July 2, 2014

Tour Buses on Nassau Street a Growing Concern

At a “Meet the Mayors” discussion held by the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce last week, Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert brought up the topic of tour buses that hog parking spaces on Nassau Street while their passengers make a quick stop involving little or no patronage of local shops, cafes, and restaurants. It was the same issue she broached a few weeks earlier at a press conference held by the Chamber to announce growing tourism numbers in town.

The tour bus issue has become a hot topic among local officials and business owners. Princeton’s popularity as a tourist destination is clearly on the rise, according to figures supplied by the Chamber. And the town encourages tourism. But the buses that bring tourists for short stopovers on the way from New York to Philadelphia are perceived by many as a problem.

Last weekend, local police began an effort to enforce laws about idling and encouraged bus drivers to move their vehicles away from the central business district while passengers were snapping photos of Nassau Hall and stopping at Starbucks to use the facilities and possibly purchase a drink. According to Princeton Police spokesman Steven Riccitello, the four bus drivers spoken to were cooperative. “They were parked, and they weren’t idling,” he said. “Patrol officers told them they couldn’t stay in these spots on Nassau near Witherspoon, and sent them along. There was no problem.”

Local officials, the Chamber, and the Princeton Merchants Association have been exploring the idea of how to encourage longer visits and discourage the parking on Nassau Street. “This has really come to our attention with a bang in the last few months,” said Princeton Council President Bernie Miller. “From our own observations, and from observations made by the University, it’s a problem. Tourism is great for the town, and we welcome tourists. But we’d really welcome them to stay for a half day or a day or two. We really don’t feel that those who come and stay for an hour or two are benefitting the town. And they don’t learn much about the community while they’re here, which is a shame.”

Chamber president and CEO Peter Crowley said one idea is to provide tourists with information about Princeton, encouraging them to spend more time in the town instead of treating it as a quick photo opportunity. “We’re very fortunate that we have a walking downtown,” he said. “But I think people who come in don’t always know what to do. We want them to spend some real time here. So the CVB (Princeton Convention and Visitors Bureau) and the Chamber are going to work hard to figure out a solution.”

Mayor Lempert said last week that Princeton’s ordinances on idling and parking are being looked at as part of an effort to solve a problem that “has gotten out of hand.” She has formed an economic development group to help find a solution.

“Princeton is conveniently located halfway between New York and Philadelphia, and it’s an attractive place to stop midway, snap pictures of Nassau Hall, and use the bathroom at Starbucks,” she said. “But it seems like they’re coming to use the facilities but not to buy. This is not an activity helping out the town. And if the buses are idling, it is unpleasant for patrons of the restaurants with outdoor seating. The flip side is that we have a beautiful, historic town and we want people to come and enjoy it.”

Not all of the merchants in town are bothered by the quick-trip tourism. Some have actually benefitted from their visits. “We used to open at 11:30 a.m. on Sundays, and now it’s 9:30,” said Henry Landau of the Landau woolens shop at 102 Nassau Street. “I would come in to do my books and there were people around, so we decided to open earlier. That first hour is one of our best hours.”

Mr. Landau suggested that a sign be put up showing bus drivers where to drop people off, and then park at such locations as Prospect Avenue or Princeton Shopping Center. Jim Sykes, president of the Princeton University Store at 114-116 Nassau Street, has also found patrons willing to spend money among the short-term tourists. “For us, it’s positive, because so much of our business is tourist and visitor driven,” he said. “It would be good for the community, though, if we could figure out a way to have a set location for buses. It can definitely be done a lot better.”

Some have suggested that the town form a special commission on tourism to help with the problem. Mr. Miller said that enforcement of the parking and idling ordinances will be continued. “If it turns out that there is repeating, we will start ticketing,” he said. “We’ll take a look at the ordinances and make sure they’re tight.” Other towns larger than Princeton have licensed tour operators, and Princeton could do the same if necessary.

“We may have to get to that point,” Mr. Miller said. “If they’re licensed, they’ll understand the rules and regulations. And if they’re not, they’ll get cited.”

Coming up with a solution is a delicate dance for those involved, who want to promote tourism rather than scare busloads of tourists away. “We should encourage tourism, but the kind that benefits both the tourists and the community. We want people to stay awhile and visit points of interest in the town and on the campus,” Mr. Miller said. “The tour companies should not use Princeton as a rest stop much the same as they do on the New Jersey Turnpike.”