December 9, 2020

Council Introduces Ordinance for One-Way Traffic on Part of Witherspoon Street

By Anne Levin

After considering three alternatives, the recommendations of a traffic consultant, and feedback from members of the public and business owners, Princeton Council voted at a special meeting Monday evening to introduce an ordinance to keep traffic one way, going north, on Witherspoon Street between Nassau and Spring streets.

This portion of Witherspoon Street has been operating this way for the past several months in order to accommodate outdoor dining and encourage patronage of local businesses that were suffering during the pandemic. But the data that the consultants McMahon Associates considered before making a recommendation was based on pre-COVID conditions, when traffic was much heavier and flowed in both directions.

Heather Balgowan of the consulting firm said the company studied three different alternatives — returning the street to two-way traffic, making it pedestrian-only, or keeping it one-way northbound. Their recommendation for the latter also includes some modifications to Wiggins and Chambers streets, and to intersections with Nassau Street.

The section of Witherspoon Street in question is part of a larger project to redo the roadway between Nassau Street and Valley Road. “The municipality typically touches a road for a major reconstruction project every 25 to 30 years,” said Deanna Stockton, the town’s municipal engineer. “So this is our time to work on this. We’re looking at what we can do to preserve and enhance this main economic area of downtown Princeton. And how can we find healthy, safe, and equitable improvements to benefit the community?”

From meetings and surveys of the public, the priorities that emerged included street lights, outdoor dining, the ability to close the road to vehicles at some times, and drainage, among others. “It really was identifying to us that some sort of a major shift of resource allocation was needed so it wasn’t overly skewed for motor vehicle travel and parking,” Stockton said.

The pandemic provided a chance to experiment with the one-way northbound option. “We understand that traffic volume and patterns are nowhere near pre-COVID conditions,” Stockton added. “But
it did give us this opportunity to see another view of operating on Witherspoon Street.”

Stockton met with representatives from the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) last Friday, and they support the recommendation, she said. The NJDOT has the final sign-off on the project.

Some business owners have said they want the street to return to two-way, with parking spaces on both sides. Most members of the public who spoke at the virtual meeting, or provided comments by email, were in favor of either the one-way option or a pedestrian-only scenario.

“This human-friendly design of Witherspoon Street will improve your business, I’m saying to merchants,” said Yael Niv, a professor at Princeton University. “It will be better with one way.”

Carlos Rodriguez, a professional planner who lives on Moore Street, said what is being proposed is a step in the right direction. “But I would like to see it go further,” he said. “The traffic engineering discussion was inadequate. It focused entirely on motor vehicles but didn’t mention pedestrians a single time. And it’s being done for pedestrians. Let’s get our priorities right, people. This is a town for people, not for motor vehicles.”

Balgowan responded that pedestrians were, in fact, “heavily considered. And they were included in the analysis.”

Resident Nat Bottenheimer requested that the street be open as much as possible to walking, dining, and socializing. “Accommodating one-way traffic would be a welcome start,” he said.

Council members spoke in favor of the one-way option. Council President David Cohen said, “I’m strongly in favor of this. And there is so much one can do with the design and materials to make it a wonderful space, but also a flexible space. For those disappointed it’s not 100 percent pedestrian, I think that, with good design, it can be a space that can be easily converted for summer evenings or whenever people feel ready for an  all-pedestrian zone on a temporary basis.”

Councilman Dwaine Williamson reminded people that the ordinance was being Introduced, and no final decision has been made. “There is still a chance to comment,” he said. “This is only the first step.”

A public hearing on the ordinance will be held at the Council meeting on December 21.