Is it hard to get parked in Princeton? Not really. There are plenty of parking spaces in Princeton. So why does our downtown become blocked with drivers trying to find parking spaces? It’s because we make parking chaotic and unpredictable.Let’s talk first about what the problems are. First, many people need/like to drive into Princeton to shop. There is a perception among these people that it is hard to get parked in Princeton. The second problem is caused by the first: Princeton diminishes its most valuable public spaces by using it for on-street parking. Municipal officials and business leaders are nervous about altering the current situation, despite evidence from other walkable towns and cities that better provision for walkers and cyclists tends to improve the success of local businesses. Their fear is based on the perception that businesses would be negatively impacted by reducing on-street parking.
We have already seen that the link between free parking and business success in central Jersey is tenuous at best. On Black Friday, nearby malls along Route 27 had huge expanses of empty, free parking. The same day, downtown Princeton was packed with cars, reinforcing the perception that there is not enough parking. But there is plenty of parking in Princeton. For example, the municipal lot by Community Park Elementary School was almost empty, as people scrambled for spots downtown:
Over at Princeton Shopping Center, which is connected to downtown Princeton by a free shuttlebus service, the FreeB, a vast expanse of free parking went unused:
Another gigantic parking lot, at the old Princeton Hospital Site also sat empty, despite being a mere 10-minute walk to town. Why are people making life difficult for themselves by trying to get parked in the congested center of town, when parking is available for free a few blocks away? It’s quite simple: by providing on-street parking right in the heart of downtown Princeton, we create an idea in people’s minds that they can get parked right next to their destination. Of course in practice they cannot, because there is a finite number of on-street slots. But as long as those on-street slots exist (and for as long as the meters cost less than the Hulfish garage) people are going to circle around the town trying to snag a spot.
The hunt for an on-street parking bay aggravates customers, because it is chaotic. They might get a space right away, or they might have to drive around the whole town three times before they get parked. Although statistics don’t exist for Princeton, 30-40% of traffic in other business districts is caused by people driving around trying to get parked. We think that providing on-street parking around Palmer Square is helping out shoppers, but it ends up riling them, because when they can’t get a good spot, it feels like they’ve missed out. We’d be better off directing them to a site where they can be sure of getting parked, even if it is further away. On-street parking also endangers pedestrians, who must watch for drivers distracted by the hunt for parking. It’s a disorderly situation which causes annoyance for all parties.
The assumption is that if people have to walk more than about 2 minutes, they will go to a Route 1 mall instead. That assumption is almost certainly false. People show time and time again that they are perfectly happy to walk from a parking area to a destination. If you go to Grounds For Sculpture, do you drive your car right up beside the lake where the best sculptures are? No. You park in the lot. You pay to park in the lot, and then you walk over there. If you go to Six Flags, do you expect to park right by the ‘Batman’ ride? No. You park in a lot and walk over. The same holds true at casinos, hospitals, even Route 1 malls– where you park and expect to walk a certain distance. Nobody tries to park right outside Old Navy at Quakerbridge Mall- it’s entirely understood that you park, and walk. (Also: your car won’t fit in the elevator.)
To reduce the aggravation of parking in Princeton, we don’t need to give over our best downtown real estate to on-street parking. We just need to let shoppers know where there are spaces, how far those spaces are from Palmer Square, and how much they cost. This could be done with electronic signs offering real-time parking information to drivers as they enter Princeton, or an app so that people can find the best place to park using their phone or handheld device. By making efficient use of all our existing parking, we can make the experience of parking more predictable and less troublesome for Princeton shoppers, and free up space in our downtown for uses that will enhance the shopping experience and make it easier for people to access stores by bicycle and on foot.
What do you think? How far would you be willing to walk to go shopping in downtown Princeton? Do you pay for the convenience of parking in central Princeton? Or are you a savvy shopper who knows exactly where to get parked for free? Let us know your opinion using the comment form below!