This article was originally published in the June 2018 Princeton Echo.
If Princeton had a Rip Van Winkle who just woke up after 20 years or more of sleep, he would be amazed at all the changes. But he could find some comfort in the familiar parking meters still lining the town’s busiest streets. A few would confuse him by taking special town-issued payment cards as well as coins, but otherwise the interaction would be the same as a half century ago: squinting to see what the limits are at a particular street, fumbling for change since he doesn’t have that card, and then worrying about getting a parking ticket while a transaction at a store or office takes longer than expected. The hourly rates themselves have not changed in 10 years. The most shocking change in the parking game for our modern day Van Winkle might be the cost of the ticket — $40. That, at least, has changed with the times.
For a long time doing errands in Princeton has called for strategic decision making. If the errands are in town, the first thing some Princetonians consider is parking—how long will it take to find a place, how expensive will it be, and how close is it to where they are going. According to a survey conducted last year by Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates, a parking and transportation consultant hired by the town, people sometimes spend five to ten minutes or more looking for a parking place.
The old technology isn’t helping. But now Princeton is poised to enter the 21st century of parking management. Last year the town commissioned consultant Nelson\Nygaard, which submitted a 73-page report. Now a second consultant, Dixon Resources Unlimited, has been hired to help implement the changes. The town’s “parking action plan matrix,” posted at www.princetonnj.gov, contains 24 separate action items.
It’s a big task, and it’s bound to be controversial. People have their parking routines and even their favorite and sometimes “secret” parking spots. Those could change. The popular Princeton Public Library parking validation program may be changed. On top of that the rates are bound to go up. Nelson\Nygaard in fact recommends a three-tier approach to rates, ranging from $1 to $1.50 to $2 per hour. Currently the range is from 30 cents to $1.25 an hour. Dixon Resources will soon present Council with a range of options for new pricing — a moderate increase seems certain.
As Julie Dixon says, “people are passionate about their parking.”
Amid all the expected outcry the new meter technology has to accomplish two things: One is to enable more efficient the transactions between motorists and the municipality. The second is to address the issue identified in the first consultant’s report — that the town’s parking problem is not an insufficient number of parking spaces, but rather the inefficient distribution of those spaces. A driver ci`rcling five or ten minutes downtown needs to be informed and incentivized to look beyond the immediate area.
The starting point for Princeton is the replacement of more than 1,000 parking meters in town, including 917 on-street meters plus 188 off-street metered spaces, with new and improved smart meters. The person overseeing all these changes is town engineer Deanna Stockton.
“The goal is to roll out this fall,” Stockton says. “We are looking toward a contract [with the parking meter vendor] at the June 11 Council meeting. Then it’s a matter of the vendors putting together our orders. It’s 8-12 weeks to turn it around.” The target is an August or September implementation. Because the town does not want to begin operation during the holiday season, the transition will move to January or February if the fall deadline is not met.
Currently the only bell and whistle in the town’s parking system is the so-called smart card, which can be loaded with cash that is drawn down with each use at a parking meter or parking garage ticket machine. That card is “becoming more of an antique,” Stockton says. “We are trying to shift to a more dynamic system, which can be changed easily.” The smart card will ultimately disappear and be replaced with a motorist’s own credit card or a smart-phone app with similar functionality.
With the new smart meters and the phone app parkers will be able to use their own credit cards or load money into an online “wallet.” They can also sign up to get electronic receipts. If the town opts to install certain advanced features, a shopper could put 30 minutes on a two-hour meter, run her errand at a store, and then decide to spend another hour visiting with a friend she ran into at the store. She could add an hour to the meter using her phone — no need to run back to the meter with a fistful of quarters. (The total allowable time limit would still be enforced, however.)
The new meters promise more efficiency for the town.
Chad Randalls, chief operating officer for the San Diego-based IPS Group, which makes the meters the town will buy, points to key features of the new meter technology. “To improve or enhance the parking experience for the user, what we provide is a connected meter,” he says. “Just like a cell phone, it has a wireless connection.” This allows the meter to authorize a credit card as well as to extract data, including real-time maintenance data — a low battery or a coin jam — “so meter up-time is higher.”
The IPS Group’s smart meters, which are currently in use (to favorable reviews) in New Brunswick and Asbury Park, connect to a web-based data management system that, according to its website, is able to “seamlessly integrate meters, vehicle sensors [an optional add-on], and pay-by-cell applications into a single back end system.” Without any new software or hardware, the town will be able, online, to both change pricing and access reports that review maintenance, revenue, or collections of a targeted area or the entire town.
Says Stockton: “The meters will tell us when they are full of coins — potentially we won’t have to have as many people checking coin boxes. Security features will tell how much money is supposed to be in that coin box.” Smart meters with the optional sensors would help the town monitor violations. “All that data is available to parking enforcement officers, so they don’t need to keep driving around,” she says. The meters could tell if someone is overtime.
Another feature is “demand” pricing. The new meters will enable demand-based pricing that can be adjusted in the quest to achieve an 85 percent occupancy rate, or about one free space per block. Among parking analysts (and there are people who study parking for a living) 85 percent is the magic number that provides the optimal balance between occupancy and availability.
With the new technology “we could adjust on the fly,” Stockton says. “The occupancy data will indicate whether the pricing is too high, too low, or just right. Ordinances would dictate whether quarterly, half-yearly, or annual adjustments could be made.”
The Nelson\Nygaard study, for example, showed that Witherspoon Street between Nassau Street and Hulfish Street was typically filled with parked cars in the early morning hours, while just around the corner on Hulfish the spaces were virtually empty.
The new meters will enable the town to set up a fee structure “so the market controls the use of parking spaces.
You can set it up in zones, and in high-demand spaces, the rates can be higher. You don’t want people to circle,” Stockton says, adding that people will be able to park more cheaply if they’re willing to walk a few minutes to get to their destination.
Furthermore, she adds, drivers can be given the ability to check pricing in different locations using a parking app before coming downtown. “The driver then makes the decision which price point suits them,” she says. “Again, the goal is so that when they come, they can have an available space at whichever price point they choose.”
But given the potential for negative reactions to unexpected short-term price changes, Stockton notes that any changes are the Council’s responsibility and will have to be done carefully.
All this new technology and its implementation comes at 21st century pricing. The cost for adding the new smart meters — by replacing the tops of the existing meters as well as introducing signage that directs drivers to available parking — would be about $1 million, Stockton says, and will require a bond ordinance. IPS Group has told the town that the initial costs of the system will be paid off in three years, but, Stockton says, this “doesn’t factor in personnel costs—there may be a reduction in staff.”
To some residents (and taxpayers) two consultants may seem like overkill to improve the process of parking a car in Princeton.
Consultants are also expensive. Nelson\Nygaard’s consulting fee was about $76,000, though $65,000 was paid by a grant from the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. The second consultant, Dixon Resources Unlimited of San Diego, is being paid $12,500 a month for six months to serve as the town’s parking manager.
At the March 12 Council meeting at which the second consultant was introduced, resident (and former Planning Board member) Peter Madison raised an eyebrow. “We’re hiring another consultant to review a previous consultant’s report and make comments,” he said, referring to Nelson\Nygaard, which did the original parking study last year. “My concern with them is that they’re not Princeton residents. They don’t have the experience of living here for many years. They don’t address the feeling felt by community members.”
Madison said he would instead like to see an advisory committee of merchants, residents, and Princeton University officials study the issue and make recommendations.
Mayor Liz Lempert responded that a process similar to Madison’s suggestion had been followed in the past, without helpful results. “This is a really important process that needs to be open and transparent,” she said. “We spent two years and hundreds of hours trying to come up with some parking ordinances. Then Council couldn’t agree on it. I feel we are going to be better off this way.”
Using consultants is also important because of their familiarity with the constantly changing technology, Lempert added. “The implementation piece of this is very important. We want to be on the cutting edge of things. We don’t want to be building on implementations that communities were doing 10 years ago. We want to be building what they’re going to be doing for the next 10 years so the investment we’re making is a good use of our money.”
Anyone trying to analyze parking as a component of urban planning will quickly realize that parking in a desirable town like Princeton is not a simple matter — it’s more multi-variable equations and calculus than simple arithmetic. The guru of the municipal parking field, UCLA professor Donald Shoup, wrote the landmark study, called “The High Cost of Free Parking.” It’s 765 pages long.
Consultant No. 1
Nelson\Nygaard, founded in 1987 by Bonnie Nelson and Diane Nygaard, former managers at the San Francisco Municipal Railway, is now a national consulting firm specializing in developing transportation systems intended, as its website says, “to promote broader community goals of mobility, equality, economic development, and healthy living.”
Nelson\Nygaard looked at the big picture of parking in Princeton, not just metered parking but also parking on residential streets, overnight parking, congestion and accessibility, and parking requirements as part of zoning regulations.
As the Nelson\Nygaard report made clear, part of Princeton’s problem is caused by the public not being aware of all the parking that is available in town, including free parking evenings and weekends at Princeton University parking lots. Even at peak times, weekdays during lunch hours, Nelson\Nygaard found that about 30 percent of the town’s on-street parking inventory of 1,633 spaces was unused. On weekends, when the peak time is at 7 p.m., almost one-third of the on-street spaces are vacant.
Although the consultant’s report on parking delivered to Council late last year revealed “consistently high levels of excess capacity, even during times of peak parking demand,” much of that capacity is private and restricted to on-site tenants and visitors. But with the advent of the smartphone parking app, pay stations, and license plate enforcement, a private lot owner might be able to turn the space into public parking during the owner’s off-hours.
The Nelson\Nygaard report also urged the town to consider zoning code changes that modify the off-street parking requirements for business redevelopment in Princeton.
Instead of asking property owners to provide a fixed number of parking spaces when they change or intensify a use in the central business district, the town could instead require them to satisfy “accessibility” goals, such as accommodations for mass transit or bicycle parking. Or the developer could pay into a fund in lieu of providing a parking space to support a shuttle bus, for example. The money could be deposited into a parking benefit district that would allocate funds for downtown and mobility improvements.
Mayor Lempert referred to the idea as a “parking bank” at the May 7 Council meeting. “If you need more parking now you have to get a variance approved,” she said, “and the lawyers make a lot of money.”
The town is also looking at shifting the hours of metered parking later in the morning. Because occupancy rates are low early in the day, one option is to make meters either free or inexpensive during those early hours. Then, as the downtown continues with the expected move from retail toward restaurants, meter hours might be shifted later in the evening to help encourage turnover among diners and visitors to bars.
As Nelson\Nygaard recommended meter hours could run from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, and from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. One exception to that recommendation might be the block of Witherspoon Street from Nassau to Hulfish, where meters could begin operations at 8 a.m. to manage the early morning demand.
The parking study also suggested bringing the parking rates in the private garages closer to those in the public garage. Explaining that Palmer Square sets its own rates, Stockton says that Palmer Square officials are familiar with the parking study and the town has been in conversation with them. “For the longest time, they’ve been the highest-priced game in town; and that will be challenge for our implementation,” she says. Ideally the rates should encourage long-term parkers to use the garages. On-street parking should be where short-term parkers go.
The town is also exploring whether loading zones might be open for parking after hours. The rate structure might offer free parking to commercial vehicles early in the morning, paid parking for those vehicles later in the day, and later yet the space might be made available for paid parking by anyone. “You are stressing to businesses that in terms of loading and unloading activities in the downtown area, we prefer they do it in the morning,” says Stockton.
The Nelson\Nygaard report noted that the permits for overnight parking on residential streets, priced at $30 for neighborhoods in the former Borough and free for areas in the former Township, create “a sense of inequity among some residents.” In those residential areas the town is considering a system of overnight permits based on license plates, rather than a hang tag or decal. Guest permits could be handled by the same system. The permitting system could be handled by the same online app that handles parking meter charges.
Consultant No. 2
The person hired to help Council decide which of those recommendations to tackle first and how to tackle them is Julie Dixon, founder of the San Diego-based firm, Dixon Resources Unlimited. With 27 years experience in the parking field, Dixon started out as a parking enforcement officer, and later worked in Los Angeles and San Francisco managing parking meter operations. “I focus on realistic implementation solutions,” she told the Princeton Council in a March presentation. “There’s a lot of technology out there. I don’t want to point you into a closed system. When the next big thing comes along you want to be able to adapt.”
As Nelson\Nygaard pointed out, there are a multitude of parking deals on Princeton’s streets — 28 unique types of regulations for metered and unmetered parking spaces. Time limits range from 30 minutes to 24 hours in allowable parking time. Even the signage pointing toward parking lots represents a patchwork of styles. Dixon recommended making the signage consistent and integrating it with overall transit strategies. A catchphrase like “Go Princeton” or “Park Princeton” could be used to identify parking locations and also be “the linchpin” in a campaign to promote multimodal transit options, Dixon said.
The choices begin with how the old meters will be replaced.
In some cases, along longer stretches of a street a group of single meters will be replaced by one pay station, similar to those now in use on University Place by McCarter Theater. Motorists would input their space number and license plate number into the pay station, along with their payment information. But, says Dixon, “in the downtown core you would probably want single space meters.”
“There are different schools of thought,” says Stockton. “Nelson\Nygard leaned toward the pay stations — I think more for an esthetic reason — because you can free up that sidewalk space for something else.” In high turnover areas, with shorter term parking meters, single space meters might be more convenient. But in a 12 to 14-hour parking area, where there may be only one transaction in a day, the town could save some money and do the pay station.
The single space meters cost around $450 each plus $5.75 a month in service fees. The pay stations are $6,150 each plus $50 a month service fees. Dixon is proposing replacing 365 single space meters with pay stations, and also using pay stations to cover the 200 spaces planned for the temporarily vacant lot on Franklin Avenue across from Avalon Bay (which will eventually be a housing site). In the long term the pay stations are more affordable, but, Dixon cautions, customer convenience and accessibility issues have to be considered.
Another possible wrinkle for high turnover blocks would be to sprinkle in some 30-minute meters among longer-stay meters, so that in each block people know there is a likelihood of a spot being open for them to do quick errands.
The IPS meters also have add-ons, which the town needs to evaluate from a cost-benefit perspective. Optional sensors mounted on the meter can report online where spaces are available, information that motorists could access via their smart phone app. The sensors can also register a violation if a car overstays its parking time, and then zero out the meter when a car leaves. No longer will any remaining parking time be available to the next driver who pulls into the space, because credit cards can’t handle this and, Stockton adds, “more of the industry is going towards where you just pay for a stay and, if you don’t stay, unfortunately it is our win and your loss.”
“We want to see if they add a value to the system,” says Stockton. “They’re not cheap. The meters are all battery and solar powered, and if you add sensors it will drain the battery faster. That leads to increased servicing to change out batteries. We are working with the consultant, to get more information about the value added [by the sensors].”
The second phase of Dixon’s work, according to Stockton, will be to help revamp the town’s process of issuing permits for overnight parking and for people who need day-long parking. A permit system could be used to create special parking zones for employees of businesses in town — the Nelson\Nygaard survey showed that a large percentage of employees currently park on-street at metered spaces. The new system will be based on the online parking app and — like other aspects of the new parking pro gram — will be tied to a resident’s license plate number. Police will have license plate readers to verify that cars have valid permits.
The new meters offer the promise of being able to adjust parking rates in anticipation of major town events — think Communiversity, Reunions, a major sports event. The town in theory could adjust parking rates to take advantage of visitors coming into town to pay for parking taken away from everyone else. Dixon says that she has seen special event rate models in some cities cover the town’s costs of hosting the event.
But the experts caution against using parking meters as a steady source of extra revenue.
Randalls of IPS emphasizes that, although revenue generation is certainly an important part of city budgets, “the goal [of demand-based pricing] is not revenue generation — it’s about creating access to curb space so that patrons have access to merchant locations and so they can park closer to where they want to go.” Lempert says the goal is to be revenue neutral — “the idea is to encourage behavior as opposed to creating a revenue stream.” But, she adds, the town cannot lose money on the deal, which would effectively mean an increase in taxes for residents.
The Citizens Finance Advisory Committee, headed by Patton Avenue resident Scott Sillars, is expected to weigh in on operating costs, capital costs, and what the rates should be to break even. But, Stockton says, “the bigger questions are changing the idea from time limits to an occupancy goal and ways to achieve that occupancy goal. We’re trying to look at rate structure, enforcement, all of the pieces, to find a balance.”
Stockton, who spent her childhood in Lancaster, California, north of Los Angeles, designing floor plans for houses and building roads in the dirt for her Barbie’s motor homes or her Matchbox cars, is well suited to civil engineering, which deals at a macro level with systems for water, roads, traffic, and sewage. A father who worked as an air traffic controller and a mother in land development and real estate engagement might also have been predictive.
But engineering is not where she started. The effects of her father’s death when she was 12 led her first to declare a major in psychology, thinking that she could “solve everyone’s problems” that grew out of “the family dynamics of that disruption.” But, she says, “when I got into it, I realized it wasn’t for me.” So after freshman year she switched to civil engineering, the only option at Santa Clara University that related to her interests in interior design, architecture, and space layout.
After graduating, Stockton spent a year at the Washington State Department of Transportation in Seattle, but then decided “that size of government was not for me.” She was much happier working for a consulting firm in Portland that worked with small municipalities. In 2000 Stockton followed her husband, Jason Stockton, whom she met in college, to Princeton when International Flavors and Fragrances moved him to the East Coast.
She worked for two years for Princeton Township as assistant engineer, then joined her husband in the Netherlands for three years. In 2005 they settled in Montgomery with their two daughters, now both teenagers. In 2006 she went back to work for Princeton Township as design engineer, a part-time position. In 2012 she went fulltime as assistant engineer, and in 2016 became Princeton’s engineer when Bob Kiser retired. Stockton is the first woman to hold that position.
To Stockton and other professionals in the municipal engineering field parking is just one part of a “complete street” approach to looking at accessibility and mobility issues in the town.
Parking also influences the success of current and future businesses and plays a central role in the town’s future economic development. Retail businesses of course need regular parking turnover to make room for new customers. But the retail sector in Princeton is facing challenges not just from online commerce, but, Stockton says, “some merchants are concerned about the Montgomery Promenade,” a huge shopping development opening in 2019 near the Princeton Airport, that “will draw people away from downtown.” The last thing Princeton needs is a parking system that is complicated and exploitative.
In fact, the consultants recommend referring to enforcement officers as “parking ambassadors” and recommend they view their job in part as helping visitors get where they want to go.
Looking forward, Stockton sees other aspects of town life she wants to affect positively—to make it better for residents as well as visitors and hopefully to lend to the vitality of the area and make it better for business and to make it “a place where people want to spend time, with easier parking and outdoor seating.”
“We’re trying to figure out how our skills make everybody’s life better,” she says. Whereas she didn’t like working for the Washington State Department of Transportation because “we were so far removed from people,” she says, “what I love about working here is that it deals a lot with people and their needs. There are a lot of smart people on staff and in the community and a lot of great ideas. So it’s fun working here.”