An interesting debate is underway in Princeton about whether the town should add bike lanes. Around a dozen people showed up to Council in January to support the introduction of an ordinance to repurpose on-street parking for bike lanes on part of Hamilton Avenue. Last night, about a dozen people spoke against the plan at a neighborhood meeting. But the opposition was not unanimous, and letters columns in local papers are filling up with arguments from both sides. Princeton Council is set to vote on the matter next Tuesday, February 24. They will have to weigh the costs and benefits, and consider their own policy on ‘Complete Streets‘.
Princeton bike facilities today are mostly ‘sharrows‘, painted signs in the roadway that are intended to encourage cyclists to take a safe lane position. But the sharrows are often in narrow travel lanes, where it is hard or impossible for cars to safely pass slower-moving cyclists. Cyclists must exercise confidence and skill to ride mixed in with cars, buses and trucks, with the greatest burden on the most vulnerable road user. Many potential cyclists are undoubtedly put off by the risk of riding in mixed traffic, and cyclists who do ride often use sidewalks (see image above), annoying pedestrians and putting themselves at risk of collisions with cars at cross streets.
Adding dedicated space with bike lanes would make a safer and friendlier experience for people riding bikes. There is a substantial body of evidence from other communities that suggests that high-quality bike facilities are the most effective way to promote safety and increase the number of journeys made by bicycle. Princeton has traditionally failed to add bike facilities, citing a lack of space on local roads and streets. But lack of space is a problem that is regularly solved in other bike-friendly communities. Space can be found by repuporsing travel lanes, on-street parking, or unused land for bike facilities. The current proposal for Hamilton Avenue envisages dedicating space currently allocated for on-street parking to make new bike lanes. The question is whether Council agrees that this is in the community’s best interests.
At the neighborhood meeting last night, the most frequent objections were:
- The neighbors on Hamilton Avenue weren’t consulted enough.
- The on-street parking is essential and cannot be taken for another use.
- The proposed bike lanes wouldn’t connect to other bike facilities.
Getting the word out to residents about planning matters is always a challenge for the town, and not just for this project. Princeton has now held two neighborhood meetings to discuss the Hamilton Avenue project with residents, but many still feel like their opininons were not appropriately taken into account. Council recently adopted a ‘Neighborhod Planning Program’ to electronically inform residents about land use applications. This approach might be further adapted to better inform neighbors about municipal street projects as well. Of course, the more information the town pushes out to neighbors, the less likely people are to read all the information. Details about the Hamilton Avenue project have been available on the municipal website since last June.
Losing on-street parking is presented as a major problem by residents on Hamilton Avenue. But a look at Google Streetview imagery shows just two cars and one van parked in the entire project zone, consistent with municipal estimates that parking occupancy is low. Side streets such as Gordon Way also have plenty of parking availability. Bike lanes on Hamilton would therefore not prevent anybody from finding parking, but in certain occasions they would have to walk a distance of up to 2-3 minutes from their car. The town has proposed exceptions for infirm residents, emergency vehicles, and certain contractors, but this is clearly still a potential burden. Whether you think it is a large burden or not depends on your point of view, but there are few places in Princeton where the parking situation is easier than here.
This takes us to what is potentially the most important point. Advocates and opponents alike agree that there is no point in adding bike lanes if they do not connect to other bike lanes, especially on Hamilton Avenue closer to town. Council members therefore have to ask where are we prepared to add bike lanes? Council is planning a new Bike Masterplan, but without an answer to this basic question, any new plan would just be an updated map of sharrows. A previous Princeton Bike Circulation Masterplan, commissioned at a cost of over $40,000 in 2001, recommended taking out parking all along the Wiggins-Hamilton corridor to make safe space for cyclists. That plan may be too radical even today, but the current situation where Princeton has 125 miles of roads and no bike lanes is hardly an example of balance.
If Council gives an idea of what conditions are suitable for bike lanes, then it will provide a basis for planning a joined-up network, and stimulate creative thinking for areas where parking is judged to be essential. It is not going to be easy for Council to limit parking at any location, but at some point we will need to plan for other transport modes if we are going to address the growing traffic problem. It has been said ‘plan for cars, get cars’. If we can find a way to build high-quality bike facilities, we will make an invaluable amenity for residents that will add to property values and support clean, sustainable, healthy transportation. Princeton would become a leader in Complete Streets in New Jersey and an example for other towns. It may not be easy, but it is a challenge worth meeting.
What streets do you think would be good places to add bike lanes? Should encouraging cycling be a goal for Princeton Council? Have your say in the comments section below.