This article was originally published in the December 2017 Princeton Echo.
You probably need no introduction to the parking problems in downtown Princeton. You are reminded of it every time you drive up to your favorite restaurant or store and then have to circle through downtown streets hoping for a spot to open up.
But it turns out, according to a comprehensive parking inventory analysis undertaken by a national traffic and parking consulting firm (largely funded by a grant from the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission) the problem is not an insufficient supply of parking. Rather it’s the inefficient use of the current supply.
The Boston-based consultants, Nelson\Nygaard, last month unveiled a 63-page report based on first hand observations by the consultants, interviews with key stakeholders in and near the central business district, and an online parking survey that drew more some 1,500 responses.
The report will be presented to Council on Monday, December 11, by town engineer Deanna Stockton. Council will dig into the recommendations in the new year, said Mayor Liz Lempert in an e-mail. “We’re planning to install new smart meters in the first half of next year, which will open up new possibilities for implementation of some recommendations.”
Having studied the survey area — the CBD plus the tree streets, the John Witherspoon neighborhood, and the University Place-Alexander Road area down to the train station — the parking experts made a bold statement: There are about 7,000 parking spaces in that area, and even at the worst times to park in Princeton, at around 1 p.m. on a weekday afternoon (when the lunch crowds are highest) or at around 7 p.m. on a weekend evening (the time for the dining and entertainment crowd), only around 50 percent of those spaces are occupied.
But wait, interjected one of the 60 or 70 townspeople who had shown up for the presentation at the Nassau Inn. Of the 5,400 units of off-street, three-fourths are labeled private parking. How can those spaces be counted? Surely the problem is worse than the experts suggest.
The Nelson\Nygaard response: Part of that private parking is owned by Princeton University, which already makes those spaces available to the public after 5 on weekdays and on weekends. And more spaces owned by other institutions could be made available through “shared” parking. As the report states, “effectively addressing parking frustration will require management strategies, whereas supply expansions would only increase the number of spaces left empty while drivers circle the most popular downtown blocks waiting for a space to free up.” In other words, another garage is not the answer.
Said Lempert: “Stacked parking is expensive — on the order of $20,000 per space. Most municipalities are thinking twice before making such an investment nowadays, especially given that new technologies such as ride sharing services and self-driving vehicles could reduce the need for parking” in the future.
The report presented several innovative approaches to the old parking problem:
Shared Parking: Use technology such as pay-by-phone options to allow private lots (a church, for example) to charge for public use. With license plate readers the operator of such a lot could easily enforce the rules. The town’s parking maps could include the shared parking.
Smart meters and smarter use of meters: Princeton, like most towns, sets its meters to conform to the work day — enforcement begins at 8 a.m. and extends to 6 or 7 p.m. How about, say the experts, running the meters from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.? But if a meter has a two-hour time limit, wouldn’t that hurt business for restaurateurs, whose customers don’t want to be looking at their watches when deciding on a dessert order? It might, so the parking experts recommend smart meters that will have no time limit after, say, 4 p.m.
Meters are supposed to encourage turnover, but some Princeton meters are cheaper the longer you stay. Keep rates low for short stays, says the report, and charge more for the extended hours.
Zoning: There’s a minimum car parking requirement associated with every type of use in Princeton. While current parking requirements in town are below national standards, “indicating an intentional effort to ‘right size’ requirements to the Princeton context,” the reality in the commercial core is that “any level of on-site parking requirement may be a significant barrier to investment.”
Available sites in the center of town, the report notes, “tend to be smaller, leaving little to no capacity to provide surface parking with any efficiency.” The best solution now is for the developer to request a variance to the parking requirement, and not all developers will take the risk.
Princeton uses variances to support desirable investments. But often developers make little or no contribution to offset the burdens that new developments place on parking and mobility infrastructure. “Even carless developments will increase pressure on walking, cycling, and transit resources,” the report says.
The experts suggest providing options “for developers to meet requirements that focus on parking solutions in the near-term as well as longer-term mobility-based solutions.” Developers might provide on-site parking (with shared spaces considered more valuable to the community than dedicated private spaces; or on-site mobility amenities such as bike parking or car-share vehicles; or pay an in-lieu fee per parking space to help fund a transportation district that oversees parking.
Changing zoning is a tall order, but Princeton has to merge its old Borough and Township ordinances in any case. “We had put that effort on hold, waiting for the parking study,” said Lempert. “I think both Council and the Planning Board are interested in taking a closer look at parking requirements.”
Smart meters are coming
The Nelson\Nygaard study points out that there are no fewer than 17 different types of metered parking spaces, ranging from 30 minutes to 24 hours in allowable parking time. Simplifying the parking regulations would be one area of improvement, another would be to “monitor performance” by surveying key blocks and adjusting rates to the times of greatest demand.
Enter the smart meter? The town is about to install smart meters that can, according to engineer Deanna Stockton, “accept credit cards, be remotely programmed, be outfitted with sensors to gather real time occupancy data, and communicate with enforcement tablets.”
Last June the Echo reported on a start-up that hoped to install smart meters at up to 10 spaces in town. These meters would have cameras to identify cars in their spaces, and take reservations and payment through motorists’ cell phones. The company, Possumus Inc., run by a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton, had negotiated to reimburse the money the town would have received if all the metered spots were always occupied.
The pilot program was supposed to occur over the summer. But it never did. Founder Arash Sadeghi says the town raised insurance concerns and announced that special signage would be required to mark the spots where the pilot meters were installed. Possumus was relying on interns to do field work on the program. But with the delay time on the meter for free summer labor had expired. Sadeghi is still hopeful: “People who see it all say we need it.”