What Happened When A Local Mom Asked Princeton For Improved Crosswalks?

Hooray! A new in-street 'stop for pedestrians' sign at Chambers and Hulfish! But questions remain... (click to expand)

Hooray! A new in-street ‘stop for pedestrians’ sign at Chambers and Hulfish! But questions remain… (click to expand)

Last Wednesday, two representatives of ‘Walkable Princeton’ accompanied Dr Rachael Winfree, a Princeton resident, to a meeting of the municipal Traffic and Transportation sub-committee that deals with pedestrian improvements to local streets. (Regular readers will recall that we recently reached out for support regarding this issue.)

The T&T sub-committee is chaired by local resident, Anton Langston. Princeton municipal engineers, public works representatives, several additional volunteers and one representative of the police also make up the sub-committee. It was formed earlier this year to respond to the many petitions for safer streets from local residents.

Dr Winfree had asked the committee for a number of safety improvements at the Chambers-Hulfish intersection, to make at least on of the crosswalks there safe enough for her kids to walk to school:

  • install a 4-way stop junction, to prevent cars speeding through the crosswalks
  • re-stripe the crosswalks to make them more visible
  • add in-street ‘stop for pedestrians’ signs
  • Remove on-street parking, to increase visibility of the crosswalk.

– Of those requests, adding a new 4-way stop junction was quickly shot down. Apparently, the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) standards do not allow for a 4-way stop junction. there.

– The committee was open to re-striping the crosswalks.

– And they also agreed to add in-street ‘stop for pedestrians’ signs on stanchions, similar to those seen at Witherspoon and Hulfish!

– But taking away a parking stall is not happening at this point. Dr Winfree was told that the committee needed to “maintain a balance between everybody’s needs. Data that would support taking away a parking stall would be an accident.”

The very next day, in-street ‘stop for pedestrians’ signs appeared at Chambers and Hulfish! This is great, and will help make the intersection safer. The speed that the new signs appeared shows that the system can lead to rapid implementation. We congratulate the Traffic and Transportation sub-committee, Mr Langston, and the Department of Public Works. They have a very difficult job finding ways for roads to be shared, and their agenda had an almost-overhwelming 37 items!! (Remember also that volunteer committee members receive zero compensation from the town). However, we have a number of observations:

1. Safety should really be the #1 priority.

The sub-committee has a philosophy of making the smallest change possible to existing roads. As voiced by Sgt Murray after Dr Winfree left the meeting, “sombeody asks us to change 3 crosswalks, but there are thousands of motorists to consider.” This is true, but safety ought to be the primary consideration. When the Boeing 787 caught fire after a battery incident, the Federal Aviation Authority didn’t wait for the plane to crash before taking action- they pre-emptively grounded the entire fleet. This action is incredibly costly for the carriers operating the planes, and terrible publicity for Boeing. But it represents the logical outcome of placing human life above other considerations. Meanwhile, cars have killed 58,500 Americans since 1998.

In Princeton, safety is not the number 1 priority. It is something to be balanced with the rights of drivers to get across our town quickly, and for people to find convenient parking. This seems extraordinary. Parking which demonstrably obscures visibility of the crosswalks is going to remain in place until somebody is run over, and that is municipal policy. Why take a chance? Take the parking out now.

2. Adherence to code?

Many pedestrian safety solutions are thrown out for all kinds of reasons. Princeton recently banned new speed humps, frustrating local parents who are tired of seeing drivers speed down their streets. One mention of ‘MUTCD standards’ is enough to cancel discussion of safety measures that could save lives. If adding the safety measures was considered vital, Princeton would find a workaround, or just disregard the code. But at present, ‘the code’ is sufficient reason to justify not doing something that might increase safety.

3. Enforcement is not a substitute for engineering solutions.

Dr Winfree was advised that speeding on Chambers Street is a separate issue to the crosswalk design. Speeding would have to be addressed by police enforcement. This is not the case. The speeding happens because the street makes it easy for drivers to speed. Improved traffic calming is far more likely to reduce speeding than occasional police enforcement. Our police cannot be everywhere at once, but engineering solutions, once put in place, work 24/7. In fact, it is not even a good use of police time to be standing on Chambers Street with a speed gun. As long as we rely on our police to be everywhere at once, we cannot expect safe streets.

4. Why implement solutions that aren’t going to work?

Dr Winfree got in-street ‘stop for pedestrians’ signs, but Sgt Murray warned that the signs would ‘definitely’ be run over by carelessly-driven vehicles, possibly within a matter of days. If the sub-committee really believes that’s the case, why not do something more substantial now?

The Traffic and Transportation sub-committee are doing excellent work, and have an enormously full load of work. However, it will be essential for Dr Winfree and everybody in the town who cares about pedestrian safety to follow up to make sure that crosswalks don’t drift back to their previous, dangerous state. Ultimately, Princeton is going to have to aim for stronger action to make our local streets safe, as in many cases we are currently  settling for band-aid type solutions when what is needed is major surgery.

Thanks to everybody who wrote letters to support the ability of children to cross the street safely at Chambers Street! Do you have any thoughts about pedestrian safety in Princeton? Please leave them using the comments box below!

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This entry was posted in Alternative Transportation, Complete Streets, People, Princeton, The Parking Question, Traffic, Walking and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to What Happened When A Local Mom Asked Princeton For Improved Crosswalks?

  1. bobschwartznj says:

    Thumbs up to prompt and appropriate action by the T&T subcommittee — its installation of an in-street sign and willingness to re-stripe the crosswalk seems an appropriate, balanced solution. Safer streets can be #1 priority and still be balanced with other priorities of all residents. Count me reluctant to opt for “major surgery” until minimally invasive procedures, physical therapy and prescription drugs have failed.

  2. John Jameson says:

    Big thanks for helping her. My office faces one of the new stanchions…and we have had a long and storied history of almost-getting-run-over. We, of course, never thought to talk to someone about it. This has been eye opening!

    The past week has been night-and-day: even when there isn’t a pedestrian in the crosswalk, the stanchions appear to be constricting the lanes enough to significantly slow drivers. So it looks like we got some traffic calming to boot.

  3. I have a few comments, the first being that we brought that specific crosswalk
    to the attention of a municipal official when submitting our list of improvements
    to the Circulation Element (chapter of the Master Plan) back on July 12, 2012.
    Secondly, a federal/state program called Safe Routes to School (SRTS) is
    worth knowing about. This program depends on volunteerism among the
    parents/students/staff at the various local schools, and can also draw upon
    the support and expertise (and funding) of the Greater Mercer TMA — see
    http://www.gmtma.org — and has historically not gotten any traction here in
    Princeton, for reasons I don’t really understand. I will make a point of
    bringing Rachael’s issue up (again) at our next monthly meeting, along with
    other problematic crosswalks (no shortage of them in this town) but
    seriously … making the Lincoln Highway (27) into a pedestrian mall
    isn’t practical and won’t solve Princeton’s traffic volume/speed problem,
    which was flagged five decades ago.
    Regards, Steve Kruse
    (chair, bike/ped advisory committee)

    • sfb says:

      Who said anything about making the Lincoln Highway into a pedestrian mall? I can’t find any reference to that in the original piece?

      • That reference comes from a 9/13 post “Traffic Safety Depends on All of Us”:

        “We shouldn’t route cars through central Princeton. The entire downtown area should move to a pedestrian zone, such as the central shopping areas of Boulder, CO and Charlottesville, VA – two American towns that regularly top the list of ‘Best College Towns‘.”

        The traffic congestion is what it is. A whole bunch of arterial roads converge on Princeton, forming a knot. Most of us have watched Route 1 get steadily wider and way faster in recent decades. Luckily, Robert Moses syndrome confined to US1. Here’s a sketch of said knot: http://tinyurl.com/pton-knot

      • sfb says:

        @PBAC- Very good; but clearly any reasonable observer would recognize that Hwy 27 would be an exception to any downtown pedestrian zone as it’s not under Princeton’s jurisdiction.

        As for the idea that ‘the traffic is what it is’- this is dangerous nonsense. The traffic that we have today is a consequence of planning, zoning and transportation decisions that were made 20 – 50 years ago. The traffic in 10 – 20 years time is going to be a consequence of planning, zoning and transportation decisions that we make today. Anyone who has read the Route 1 Growth Strategy will know that it is certain that the region will become ever more gridlocked on our current growth trajectory. Gentle tweaking is not going to make the unsustainable sustainable. It is essential to find real solutions, and that means making it possible and pleasurable for people to get around without using single-person vehicles as we do today.

        When you plan and build for people instead of cars, it becomes obvious that the current use of downtown space as a grand open parking lot / thoroughfare for crosstown traffic is not going to work.

      • bobschwartznj says:

        “We shouldn’t route cars through central Princeton. The entire downtown area should move to a pedestrian zone” + “Hwy 27 would be an exception to any downtown pedestrian zone” + “the current use of downtown space as a grand open parking lot / thoroughfare for crosstown traffic is not going to work” = I’m really confused about what you’re proposing. Maybe this is in another post, but are there a few specific streets or parking lots you think should be closed? Thanks!

      • Hi bobschwartznj and Princeton PBAC!

        Thanks for your comments! The idea of turning parts of downtown Princeton into a pedestrian zone dates back at least to the early 1970s. (Steve Kruse is probably familiar with these plans!) Many small towns- in the USA as well as Europe- have very effective downtowns that are set up for people walking, instead of car driving. It tends to produce an environment where people linger, enjoy themselves and shop more. It also gives space for artists, musicians and street performers.

        We will have more posts in the near future about concepts for a walking-oriented downtown, and potential trials that could be used to test how well it might work in Princeton. Different schemes are possible, but it’s fair to say that Nassau Street is less likely to be a candidate for a pedestrian area, because it is designated as a State Highway.

  4. Here’s what Jeff Speck has to say on page 99 of his excellent “Walkable City”, which I bought used for $4 at the public library – and those are 2013 dollars, not 1970 dollars. Anyway, he says:

    “The car-free successes of NYC and Copenhagen provide a powerful lesson that unfortunately does not apply to most American cities. It is a mistake to think that similar designs will produce similar results in vastly dissimilar places. […] Unless you have similar residential and pedestrian density, and stores that can thrive in the absence of car traffic – a rarity – to consign a commercial area to pedestrian-only, in America, is to condemn it to death.”

    On the second floor of the library, behind the assistant’s desk, you can find interesting stuff such as “Route 206 Joint Vision Plan And Traffic Calming Study (2005-6)” or the “Princeton Redevelopment Project: Traffic Impact Study”, or “Proposed Route 92 – Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS)” by the US Army Corps of Engineers. None of the proposed ring roads or bypasses ever happened, for one reason or another. You can even look at the 1960 Master Plan, which is only (Daily Princetonian archive) or here: http://tinyurl.com/pton-mp-1960 and read this: “Noting that Hulfish and Spring Streets are roughly 12 to 20 feet below Nassau Street,
    the master plan suggests that this declevity would allow for construction of taller buildings on these streets without affecting the appearance of Nassau Street. It is added that the declevity would also permit pedestrian malls to be extended over the Hulfish-Spring section.”

    More on Speck: http://tinyurl.com/speck-interview

    http://bikewalktn.blogspot.com/2012/12/the-atlantic-cities-book-review.html

    And in remembrance of books past due: http://foundation.princetonlibrary.org/celebrating/images/1970.jpg

  5. So don’t put words in my mouth, okay ? Princeton got listed (and not by me) as an edge city. My personal opinion is that we can use all kinds of interesting alleyways, passages, walkways, and pedestrian shortcuts, but that a full-blown pedestrian-only mall (closed-off street or section thereof) may or may not be better. No denying, the mall works well in Charlottesville – whose
    student population is *much* bigger than ours – they have more scale and far less congestion. What’s even more cool about that place is that “Parking Lot” is a fabulous movie. I’m done now.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_edge_cities#New_York_City

    http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/parking-lot-movie/film.html

  6. bobschwartznj says:

    I see Princeton as sort of a college town and a smallish edge city, FWIW. Yes we are a town with colleges but, since most undergrads live on campus (and rarely venture more than 2 blocks north of campus), our off-campus density quickly drops lower than the bigger, more state-U-dominated towns we might turn to for examples.

    I think we’re fairly bikeable, but to be more walkable we somehow need more close-in residential density. I’d put closing streets to cars way down my list, though; when I walk around downtown I rarely have to stop long for traffic.

    P.S. I found Steve’s links and cautionary quote from Jeff Speck interesting and helpful; the nameless reply implying he’s a non-pedestrian-friendly guy with a bad example, not so much.

    • What Bob said !

      While we’ve been jibber-jabbering here, somebody uploaded Speck’s TED talk.

      • @PBAC Funny you should link to that, we only just ‘shared’ Jeff Speck’s TedTalk on our Facebook page earlier today, after a reader tipped us off during the week.

        It’s great to have a debate about what type of pedestrian improvements would work best in Princeton, and we thank you and Bob for weighing in! There will be more to follow.

  7. Pingback: What To Do About Smashed ‘Stop For Pedestrians’ Pylon In Downtown Princeton? | walkableprinceton

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