Princeton Council’s recent effort to modernize street parking in town is getting a lot of pushback from local merchants. Some business owners believe that the increased rates for street parking discourage people from visiting their stores, and they are planning to attend Princeton Council on Monday to make their “voice and opinion heard”. Council should mostly stick with the new street parking system, but explore more options with business owners to make parking easier for shoppers and employees.
With outdated meters and more than a dozen complicated parking zones, street parking in Princeton was overdue an overhaul. The new parking meters expand options for people to pay for parking, allowing payment by credit card, or a mobile app. There have been some technical difficulties, which should be worked out, but overall, the new meters will make it easier for visitors to drive into Princeton. The increased meter rates are also fully justifiable, because, fundamentally, more people want to park in Princeton than there are street spaces. Higher meter rates incentivize people to park in garages, instead of cruising around Palmer Square looking for a space to dart into.
People who expect cheap parking are attacking Council President Jenny Crumiller for saying that the changes in street parking rates were partly motivated by a wish to reduce vehicle emissions that contribute to climate change. By streamlining parking, the new system will reduce emissions. Having lots of people driving around Palmer Square looking for an under-priced street parking space creates traffic and pollution. But the bigger goal of the parking changes – far more than addressing climate change – was to make it easier for drivers to find a space. When street parking is cheaper than garages, drivers are encouraged to drive round and round looking for a space, which leads to frustration when the perfect parking spot is not easily found.
The motto of the Princeton Merchants Association is “Business & Community Thriving Together”. But what about those of us in the community who would like to see wider sidewalks and bike lanes downtown? We have regularly been told that it’s impossible, because we have to make room for more cars. Having a lot of the downtown dedicated to storage of empty cars does little to improve the sense of place, and forces pedestrians onto narrow, inadequate sidewalks. And cheap parking does not guarantee success for a business. Just look at the shuttered Sears and Toys ‘R Us stores on Route 1: they had acres of free parking, and both are now closed.
The 2018 Princeton Parking Study revealed that there is a large excess of parking in Princeton. At peak on a weekday, only about half of the parking spaces in the downtown core of Princeton are occupied. That means there are hundreds and often thousands of parking spaces that are unused. Business leaders and the town ought to work together to make it easier for people who want to be downtown to take advantage of these parking spots, instead of everybody trying to park on Palmer Square, which is impossible. One attractive option would be to use increased FreeB shuttle bus service to move people quickly from areas were there is lots of parking (for example Princeton Shopping Center) to the downtown area.
By working together, we can make it easier for everybody to enjoy Princeton downtown. Merchants have a part to play, and should reasonably expect to contribute to any shuttle bus program – as Merchants Associations do in many other busy towns. Princeton Council members also have to be clear about what they are trying to achieve with parking policy. If their goal is to try to make everybody happy, they are probably selling a false dream. Some tough choices are going to have to be made, and it is important for them to keep the big picture in mind and avoid setting policy on a basis of ‘Who Can Shout The Loudest’.