Ten questions about Princeton’s new parking meter system

A new paring meter in Princeton is covered with a brown bag this Friday. The note on tells users the meter is jammed.


When the first parking consultant hired by the municipality of Princeton made a great display of poking fun of the number and variety of parking regulations in town, it immediately raised concerns for me. As someone who frequents the Central Business District (CBD) – on foot and by auto – I know that each block, partial block, or each couple of blocks constitutes a unique environment and as such, would require careful consideration before changing the regulations. Ironically, the more I learned about parking, the more I appreciated the method-to-the-madness of the metered parking system that had developed over time. Essentially, it was an analog version of demand pricing. Those spots in the CBD (most desired) were more expensive and time was limited. Longer-term parking was less expensive and more plentiful farther from the center of town. As merchants and usage changed (think Dinky Bar and Cargot), the parking meters were adjusted to accommodate most. I am concerned that the out-of-state consultant didn’t really get to know the rhythm of daily life in our community, and the slavish desire to fit the parking into a handful of zones with uniform hours exacerbated some of the challenges with the new system.

Those who have spoken out about the new parking system may be interested in the work of Donald Shoup, a distinguished research professor of urban planning at UCLA and the author of The High Cost of Free Parking. In an interview, Shoup said, “I can boil the 800 pages down to three bullet points. First, charge the right price for curb parking so there are always one or two open spaces on every block. Second, spend that revenue to pay for added public services on the metered blocks so that the stakeholders benefit from these metered spots. Some cities use the money to provide free wi-fi to everybody on the street. They pressure wash the sidewalks frequently, plant new street trees, and remove graffiti every night. Investing the money back into the metered street creates the political will to charge the right price for on-street parking. And third, remove off-street parking requirements because nobody can say there’s a shortage of parking if drivers can always see one or two empty spaces on every block. Removing off-street parking requirements can have a big effect, even in the short run, because it allows the adaptive re-use of older buildings.”

Here is a brief article that discusses Shoup’s work: https://www.vox.com/2014/6/27/5849280/why-free-parking-is-bad-for-everyone

Of course, Princeton is unique, and that is always part of the challenge of governing. We are a small town, a college town, a suburban community with a walkable “urban” core. However, most of our 30,000 residents need to use cars – to get to their jobs, to get their children to various activities, to get the dog to the vet, to buy groceries, and to schlep the stuff that most homeowners need to schlep to tend to their properties. We have a very modest web of mass transportation with limited scope, so supporting a vibrant town without customers who arrive by auto isn’t realistic. Merchants are quite clear that they cannot exist solely with the support of customers who live within walking distance. Nassau Street Seafood needs customers who arrive by auto or it will cease to exist for walkers. The Princeton Corkscrew has claimed that they need customers from outside Princeton to survive. In a Shoup model with some parking always available, town would be more accessible to customers, which is good for merchants and our sense of a vibrant town. Available parking reduces the number of times drivers need to circle to find a spot, a practice that is detrimental to the environment and traffic congestion. If residents can shop in town rather than Route 1, that is good for the environment. If residents can run multiple errands in one trip, it is far better for the environment than an Amazon delivery. If we then could commit some of the proceeds from the higher meter revenue to an improvement plan for the CBD, it would be a win-win situation.

Many people have commented on social media about the hardware and software shortcomings. I am as perplexed as anyone and disappointed that the remedy will require an investment in more lighting. The lighting on the kiosk doesn’t illuminate the keys unless the user is at eye level, so I am not convinced that more overhead lighting will solve the problem. However, I fear that the hardware and software are now a sunk cost, and I want to focus my questions on parking management.

What is the break-even now? How has the challenging rollout impacted the bottom line? The question highlighted on the first page of the CFAC analysis asks: What meter rates are needed to cover increased cost of new system? It is great that we are thinking about break-even (“close enough!” it concludes on the final page), but I don’t see the cost of the rollout taken into account. We went weeks without any meter heads in many locations. We went weeks with “free” parking. We have gone weeks without parking enforcement. How much revenue was lost, and what is the impact on the break-even? Has the break-even been extended such that this technology will no longer be supported when we finally reach break-even?

How many parking spaces are currently in Zone 1? The CFAC analysis compares the previous 216 spots to 216 spots in the new system. However, as Ms. Crumiller outlines in her letter and as anyone who frequents town knows, the number of spaces on Palmer Square has been reduced significantly. Ms. Crumiller reports the reduction as 16 spots. Why the spaces are being reduced is immaterial to the break-even analysis, but it doesn’t appear that the reduction was taken into account. What is the impact on break-even? When combined with the removal of other parking spots over the past few years and the loss of access to the Trinity Church lot, we have had a significant decline in the available parking in and near the CBD.

Why penalize people who spend longer periods of time in town? Doesn’t the new system encourage needless movement of cars? I went to Philadelphia last week, and I found a great parking spot on the street equidistant between my lunch engagement and my doctor’s appointment. I didn’t care what zone it was in, if any, or if parking around the corner was in a different zone or a different price. I read the sign applicable to my spot, paid the meter, had lunch, and refilled the meter on my way to my appointment, something you can no longer do legally in Princeton. Philly math: $6 + $6 always equals $12, regardless of who pays. If the town doesn’t want visitors to extend their stays in town (or employees to feed meters), price the spots accordingly.

Of what financial benefit are the zones? How do they impact parking management? Haven’t we sacrificed nuance and flexibility? Zones look nice on a map, but do users care? The zones are costing the town revenue, not improving traffic congestion, and making the meters clumsy to use. Consider Zone 1, the CBD. What was formerly a nuanced and varied web of parking regulations has been unified into a single zone, but to what end? Palmer Square and Witherspoon Street aren’t the same. Parking meters in all of Zone 1 now go into effect at 9 am, which is at least an hour before any stores open on Palmer Square, but over two hours after a number of businesses on Witherspoon Street and the top of Nassau St. open. The town forgoes two-plus hours of revenue in the premier spots in the morning. At 7 am, Witherspoon Street is jammed with yogis, coffee drinkers, large and small food delivery trucks, and garbage trucks. Employees now can park in the prime spots longer, which is good for them, but it is bad for business and bad for the town. Gaining a parking revenue hour on Palmer Square does not come close to losing a parking revenue hour on Witherspoon Street. I know it will make my fellow coffee drinkers scream, but starting the meters earlier on Witherspoon Street and leaving Palmer Square at 10 am, would surely shift some of the traffic off congested Witherspoon, which is especially dangerous when it backs up onto Nassau St. Yogis and coffee drinkers would still have a “free” option if they are willing to walk a few steps.

Additionally, the prioritization of uniformity hours of operation without consideration of why people park where will discourage evening visitors to town who want to engage in multiple activities – a concert or play on campus and dinner, or movie and a dinner. Extending the hours of operation while maintaining a two-hour limit and making meter feeding illegal makes many parking spots in town not viable for evening activities. It was suggested that movie goers can park east of Washington on Nassau St. where the limit is 3 hours, but if a movie goer also wants to have dinner at the A & B, must s/he now move the car to a new spot? We can guess how that story ends……and it is out of town! “Park in the garage” is the other rallying cry, but the garage isn’t always available or convenient. I would happily pay a premium for on-street convenient parking on Nassau St. when I want to see a movie and have dinner, but under the new system, that isn’t a possibility.

Can the grace period be reinstated? Does the technology allow it? Whether or not every visitor knew it existed, there were many beneficiaries, including the town. No one really abuses a short grace period. However, it can mean a lot if you get caught in a long line, if you stop to speak to a friend, or if you add one extra stop to your visit. The grace period simply added to the overall positive experience of being in town. Good for visitors, good for businesses, and ultimately, good for the town.

I hope the governing body has a variety of tools at its disposal to address some of the challenges that have been raised by many on social media, but I am afraid they will simply look at rates. There will be significant pressure to reduce rates to address public outcry, but that won’t address the myriad parking management challenges that have been created. All those in favor…

Here are a few additional resources on parking:

https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2018/05/parking-is-sexy-now-thank-donald-shoup/560876/
https://www.cnu.org/publicsquare/2017/06/05/great-idea-rethinking-parking

Jo Butler
Ms. Butler is a former Princeton Councilwoman.


Share your thoughts

4 comments
  • This thorough and insightful analysis by Ms Butler should remind us all of what a loss her departure from the Council has been.

  • True answers will prove that the consultants joked about Princeton and created a joke on us. Folks don’t want to add more lighting fixtures (because the cost, production, installation, fueling & maintenance of more lighting will add to our carbon footprint). Folks want to add more parking for Princeton’s employees & visitors (perhaps in the form of simple, sustainable graveled lots with small shuttles). Resident Moms & Pops, driving their 10 year old cars a short distance into town once a week, to carefully shop local for three or four hours, aren’t a big problem. That’s what accurate data & studies from folks who aren’t jokers will prove. We’re praying municipal leaders will seek & someday fully grasp ALL forms of damaging emissions.

  • This is a great follow up to Princeton Echo article ,on meter parking ,last May 2018

    Now I have to read this article a few more times. A lot of information here !

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Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory Public Tour

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