New Jersey Town Aims to Keep App-Guided Outsiders Off Its Streets
Lisa W. Foderaro
The New York Times
LEONIA, N.J. — Monday was Day 1 of this borough’s unusual response to a deluge of traffic from navigation apps, and change was in the air.
Perhaps it was the scores of “Do Not Enter” signs newly placed at the foot of streets across the borough, with the affected hours, and a small indication that residents are exempt. Or the 3,000 yellow tags that now hang in residents’ vehicles, allowing local police to tell with a quick glance whether a vehicle is from out of town.
Or maybe it was just the handful of news helicopters that hovered above the borough at 5:45 a.m., ready to document what Leonia had wrought by instituting a near-total ban on out-of-town motorists on its streets during the morning and afternoon rush hours.
The effect on Monday was muted: The local police chief, Tom Rowe, decided to introduce the initiative with an education phase, and so officers gave only warnings to more than 150 drivers attempting to turn onto closed roads between 6 and 10 a.m.
“We are not looking to create a police state here,” Chief Rowe said. “The name of the game is to work with the traffic navigation apps and put these streets out of play. That’s the key here.”
For weeks, the police here have coordinated with officials at Waze, Google Maps and Apple Maps so that the apps no longer include the 60 affected streets when directing motorists around traffic tie-ups. In his office at police headquarters, Chief Rowe proudly displayed a screen shot on his phone from 9 a.m. It showed a field of red dots on Apple Maps, indicating closed streets across the borough.
Across the United States, navigation apps have diverted traffic from congested highways onto quiet residential streets, creating headaches for small towns. But Leonia, a 1.5-square-mile borough near the George Washington Bridge, may be ground zero for the phenomenon.
With three exits from the New Jersey Turnpike, Leonia offers tantalizing shortcuts through the community, whose suburban streets of Tudors and split-level homes make the borough feel a world away from one of the busiest bridges in the country and one of the biggest cities in the world.
“We’re in a very unique situation,” Chief Rowe said. “It’s the perfect storm of traffic.”
Residents have complained that they sometimes cannot pull out of their driveways because their road has bumper-to-bumper traffic. The new ban on nonresident cars applies to 60 streets in the borough and runs from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., and 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week. But those employed in the borough can also apply for the yellow vehicle tags.
On Monday, some residents here expressed relief that local officials had moved to reclaim the borough’s bygone suburban serenity. “It’s going to be good for Leonia,” said Kathy Bianchi, a retiree who lives on Glenwood Avenue, which sees traffic both from a local school and overflow traffic from nearby highways.
But Mrs. Bianchi said she had received pushback from people in neighboring towns. “One of my spin partners said, ‘Well, if you’re not going to let me come through Leonia, I won’t let you come through my town,'” she recalled. “He wasn’t kidding.”
Indeed, when Leonia’s council voted in favor of the ordinance last month, some commuters from outside the area lashed out at the borough, while others questioned the measure’s legality. (Borough officials say the ordinance should pass legal muster, pointing to former court cases that upheld similar restrictions around the country.)
Even some Leonia residents questioned the legal footing of the ban, however. Scott Greenberg, a video editor who commutes to and from his job in Stamford, Conn., said he would resent being told to keep out of other towns. “I’m not sure it’s constitutionally viable,” he said. “I think we are using the guise of safety and getting ambulances through the town to justify the ban.”
But Chief Rowe said that safety was a main impetus for the new ordinance, pointing to the death in 2014 of a 60-year-old woman who was hit by a school bus. Although the accident was not directly related to traffic congestion, Mr. Rowe believed it was a factor.
“We had 90-minute delays on the George Washington Bridge that day,” he said. “When people are stuck in traffic for a long period, their nerves become frayed and their attention span is altered.”
Chief Rowe said that the police department would soon decide when to begin enforcing the ban. The first Monday of February, the 5th, was a likely date for officers to begin handing out summonses that carry a $200 fine. But he wanted to give as many people as possible, especially commuters from nearby towns, the opportunity to get into a new routine.
“For some people, that’s the way they have traveled for many years — it’s muscle memory,” he acknowledged. “We will do everything to keep it fair. This is not a revenue-raising scheme by any means. If we feel that the education phase needs to be extended, up to a month, we will certainly do that.”
The focus of the education campaign was near the train station, where vehicles are no longer allowed to make a right turn from Fort Lee Road onto Station Parkway. Instead, they must drive another block to Grand Avenue, one of three county or state roads in Leonia that will remain open to all cars at all times.
Chief Rowe said that most of the drivers who ignored the sign and made the turn seemed genuinely unaware of the change. “None of my officers reported any negative encounters,” he said. “No one was rude. And obviously the people we saw who were residents gave us the thumbs up.”