Princeton being Princeton and having a small but charming downtown attractive to shoppers, diners, sightseers, and office workers, you can always count on problems with traffic, parking, and — now more than ever, I predict — pedestrians.
Pedestrians didn’t use to be much of a problem. When I first moved to town, it was simple. When pedestrians wanted to cross a street, they stopped, looked, and listened and made sure no car was coming fast enough in either direction to hit them. Then they crossed. But New Jersey eventually became more like California — motorists had to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks and at intersections.
As Princeton has become more congested, regulating the flow of vehicles and people has become a challenge. And the matter is likely to get heated now that the town is advocating that the state making one downtown intersection — Nassau Street at Vandeventer and Washington Road — an “all-way walk” intersection.
That means that for some precious seconds in every traffic light cycle, motorists coming from all four directions will have to sit (and stew) while pedestrians freely traverse the intersection every which way.
Of course in a town like Princeton pedestrians are the true kings of the road. They are the lifeblood of the walkable Princeton that we all cherish. And if you think about a pedestrian confronting a motor vehicle it’s difficult not to be sympathetic to the former.
To take the side of the motorist against the pedestrian feels wrong, like pulling for the big box store on Route 1 to put the mom and pop shop on Nassau Street out of business.
But since I do a lot of walking myself in downtown Princeton, I feel entitled to offer some constructive criticism of our precious pedestrians.
Entitled is an appropriate word because entitled is how all too many Princeton pedestrians seem to feel. Yes, pedestrians, you have the right of way in crosswalks but please make sure that the oncoming motorists see you (particularly at dusk) and have a reasonable time to stop for you.
When the motorist does come to that grinding stop, please don’t stroll as slowly as a Parisian flaneur as you cross. And while it’s not necessary, it sure doesn’t hurt to acknowledge the motorist with a wave or a nod.
Also, if you are seeking protection in a crosswalk as a pedestrian, then be a pedestrian. Don’t linger on the curb in front of the crosswalk, gabbing with a friend. Don’t be engrossed in a cell phone conversation that puts you in different place and mindset from the busy street you are attempting to cross. And do pay attention to the signals.
At intersections with “walk” and “don’t walk” signs, it ought to be easier for motorists and pedestrians to exist in relative harmony.
But that depends on pedestrians obeying the signals. At Nassau and Witherspoon that’s often not the case. Here motorists on Nassau Street heading east (toward Kingston) get a small break: a green arrow that permits them to turn left onto Witherspoon Street before the traffic from the other direction gets underway and blocks that turn.
It’s a small amount of time — around 10 seconds — that improves traffic flow on Nassau Street a lot. But it only works if pedestrians obey the “don’t walk” instruction.
All too often they don’t and then the first car in the queue trying to turn left from Nassau onto Witherspoon is blocked. The cars behind have to hope to make it through later in the cycle.
One light further east, at Nassau and Vandeventer, the intersection is slightly more complicated because there are two delayed green traffic signals for motorists making left hand turns, and two delayed “walk” signals to permit motorists to make right hand turns before the pedestrians clog the crosswalk.
Some pedestrians, however, jump the gun and block the motorists’ path, making that intersection less efficient and more dangerous.
So now the state, which has jurisdiction because Nassau is a state highway, is considering making the intersection an “all-way walk” crossing. Word on the street (what better source?) has it that the intersection signals could be changed by the fall.
Princeton already has one all-way walk at the other end of Nassau, where it meets Bayard Lane and Stockton Street. But that intersection is lightly used by pedestrians. Nassau and Vandeventer can be pedestrian central. Will motorists sit patiently while walkers criss cross in front of them?
Motorists, of course, need to respect the community through which they drive. If they want to have the roads and intersections all to themselves, they should drive around the state offices in Trenton at night. But pedestrians need to cooperate. If they don’t, they should take a hike.
Richard K. Rein, editorial director of Community New Service, has lived and walked in downtown Princeton since 1972.
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