Home > Princeton > Observations from Princeton, NJ

Observations from Princeton, NJ

A young girl cycling to school alone crossed my path a few mornings ago. The last time I had such a sighting was in The Netherlands, but in the U.S. we have nearly wiped out this species of cyclist, children of any gender and especially girls. I would have been really startled had I seen the girl in Los Angeles, but — alas — this vision appeared to me in Princeton, New Jersey, where I have been spending the past weeks in the company of my girlfriend, who is teaching a short course at the town’s famous university.

That sighting, so unexpected at first, has since been repeated many times. In general, cycling seems to form a bigger, more visible part of transportation here in Princeton than it does in Los Angeles, a city with one-hundred times the population. Princeton enjoys some natural advantages: a small and dense historical district, relatively light traffic, polite drivers, flat terrain, and built-in demand for cycling from students of all ages. It also has something of a “factory town” feel: many university employees live nearby, and they often walk or cycle to school, including most of the professors I’ve met. The other cyclists I’ve spoken with all seem to echo similar positive feelings, that riding here is easy and safe so long as one stays off the main boulevards.

This robust cycling demand has been achieved with hardly any infrastructure. A few streets have bike lanes, and the city boasts a number of short shared-use paths. However, these accommodations all lie well outside the central business district (or they are on campus) and they are mostly not interconnected. In the downtown area, where much of the cycling I’ve seen happens, and on the immediately adjacent roads that travel through the university campus, Princeton has so far provided sharrows, those much-loathed and useless bits of paint that became popular a few years ago.

Consider Nassau Street, the main east-west boulevard of Princeton. On its south side lies the university, and on its north side the town. At its intersection with Witherspoon Avenue lies the heart of the community. From there, shops and restaurants line its sidewalks from Mercer Street on the west to Harrison Street on the east, a total distance of about one mile.

Residents and tourists throng Nassau’s sidewalks and vehicles swarm its asphalt. Nassau also functions as an alternate through-route for travelers from Trenton to Edison, large commercial vehicles frequent it. Nassau works as a do-all road for business and leisure, and locals find it inescapable in their daily lives. Angelenos might think of it as the rough equivalent of Wilshire Boulevard, at least in terms of city impact.

If you want to cycle on Nassau you have two choices: you can ride on the street and hope drivers pay attention to you and the sharrows, or you can ride on the sidewalk. Neither option is great, for unlike Los Angeles, the sidewalks aren’t empty, and like Los Angeles, the roadway is packed. In my anecdotal observations, most cyclists choose the sidewalk. In one rather memorable moment, I saw a mother pedaling one child on her bicycle, and shepherding a second child on a bicycle of her own; the pair negotiated a complicated set of turns to pass from the sidewalk on one side of Nassau to the opposite. I saw this pattern repeated often with many sorts of riders. It was obvious to me, and perhaps to any observer, that what Nassau needs is a cycle track: it has the current cycling volume to justify it and the motor vehicle danger to demand it.

Over the past year or two, Princeton has been working on a major revision of its vision for cycling infrastructure. Its 128-page “Bicycle Master Plan,” released last June, would bring many improvements to cycling facilities if implemented. The plan is at once encouraging in its message and disappointing in its scope, perhaps reflecting the usual political difficulties in remaking streets. Nassau Street is slated to receive a cycle track (yay!), but only for about half of what it should have (boo!), from about Mercer Street to Washington Road, and not continuing organically to Harrison Street, where the central business district ends. The missing half of the cycle track will instead receive a treatment new to me, the “enhanced sharrow,” which in diagram screen-shot-2016-11-05-at-14-48-02 looks like a sharrow with a green box around it, making it cost twice as much for probably the same effect. I believe the cycle track wasn’t extended here because it would mean removing parking, every community’s favorite political hot potato. The half of the street getting the cycle track is much wider, easier to divide, and the proposal also relies on Princeton University ceding a right-of-way. All this aside, the cycle track comes in two options, one with a two-way lane on the university side of the street, and the other with lanes on each side. To my eyes, the two-way lane proposal is the obviously inferior option: it excludes cyclists from the shops and restaurants across the street, effectively making the path a short cross-town expressway. However, this option preserves more parking, and in parking’s hot potato way, will probably appeal more to politicians.

The Princeton Master Plan has many such half measures and compromises. Busy Washington Road, which splits the campus in half, spirits drivers south from town to Route 1, and scores of students are put into danger daily passing from one side to the other. In the best of worlds, it should be blocked off from Nassau Street to Faculty Road during school hours, though I’m sure that will never happen; the town couldn’t even bring itself to block it during a big regatta held on Lake Carnegie last Sunday, with hundreds of people clustered alongside the road watching the rowing. Meanwhile, the Master Plan gives Washington the same half-and-half treatment as Nassau, sharrows for part of it and a buffered bike lane for the other. Harrison Street, where we have been living, is a major throughway connecting important roads in the north and south, and a miserable road for cycling (and walking, with sidewalks only on one side). It receives similar treatment as Nassau, with half of it getting a cycle track and the rest enhanced sharrows.

However, lest I sound too negative on the plan, it might make cycling safer and better, and in any case, represents a start for future enhancements. If cyclists respond to it, perhaps politicians will have reason to install the halves missed this time. We cyclists often are forced to take what we can get, and all-in-all, the getting here isn’t half bad.

A week ago Thursday, I took the opportunity to attend a meeting of the Princeton Bicycle Advisory Committee. I’ve never attended such a meeting before, but I’m guessing that many of the concerns the thoughtful and committed members expressed can be heard at any such meeting, no matter the city’s size. The committee was concerned about progress on the Master Plan, for since June the mayor’s office has been occupied with other issues, and plan momentum has stalled. It was also studying the feasibility of running a ciclovía, Bogotá style, with funding issues dominating the discussion. It brought in an expert in traffic counting to talk about counting cyclists and pedestrians in Princeton, which is something Los Angeles should have done years ago, and every smart city should do. As he put it, “If you don’t count, you don’t count.”

Princeton is poised on the cusp of a cycling revolution if it wants it. The natural demand for cycling, plus the latent demand that would likely be exposed with quality infrastructure, could easily give it Dutch mode-share levels. I haven’t had enough time here to understand any of the town’s political machinations — though, as it turns out, one of my college classmates is the mayor — but I’m sure some array of community scions and burghers are allied against parts of the Master Plan. On the other hand, cycling does seem to have at least some business support; two weeks ago, the town’s nearby mall, Princeton Shopping Center, installed a Zagster bike-share rack on its own volition (!); it purchased the rack and bicycles privately, and set it up to connect to the university’s network. If cycling has a chance anywhere, it has it here. I’ll be interested to see how they progress.

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Categories: Princeton
  1. dan rappoport
    November 12, 2016 at 8:06 AM

    In the short time you have been here, you have done a very good job of understanding what the situation is like here. I commend your intuition. I hope you will be able to participate in more meetings of the Bicycle Advisory Committee.
    Dan Rappoport

    • November 12, 2016 at 1:13 PM

      Thanks, Dan. If we come back I’ll be sure to check in!

      I’m also wondering whether anyone has done any business outreach, or at the very least, customer travel mode surveys at places like Small World Coffee, Blue Point Grill, and the like. There’s going to be a fight over parking at some point, and it’d be interesting to know how business patrons get to shops and stores. I’d predict more than half walk or cycle, which would be a strong argument that parking loss won’t substantially affect businesses.

      • November 30, 2016 at 8:12 AM

        Re: addressing parking- might Princeton consider creating a parklet, like Montclair has done? They have passed an ordinance allowing them, and had their first one this past October at the Open Streets event. Bike & Walk Montclair and the BID created it. It is a way to wean shops off the use of parking spots for cars, per se, and help them realize that these spots can generate revenue in other ways. Once a parklet, always a parklet. And when you’ve made that transition, the next step is a short one to shop owners realizing that people will frequent their businesses even with reduced parking.

      • November 30, 2016 at 1:02 PM

        We stopped by Small World Coffee (on Nassau) most mornings. Inevitably, there would be a line about twelve deep. Given the few street parking slots around the shop, it seemed likely the overwhelming majority of patrons arrived on foot or bicycle. I wondered whether owners recognize that.

  2. Semi-retired PBAC warrior
    November 13, 2016 at 8:34 AM

    The pacifiers now known as Sharrows might be loathsome, misguided, wasteful, and a cop-out. But it’s a mistake to say they are much-loathed … outside the small world of bloggers. On the contrary: town councils, municipal staff, campus and other planners, homeowners on busy roads, all seem to consider them a godsend.

    Your embedded map inadvertently shows a key part of the solution to Princeton. It shows Hamilton/Wiggins as a faster/easier, and potentially safer alternative to Nassau St (aka “State Highway 27”). The upcoming Bike Master Plan (wherein only a draft version has been released) is supposed to offer a solution, after what amounted to a contentious skirmish on the Harrison-Snowden section of that street.

    You mention Washington Road. The Streiker Bridge ped/bike bridge across this is head and shoulders the most useful infrastructure improvement in Princeton over the past few decades. One of its designers (Ted Zoli) is in fact an avid cyclist. Back in the days when Professor Alain Kornhauser was on the municipal planning board, he actually promoted the idea of putting Washington Road in a tunnel under campus.

    • November 13, 2016 at 10:39 AM

      Thanks for filling out some details and history. I realize there is much to learn about cycling’s past and future in Princeton.

      On sharrows: what are their advantages seen in city hall and planning committees? I get the idea that sharrows give planners a politically easy way to signal that they have cycling on their mind, but is there anything else?

      I’ve only see a few studies on sharrows. The original ones showed that they made drivers more aware of cyclists, but those most recent suggest they don’t help safety at all, and in some cases make it worse: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shared_lane_marking#Effectiveness.

      • December 2, 2016 at 5:09 AM

        I have to believe that sharrows are viewed as a form of insurance against dooring-related liability lawsuits. Imagine a motorist who opens the door, takes out a cyclist, then claims
        “the town/university made no attempt to warn me about this, so I’m suing them”. Or the
        injured cyclist who claims “the town/university deviated from what is known to be best
        practice when it comes to Complete Streets”. Or whatever.

        There’s little agreement about the actual purpose of sharrows. I think the original intent
        was “you have a mostly-continuous network of proper, protected bike lanes and paths,
        and the fairly short gaps in that network are indicated by share-the-roadway symbols”.

        That’s how I’ve seen them in certain big cities. But in Princeton, you have the former
        Borough (downtown core) where cyclists were supposed to ride on the sidewalks. Then
        surrounding the borough like a donut, you have the former Township with its wider
        streets, bigger lots, and its hodgepodge assortment of bituminous “side paths”. The
        net result is that “the gaps in the bike route network”, consisting of the entire borough
        including roads near/in PU’s campus, gets festooned with sharrows. What else to do ?
        It’s not as if any amount of territory or pavement is going to be expropriated for non-cars.

        If you consider how the fairly recent bunch of sharrows got positioned on Prospect, say
        near Broadmead or Murray Place, they aren’t consistently in the travel lane, serving as
        a warning sign for motorists. They are sometimes out in the travel lane, while other times
        they are 2 feet away from the curb. Their intended audience is cyclists, not the motorists.

        By pushing for sharrows, do the bike advocates end up hoisted on their own petard ?

      • December 2, 2016 at 5:25 AM

        Thanks for the update.

        “By pushing for sharrows, do the bike advocates end up hoisted on their own petard ?”

        I haven’t seen any bicycle advocates push for sharrows, or at least not recently. When they were new and unproved, some advocates may have taken a wait-and-see approach, but almost no one I read now has any praise for them, except as way-finding tools.

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