Late last year a conference was sponsored by Princeton Future purportedly to answer the subject question: “What Kind of Town Do We Want to Become?” As at a similar conference in early 2014, my primary interest was traffic and transit.
In a U.S. 1 Interchange column on March 19, 2014, I provided some thoughts on that program. The 2015 program again featured respected speakers covering a spectrum of issues, well moderated in this case by Kevin Wilkes. As before, I have little doubt that Princeton Future — together with its many associates both public and private — have enabling competence to find solutions. But “how long can we wait?” is again the question.
One is reminded of the widely acclaimed report cards from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) that give our infrastructure a Grade D followed by a stunning report on probable outcomes from “failure to act.” As a professional engineer involved in transportation and environmental issues for many years, my Interchange in March, 2014, offered small steps that could start “right now.” The 2015 panel on “Transportation and Mobility” made no mention or prior consideration of any of these steps. Further, there was no substantive discussion of any other steps which could lead directly to actionable recommendations going forward.
In the March, 2014, Interchange column I suggested several actions in the short term:
Improve overall vehicle circulation downtown by one way street(s), providing commercial vehicle unloading curbside daily to serve businesses, and more lane width for biking and pedestrians. Instead, Princeton has experimented with European-style dining streetside — losing both streetside parking and lane width, thereby increasing congestion.
Reduce congestion and delays. Enforce zero tolerance of Princeton’s nightmarish abuses within the traveled way — jaywalking, bikes, skateboards, and other personal conveyances failing to adhere to basic rules of the road, not to mention similar abuse of bikeways, sidewalks, and park pathways.
Do not accept the inevitability of increases in total number of vehicles in town. Several measures were cited in common use elsewhere, only a few already in place in Princeton. Many university towns and public school systems enforce strict limits on student motor vehicles on campus. Students walk, ride bikes, or take the bus with strict rules limiting student vehicles on school property. Also, limit drop off and pick up by parents before and after school.
So what was discussed at Princeton’ Futures 2015 “Transportation and Mobility” table?
Transportation Survey. A well-crafted survey was distributed to those living and/or working in Princeton to provide some facts on their use of the traveled way and personal opinions about a spectrum of alternatives focused on traffic control, congestion and safety considerations. Unfortunately, the small sample size, the survey questions themselves, and stories of personal experiences in Princeton have little probative value for the traffic engineer.
Further, little was brought forward that any transportation professional looking at Princeton hadn’t heard repeatedly before. The survey’s relevance to solutions within Princeton proper is particularly limited by excellent hard data on all local uses of the traveled way presented at the meeting itself. This included the makeup of all vehicular traffic moving in and out of Princeton, car trips by residents, numbers of commuters. The bottom line is externalities plus boundary conditions will rule.
User Behaviors. There was well informed discussion of personal choices and behaviors in the use of available mobility modes. A common thread was that, whatever the reasons, most of the steps taken to achieve increased use of alternatives to personal cars and other transportation/mobility options generally are failing locally. Cost, comfort, and convenience factors can change personal behaviors but who wants to increase user fees (gas tax, etc.) or try to force use of less comfortable, inconvenient, and time consuming alternatives.
Princeton Solutions. Informally and probably not to be reported in the wrap up or summary on Transportation and Mobility is professional opinion that there is currently no viable solution to transportation and mobility problems in Princeton as most of the causative factors are created by personal behaviors and transportation externalities beyond local control.
The primary determinants of congestion, delays, etc. are the facts that New Jersey is an East Coast corridor state and Princeton is a major bottleneck without a bypass. Our overall situation, especially traffic throughput, in-town congestion, and parking issues will increase, not diminish.
Complete Streets. Fait Accompli? There was no discussion of this planning concept that potentially can have significant negative impact on mobility and safety by forced multi-modal use of the already over-crowded traveled way.
We can improve accommodation and safety for some, perhaps many, users in specific locations. It may come with increase in traffic, commuting delays, and congestion within and through the town.
Editor’s note: Clearwater is a retired U.S. Navy engineer who moved to Princeton in 1984. In the December 12, 2012, U.S. 1 he wrote on the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy: “the media is missing the big take-away from Sandy. The fact is America’s crumbling infrastructure spawned much of the most unimaginable damage and exposed an appalling lack of systems resilience in both damage prevention and control as well as timely recovery.”