. A lot.

You can never say it too often. Let officials know you appreciate their efforts. Even if you don’t get 100% of what you want. These sorts of projects aren’t cheap, and elected officials have many competing requests.

Once the project (or even a phase of the project) is done, consider a neighborhood walk (or whatever is fitting) as a final opportunity to say thank you.