Princeton is scheduled to elect two Council members this November. The Princeton Community Democratic Organization will meet Sunday March 30 to endorse candidates ahead of their Primary in June. We got in touch with the Democratic Party candidates ahead of this key meeting, to get their opinions on three questions relating to walkable living in Princeton. The candidates are incumbent Council Member Jo Butler, the current Council President, Bernie Miller, and Sue Nemeth,who was previously Deputy Mayor of the old Princeton Township. Their answers are below, and we hope that they will help voters in making their decision about who to endorse! The candidates clearly took some time to give thoughtful answers, and we thank them for being so forthcoming. (Note: ‘Walkable Princeton’ will not be making an endorsement.)
1. With 21,000 people driving into town each day to work, what should Princeton do to reduce vehicle-miles-traveled and enable local living?
Mass transit is the alternative to commuting in by auto. Princeton is fortunate to have mass transit connections that go directly to New York and Philadelphia. The Dinky station will be a gateway to Princeton. The town and the university should work together to make sure that there are inviting, well-lit pathways to the station in order to encourage people to walk there and adequate parking for both cars and bikes, as well as a bus or jitney that can get people to key points in the campus and town. Benches along the paths and handicapped accessibility are other issues to address. In addition, employers should be encouraged to promote mass transit options and carpooling by employees. Locating essential services, such as the Post Office in or near the center of town, provides incentives for people to walk in the town.
One clear way of reducing vehicle-miles-travelled by commuters is to offer the commuters the opportunity to live closer to their place of work. There are many things about Princeton such as the quality of life and the excellent public schools that make our town an attractive place to live. On the other hand the high cost of land makes the cost of renting or buying a home in Princeton higher than in surrounding towns. While some of the 21,000 commuters who drive alone into and leave Princeton each day may meet the income qualifications for affordable housing, it’s likely that the great preponderance of the 21,000 commuters have an income level that exceeds the threshold for affordable housing. Princeton has met and will continue to meet our requirements for affordable housing that reduces commuting by offering an opportunity for many at the lower end of the income scale to live in the community where they work. However, to make a dent in the vehicle-miles-travelled, we also need to offer housing that is both attractive and affordable for those commuters whose income exceeds the threshold for affordable housing. As Princeton is nearly a built out community with almost no opportunity for large scale housing projects, it is important that we re-examine our zoning to encourage environmentally sensitive, well designed, higher density housing that is a good fit with its surrounding neighborhood. When used in conjunction with improved public transit, and bike and pedestrian pathways, it should be possible to start to induce individuals who now use their car to walk, bike or use public transport to get from their residence in Princeton to their workplace.
According to Walkable Princeton’s February 24th report on the high cost of local housing, “Princeton in particular has resisted adding housing for decades, leading to a minimal population increase even as the local economy has grown substantially.” With escalating housing costs and a growing downtown business district, workforce car traffic is certain to worsen without intervention. Zoning should be reviewed and adjusted to encourage modest increases in housing density in downtown re-development projects. The community should be involved in this process to ensure that zoning changes are in keeping with the character of existing neighborhoods, encourage sustainable design and enhance walkability.
To further reduce the flow of cars into the central business district, Princeton should consider adding “fringe” parking on the outskirts of town with shuttles to move people from their cars to their workplaces, making it possible for people who need to drive into town the option of leaving their cars and moving about on foot in the central business district. Increasing the availability and affordability of shuttles, buses, bikes, Zipcars and taxis will make it easier for commuters and local residents to drive personal vehicles less, and walk and bike more. At the very least, Princeton should invest in the expansion and improved maintenance of existing bike and sidewalk networks to make walking and biking safer and more attractive. To maximize the return on our investments, we should foster collaboration with Princeton University, Princeton Public Schools and the local merchant community.
2. How can Princeton ‘entice people out of their cars’, as envisaged by the recently-adopted Princeton Circulation Plan?
Enticing Princeton residents out of their cars is best done by making it easy to walk or bike to the most frequent Princeton destinations and making sure that essential services are located so that they are within walkable or bikable range for our residents. Inviting, well-landscaped and well-lit sidewalks encourage pedestrian traffic. Walkways that include public art, interactive sculptures (such as the “piano stairs” installed in a subway station in Sweden) and quotations from literature (found in New York and Philadelphia, as well as in our own D&R Greenway) encourage people to get out of their cars and interact with their surroundings. We need to make sure that adequate bicycle racks are placed in key places; the Dinky station racks are routinely jammed with bikes and the library racks are often filled to capacity. Our Sharrows program is designed to make our streets safe for bicyclists, but many residents still do not feel comfortable on heavily trafficked streets. We need to make sure that our residential speed limits continue to be enforced and that motorists respect both bicyclists and pedestrians. I supported adoption of a Complete Streets Policy, and will advocate for compliance with the policy on all transportation projects. We need to consider all users and modes of transportation as we update our roadways. The Free B provides an important service, but it is underused; we need to think of ways of promoting it more effectively. Princeton has become a dining and shopping “destination,” not just a place to live, work, and study. The tension between preserving walkability and providing adequate parking that encourages economic activity (shopping, dining, attending events) needs to be addressed in partnership with residents, town merchants and the university.
To answer this question it is necessary to understand what will make it attractive for an individual to leave their car at home and employ another mode of transportation such as walking, biking or public transit. Improvements in pedestrian and bike pathways will help, as will improvements in the reliability, frequency and affordability of public transit. It may also be necessary to consider “negative enticements”, such as the cost of parking in formulating a plan to “entice people out of their cars”. In order to work, these enticements must be sold to our residents using an educational campaign that stresses both the economic benefits and the benefits to the quality of life by getting out of your car and using alternative modes of transit. All of these tools are there for our elected officials to use as enticements to help our residents understand the advantages of foregoing the use of their car and walking, biking or using public transit.
I’m a fan of experiential learning in this situation. We could test a number of ‘fun’ enticements, such as: guided walking tours of local attractions (I use a local hiking guide to find interesting trails.); pedestrian events targeted to residents (smaller than established major events) with a street or two closed to traffic; and offer special shuttle incentives (shopping discounts, local celebrity ride alongs, sustainable gift bags). Again, creative collaboration would amplify awareness and impact
3. Do you agree that allowing increased density of housing in Princeton is a useful approach to easing development pressure on remaining green spaces in the the local region?
We need to do everything we can to preserve Princeton’s historic neighborhoods and to preserve its economic diversity by maintaining and expanding the supply of affordable housing. Increased density may or may not serve this goal, depending upon the location. All proposals involving increases in density need to be studied to determine whether our infrastructure will support the density, to assess the impact on surrounding neighborhoods and to consider what it will mean for our already congested streets. In particular, there is development pressure on the Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood because it is located within walking distance of town. We need to have a plan to make sure that the character of the neighborhood is preserved and enhanced by any new development.
Princeton has exceeded our goal in the Master Plan for 25% of our community to be preserved open space. During the past year our elected officials have sought to work with the State, Mercer County and private conservation organizations to acquire parcels of land that will provide connections with existing open space. The provision of pedestrian and bike paths across the Princeton Ridge is an example of how this approach can work. Increased density of housing makes sense when it is consistent with the neighborhood and environment in which it is located. Increased density of housing within walking distance of our central business district, shopping center and public transit hubs can be a way of fostering growth of entry level or workforce housing without putting pressure on remaining green spaces in Princeton.
Having helped set the stage for the creation of the Princeton Ridge Preserve while serving on Township Committee, I believe the most effective way to ensure the preservation of the region’s remaining green space is to work with State, County and local preservation groups to acquire as much of the remaining property as possible.
The PCDO meeting this Sunday (full details here) will feature further statements and Q&A from candidates. What do you make of the candidates’s views on walkable living? What are the other questions facing our town that you think candidates should speak up about? Have your say in the comments section below!