The town of Princeton is holding a public meeting tonight (June 14) to discuss parking. The meeting is the latest in a series of discussions led by consultants hired by the town to evaluate issues relating to parking. These issues include (1) Perceived shortage of downtown parking, (2) Employee parking encroaching on residential neighborhoods, (3) the difficulty of balancing parking vs other street uses, for example bike lanes, and (4) the high cost of parking for employees of local businesses. With such a wide range of problems to solve, the consultants have their work cut out. But there are some simple approaches that could really help reduce the current parking chaos in Princeton…
- Set the right price for parking
Most street parking in Princeton, whether it is the metered spaces downtown, or on residential streets, is drastically under-priced. That encourages people to drive and try to park as close as they can to their destination. As local news man Richard Rein wrote in a recent article:
“when you drive into town you skip any open spaces on the fringes and head directly to where you want to go. You might just get lucky there. If you don’t then you can work your way back toward the fringes.”
This is what everybody tries to do in Princeton, leading to drivers doing laps of Palmer Square on the hunt for parking spaces. As metered parking is much cheaper than garages, you basically have to be an idiot to use a garage. You are rewarded for driving round in circles looking for an on-street spot. On Sundays many spaces are even free! Of course, because everybody else is trying to do the same thing, street spaces are hard to come by, leading to frustration and the sense that ‘parking is impossible’. If parking was priced right, only the people who really need to park downtown would do so. Other people would find other alternatives, such as parking at the Shopping Center (for free) and using the ‘FreeB’ shuttle bus to get downtown. Then there would be spaces available downtown for those who really need or value them.
The under-pricing continues in residential areas, where parking is often free, or available by permit at the ridiculously cheap price of $30 / quarter. Workers and residents compete for spaces, and Council finds it hard to referee about who is most deserving. The answer is to set the price of parking on residential streets so that those who feel like they need it can pay for it, and those who don’t value it can find an alternative. That means everywhere in Princeton should become a resident permit zone (presumably with different zones for different parts of town). Anybody wanting to park on the street has to buy a permit, and they have to pay a reasonable price for it, which should be much higher than it is today. Similarly, if employees want to park on residential streets, they have to buy a permit too. That would cut down on employee parking in residential areas.
People are going to say “I’m a taxpayer, I shouldn’t have to pay to park on ‘my’ street”. But a parking permit for a street is a special entitlement that is not available to all taxpayers. It is entirely reasonable to charge for it. No business could operate by giving away a valuable resource for a cheap price, but Princeton does, because the town just raises property taxes instead. We need to stop subisidizing parking or giving it away for free. And if local employers need parking for their staff, it should be their own job to provide it. The town doesn’t give businesses free or subsidized water or electricity, so why should they provide free parking? Concentrate on keeping taxes low. If it is so controversial to charge a fair price for parking, the town could consider dedicating the revenues to transportation purposes, like more shuttle buses to remote parking lots.
2. Use technology
Princeton is still pretty backward with its parking technologies. Although multi-space meters that take credit cards are now available at the Princeton Rail station (see photo above), most spaces are still controlled by old-fashioned meters. The town should expand the use of modernized parking meters, and other technologies that make parking easier to find and pay for. Princeton should adopt the ‘Parkmobile’ app that is now common in other local towns, and allows people to pay for parking using their phone. Better yet is the new ‘Possumus‘ parking pilot, which uses sensor technology and a mobile app to direct drivers to open parking spaces. These kind of technologies would make parking easier to find for those who need it.
Enforcement of parking is an issue in Princeton, because the town has insufficient enforcement officers to adequately control illegal parking. The town should hire more enforcement officers and ensure they have the best technologies available to do their job efficiently. This is going to become even more necessary when the University implements planned restrictions on campus parking. More University staff and students are likely to seek free parking in town, and we need to ensure that the town has the resources to avoid becoming a satellite parking lot for the University.
3. Provide decent alternatives
Too many people feel that they have no reasonable choice but to drive and park in Princeton. The town has a long-standing policy of providing more and more parking to try to solve this problem, but instead, all we achieve is to increase the amount of traffic flowing into Princeton. Instead, we need to focus on providing adequate bicycle facilities and improved transit links so that people can access Princeton without using a car. Too often, the town has chosen to provide more parking instead of ‘alternative’ facilities. Most recently, the town canceled planned bike facilities on Valley Road to ensure that residents would have the ability to park on the street for free. This becomes a vicious cycle: people need to drive, because we don’t provide alternatives, because we are so busy catering to the needs of people who ‘need’ to drive.
Bike facilities are relatively cheap – the main issue is finding the political will to install them. Transit is expensive, but could be subsidized using revenues collected from increased fees for metered parking and residential parking permits. Importantly, improved transit or remote parking lots will never be successful as long as parking in town remains under-priced. As things stand today, it makes more sense for somebody to drive into town and park than to use the ‘FreeB’ shuttle bus that provides access to free parking at Princeton Shopping Center. The town is undermining transit by trying to maximize parking downtown at low prices. If we are to protect Princeton’s walkable, livable downtown, we need to stop trying to accommodate parking at all costs, and seek better alternatives.