July 21, 2021

New Public Transit Is About More Than Replacing the FreeB

By Anne Levin

Following a 16-month suspension due to the pandemic, free public transit is about to return to Princeton.

Starting next month, fully accessible, free bus service will resume weekday mornings and afternoons on a continuous 30-minute loop. This is a three-month interim program that will follow a route similar to the one covered by the now-defunct FreeB buses, focusing on residents of senior and affordable housing communities.

Once the three months is up, the town, in partnership with Princeton University, is planning for an expanded, more ambitious program that not only replaces the former service, but also adapts to the needs of a growing population.

“We’re looking at how public transit can be a solution to a whole host of issues,” said Princeton Councilwoman Mia Sacks, who serves on Council’s Public Transit Advisory Committee. “It will alleviate pressure on things like permit parking and congestion. We’ll be growing at a tremendous rate in the next few years due to affordable housing. So it’s not just about replacement, but what we need for real transit right now. That’s the big question.”

The partnership with the University is part of the transit committee’s work, over the past year, to significantly enhance Princeton’s system of free public transportation. Several subcommittees were involved, doing outreach to underserved community members and other constituencies.

The transit advisory committee also collaborated with the Princeton Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee and the Vision Zero Task Force on the launch of a community survey exploring how residents and visitors move through town, and how transportation can be improved.

“The silver lining of COVID was that it gave us an opportunity to go back to the drawing board and look at how transit can make sense for a wider swath of people,” Sacks said. “The University has a new director of transportation and parking services, Charlie Tennyson, and he is very committed to a holistic vision of transit in the town.”

For its Tiger Transit system, the University now uses WeDriveU, a California-based company that operates shuttle transportation for companies, universities, and hospitals. WeDriveU will be operating the buses in town during the next three months, and possibly once a long-term plan is put into place.

“We hope to continue this partnership going forward,” Sacks said. “It will have to go out to bid, of course, and applications from other companies will have to be reviewed. But it would be ideal if we could.”

Princeton’s FreeB bus program was established in 2008. The two buses, Marvin 1 and 2, were named in honor of former mayor Marvin Reed, who died last year. Under that system, the municipality owned the buses and was responsible for maintenance. The vehicles have been determined to be no longer viable. Princeton University expects WeDriveU to being operating an electric fleet in fall 2022. An interim fleet of diesel-fueled buses is currently serving Tiger Transit riders.

For details about the free buses, visit princetonnj.gov.