At their meeting on Monday night, Princeton Council held a work session to identify final design alternatives for the ‘Witherspoon Street Phase II’ engineering project. This is a major engineering project for the part of the street between Green Street and Frankin Avenue, and the design selected is likely to define it for the coming decades. Advocates including former Princeton Borough Mayor Yina Moore had championed a bike lane on this section, which would improve the safety and comfort of cyclists, including the large population of low-income workers who live in the area around Witherspooon St. Based on staff recommendations, however, Council decided to reject the bike lane concept. Cyclists will instead have to share the road with car, bus, and truck traffic. The saga is a good illustration of why the town of Princeton keeps failing to install high-quality facilities for bike users.
The recommendation to proceed without any bike lanes was made because of what seem like reasonable, practical issues. The street is quite narrow, and it is very difficult to fit in bike lanes after allowing for two-way traffic, on-street car parking, ADA-compliant sidewalks, street trees, and utility poles. Why, though, are bike facilities always the very last priority? In recent years Princeton Council has now canceled bike lanes on Hamilton Ave, ripped out the ‘Beta Bike Lane’ on Wiggins St, and backtracked on plans to add protected bike lanes on Nassau St. Princeton Council has not installed bike lanes on both directions on any street, anywhere in town, in living memory. Here are five potential reasons why:
- Personnel. Certain Council members and staff do not appear to place a high value on safe cycling facilities. Council member David Cohen argued passionately that protected bike lanes are a hazard in Princeton. This highly-idiosyncratic view, which is in opposition to modern planning and engineering considerations, undermined support for a safe bike lane on Witherspoon St. In the Council meeting on Monday night, one staff member argued that cyclists should use Jefferson St or Moore St instead of Witherspoon St, as if it is reasonable to expect cyclists to make drastic detours for their trips. Another member of staff argued that it would be unwise to try to significantly lower the speed of traffic on Witherspoon St, even if that made things safer for cyclists, because it would inconvenience car drivers too much. The Historic Preservation Commission opined that bike lanes are “too urban” for this area.
- Lack of focus. Council’s efforts to consider a bike lane came up against a hard deadline for awarding contracts for construction. In the end, staff and council were working at a frantic pace to try to identify ways to make the bike lane work, but basically ran out of time. Why did the discussion happen so late? At this website, we were discussing alternatives for bike facilities on Witherspoon St over two years ago, based on the obvious observed reality that the street presents tough questions for bike facilities. Council spent far more time talking about on-street parking than bicycle facilities in the interim. The Council effort to modernize street parking has been ongoing since 2017, longer than US participation in World War II.
- Princeton’s Bike ‘Master Plan‘. Arguably, there should not have been any discussion about what kind of bike facilities should be added on Witherspoon St, because the Princeton Bicycle Master Plan of 2017 identifies what facilities should be used throughout the town. For this section of Witherspoon Street, the Bike Master Plan identified ‘enhanced shared-lane markings‘ (i.e. pictures of bicycles painted on the road) as the appropriate bike facility. Princeton Bicycle Advisory Group no longer support sharrows, however, becuase they basically do nothing to make streets safe for people on bicycles. The Bike Master Plan, written by consultants from WSP, is not fit for the purpose, because even if it was fully implememented, it would not provide a safe network of bicycle facilities in Princeton.
- Rewards for failure. Despite repeatedly downgrading options for safe bicycle facilities, the town of Princeton was awarded Silver “Bike Friendly Community” status by the League of American Bicyclists. As such, elected officials can boast that we are one of the most bike-friendly municipalities in New Jersey, despite repeatedly canceling bike lane proposals. How is this possible? It turns out that a town can get good grades for being “bike-friendly” by passing policies like Princeton’s “Complete Streets” resolution, even if it ends up being a substitute for real change on the ground.
- Lack of organized support. Princeton could prioritize safe bicycle facilities over other street uses if there was sufficient demand in the town. Although we have organized groups advocating about open space preservation, stormwater run-off, ‘pot shops’, and dog parks, there is no advocacy group for cyclists in Princeton. The Princeton Bicycle Advisory Committee is the nearest thing to a group advancing the needs of people on bicycles, but as an arm of municipal government, it cannot engage in open advocacy.
It is certainly a challenge to accommodate safe bicycle facilities in Princeton, but it is challenging everywhere. Princeton is still a good place to use a bicycle to get around, chiefly because of the close-knit development pattern that evolved prior to 1960. Many trips are just a couple of miles, and can theoretically be done by bicycle. The opportunities for cycling to become the kind of thing that normal people would consider for daily trips have also improved immensely thanks to the recent appearance of “e-bikes” that provide riders with motorized back-up from a silent, clean electric motor. But as long as cyclists are expected to share roads with heavy traffic, where one small mistake can lead to death, most people are going to stick with cars for their daily business.
The next big engineering project will be ‘Witherspoon St Phase III’, which includes the section of the road from Franklin Ave to Valley Road. This area includes “Conte’s Pizza”, the Municipal Town Hall at 400 Witherspoon St, and Community Park Elementary School. There are reasons to be hopeful that safe, separated bicycle facilites can be added in this section, because the roadway is relatively wide, meaning that bike facilities might not interfere with the ability of people to drive and park cars. The current discussion over ways to modernize the Princeton ‘Dinky’ rail corridor presents a further opportunity to create a safe bikeway. The rail corridor historically had two tracks, but only one is used for trains in the present day, therefore a safe, separarated bikeway could be created adjacent to the train line to link Princeton and West Windsor.