Princeton’s Community Pool, open for its second season since undergoing extensive refurbishment, is having a bumper season. Attendances are averaging an incredible 1,600 people per day. Kids are learning to swim, dive and also appreciating the place to cool off. The facility is a credit to the town. There’s just one ‘problem’: not enough parking.
As reported in this week’s ‘Town Topics’, parking spaces in the lot outside the pool have become a hot commodity. To quote Ben Stenz, the town’s recreation director:
“…the town has emailed regular pool customers to alert them of overflow options, which include the lots at Community Park School and the park’s tennis courts. “I think for the most part, the pool patrons have done a good job of finding them,” he said. “But on days when court is in session, the full municipal staff is working and people want to swim, it creates a bit of a log jam.”
The town is making extra efforts to provide free parking for pool users who want to drive to the pool. This also helps to make sure there are enough spaces for everybody who wants to drive their car and park up at the town hall next door….
They have got this completely wrong!
Unless you think there is something intrinsically good about people driving to Community Park pool or the town hall, there is no reason for the town to incentivize it by providing free parking. We don’t provide free water, or free electricity, or free gas for heating, not even to the old and infirm; yet every single one of these commodities is more essential to life than free parking.
You think that paying for parking is unfair? Well, in that case use the parking fees to subsidize the cost of the pool. Lower the cost of admission, and then charge extra for people who want to park. Some people will definitely still want to park, but Community Park pool is pretty expensive, and some local residents can’t afford a membership currently. Those residents still have to put up with people from all over driving around in circles looking for their free parking space. Free parking is not free, and if you don’t believe us, try reading UCLA Professor Donald Shoup‘s famous 800-page treatise on the subject, ‘The High Cost of Free Parking‘.
The thing is, when we make parking free, we make it more likely that people will drive. In many cases, people don’t really need to drive. They might live a couple of blocks away, and walking might be almost as quick. But free parking just makes it easy to jump in the car. Over time, the habit of getting in the car becomes self-reinforcing, to the point where we automatically reach for our keys for every journey. We become programmed to pass up the benefits of active walking or cycling, and inured to the carbon cost of driving.
Small economic stimuli can have a disproportionate effect on our behavior. A classic example is a fee for plastic bags. On average, Americans use hundreds of them per year; hardly any are re-used and many end up in waterways. When Washington DC instituted a 5-cent surcharge on plastic bags, usage dropped from 22.5 million to 3 million per month. Even if we just charged $1 per hour for parking, that would likely be enough to make people consider walking, cycling or riding the FreeB shuttle instead of driving. The result would be fewer cars on the road, less risk to pedestrians, and more abundant parking for those who really need it.
Shifting the balance of transportation towards walking and cycling sets up a virtuous cycle: When more people start walking and cycling, more people become advocates for bike lanes and intersections that are geared towards pedestrians. As they demand and campaign for better walking and cycling infrastructure, they make it easier and more pleasant for yet more people to walk and cycle. Soon, cycling with your kids to the pool becomes what everybody does. In fact, it’s something to look forward to! Who needs free parking, when you have the freedom to glide down a protected bike lane in safety and comfort? Or stroll, enjoying the sound of birdsong and cicadas?
“If you plan for cars and traffic, then that is what you’ll get. If instead you plan for people and life, then that will be the result.”
– Fred Kent, Project for Public Spaces
Princeton should plan for people and life, not cars and traffic. We should aim to be an active, low-carbon, low-traffic town. Driving is already being subsidized– even setting aside the costs of propping up dubious regimes and building pipelines to get our fix of oil, the NJ gas tax doesn’t cover the cost of bonds that have been taken out to build roads. The road network needs a bailout from general taxation every year just to avoid insolvency. Princeton should have the courage to focus on healthy, alternative transportation, and if officials at town hall also pay for parking, maybe that will focus their minds on walkability too!
What possible reasons are there to allow free parking for everyone at the pool / town hall? Would paid parking make you more likely to walk, bike or take transit to the pool? Or would you just not go at all? Leave a comment below or at our Facebook page!
Right now the parking isn’t actually free – its just included in the price (of the pool, of taxes etc) so everyone pays whether they use it or not. The fairer way is for those who use the parking to pay for it. Last time I checked free parking wasn’t considered a fundamental human right and given that sidewalks aren’t free in Princeton (the neighbors pay) and neither is parking downtown (there are meters), why is parking free at the pool? I like the idea of lowering the cost of the pool membership and charging for parking. That way people can choose what is important to them and vote with their feet, pedals or steering wheel.
Doesn’t Princeton make enough money on parking?
That’s a good question. Princeton has to maintain certain roads, provide police and fire services. The town can pay for those services in a variety of ways. Most of it comes from taxes, but some comes from paid parking. What is better– higher taxes or paying for parking?
In theory, we could have completely free parking, and higher taxes, but we don’t do that. The town tries to strike a balance between higher taxes and more expensive parking. The only question is, where should that balance lie? Obviously, we’d all like parking to be completely free. But if the town provided free parking, it would be throwing away a major source of revenue. Free parking also encourages driving, when the town might be better served by encouraging walking or cycling.
You won’t get any local politicians asking these questions, because they lack the bravery. But we’re not running for office, so, yes, we will ask the question: what is the right price for parking in Princeton?