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Observations from Princeton, NJ

November 5, 2016 8 comments

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