February 26, 2014

Princeton Future Takes Aim At Traffic and Transit Issues

What does the future hold for Princeton? Chances are, if we don’t take steps now, the answer could well be more time waiting in traffic and pedestrians jostling for space with bicyclists, motorized wheelchairs, and other personal vehicles on Princeton’s busy sidewalks. 

Notice the “we” in that last sentence? The pronoun was used a great deal on Saturday morning at the Princeton Public Library where over 60 concerned citizens turned out to contribute to a discussion on “Traffic and Transit: Issue and Opportunities,” organized by Princeton Future, the grassroots non-profit formed to “protect and enhance Princeton’s unique community and share concerns about the directions future growth and development may take.”

For one speaker the plural pronoun meant pedestrians and bicyclists. For another it meant urban planners and  local government officials. To others, including many in the audience, it meant local residents, commuters going to and from Princeton, parents, teenagers, aged persons with limited mobility, and lovers of good old Shanks’ pony.

Each speaker seemed to represent a different constituency whose interests overlapped and sometimes conflicted. But all of the above were included by someone at some point during the morning’s proceedings in presentations heard in turn from Marvin Reed, Sam Bunting, Ralph Widner, Steven Kruse, and Kevin Wilkes.

Mr. Reed, a former mayor of Princeton Borough, kicked off with “Where Are We Now?” a description of the the “circulation element of the Princeton Master Plan” as updated last November. As chair of the Master Plan Subcommittee of the Princeton Planning Board, Mr. Reed suggested that more parking structures such as the one on Spring Street are most definitely in Princeton’s future.

Walkable Princeton’s Sam Bunting, a member of the Princeton Traffic and Transportation Committee, presented “Complete Streets in Princeton, What, Where, How?”

Complete Streets are defined by urban planners as those planned, designed, operated, and maintained to enable safe, convenient and comfortable travel and access for users of all ages and abilities regardless of their mode of transportation, and to allow for safe travel by those walking, bicycling, driving automobiles, riding public transportation, or delivering goods.

Last year, the municipality incorporated complete streets into its Masterplan and hopes to have an implementation plan for complete streets and a bike route network by the end of this year.

“Think of a street as a long park, not just a way to get from point A to point B but a place where people want to walk, to rest, to be in shade. Complete streets calm traffic, accommodate pedestrians, and personal vehicles, and can offer sustainability when concrete is replaced by plantings; they can connect the community to places of historic interest and enhance the entire streetscape,” said Mr. Bunting, a relative newcomer to Princeton. His talk was illustrated with images of the pedestrian and bike path in downtown Indianapolis, known as the “Cultural Trail.”

Deflecting criticism that complete streets can be costly, Mr. Bunting said that in some cases all that is required is paint and besides, “Princeton has a rule that any such costs must be within a 15 percent increase.” He described ways of slowing traffic using painted crossings and curb bump outs. “For Princeton, not one solution is needed, but a menu of options,” he said. For more information about Complete Streets, visit the Pedestrian Joint Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee: pjpbac.blogspot.com.

At the end of his talk, Mr. Bunting was asked by audience member and former Mayor of Princeton Township Jim Floyd about Princeton Planning Board’s recent decision to forego speed bumps in favor or other ways of slowing traffic. Mr. Floyd invited Mr. Bunting to take a walk down John Street, which he called “the most unique street in Princeton.” Since the policy against speed humps predates Mr. Bunting’s time, Mr. Lahnston remarked that he believed the decision was made in order to facilitate access for police and fire vehicles, for which speed humps are problematic.

Steve Kruse, also of the Princeton Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee then presented a wish list of bicycling needs in his talk: “Bicycling. What do we need, what do we want?”

A Widner Perspective

Introduced by Mr. Lahnston as “Princeton’s data maven,” regional planner Ralph Widner, a member of both the Traffic and Transportation Committee and of Princeton Future’s council, addressed “Traffic Facts and Possible Transit Strategies.”

Mr. Widner’s data places Princeton in relation to its greater surroundings. Last year, he unveiled “A Statistical Portrait,” a database of data from the 2010 U.S. Census and the 2007-2011 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census, describing it as “a tool that will help us to argue for what is needed.”

“Goals without strategies are just wish lists and we need to think about implementation,” he said. “The previous presentations have argued eloquently for various ways of making change within Princeton but the problems we face connect to further afield. We must think strategically about all of the groups coming into, going out of, and traveling through Princeton. What is the universe of people we should focus on and how do we persuade them to use public transit rather than the automobile,” he asked.

“Let’s identify the universe of markets that could be served by public transit. Let’s talk to them and find out what they will and will not use. They’ll tell you they don’t want to change two or three times on a single journey. Then we can design a system that might include light rail, jitneys, taxis. Don’t start with the tools, start with people.”

As Mr. Widner points out, Princeton’s problems are not confined to the municipal boundary. “With some 180,000 vehicle trips passing through Princeton every day, traffic and ways to transplant auto travel with mass transit must be the focus for the next decade,” he said.

ASUP Task Force

Lastly, architect Kevin Wilkes, chair of the Alexander Street-University Place Task Force (ASUP), offered a detailed presentation of traffic and transit in the Alexander Street Corridor, including suggested changes in traffic patterns. The Task Force, he said, had looked and examined the benefits and drawbacks of options for a one-way loop on Alexander and University Place. It had also addressed the feasibility of ideas such as turning Witherspoon Street into a pedestrian precinct.

Mr. Wilkes pointed out as well that all of the event’s presentations had been made by volunteers. “The municipality doesn’t have an office to do this,” he said. “Our planning board can write documents for people who want to build and can create a desire for future change but it doesn’t have the resources to implement these designs. What we need is a planning office so that these responsibilities do not fall to community volunteers.

“Kevin hit the nail on the head,” commented Mr. Widner in a brief telephone interview Monday. “There is currently no effective way for the municipality to plan for the future. The planning committee can only react. What we need is to be able to look ahead and make predictions and for that data are required.”

Princeton Future

“Like most municipalities, we are underpowered in terms of people and resources,” said Mr. Widner. “The problem is how to make things really happen. Most small municipalities are dealing with this and there is an effort through the Central New Jersey Forum of mayors to deal with this. But, of course, one of the major problems is the dysfunction in Trenton, and I’m not simply referring to the current administration but to the refusal of the state to invest. New Jersey cannot be the major transit corridor for the United States and not invest in infrastructure.

When a member of the audience suggested that funds for some of the suggested improvements might come from raising the gas tax, there was a spontaneous round of applause. “But no one in Trenton right now would touch such a tax. And that’s why it’s time for transformational change,” said Mr. Widner. “Princeton Future and other such groups are a way to build change from the bottom up but what is needed is transformational change and we are not going to get it from the government in Trenton.”

For more information, visit: www.princetonfuture.org.