Planet Princeton

Op-Ed: Collaboration and New Vision for Mass Transit Needed to Preserve the Character of Princeton

As the Alexander Street-University Place Task Force nears the conclusion of its deliberations, and at the outset of the strategic planning and 10-year campus planning efforts that Princeton University has lately initiated, it is timely to consider the long-term goals and visions of the University and its neighbor municipalities, and what transportation and growth plans may possibly be of mutual or collective interest.

To be clear about the lens through which I view this matter, by profession and passion I promote the growth of communities that are walkable, bikeable, and as transit-oriented as possible. I am motivated by the conviction that communities with these traits are – compared to more auto-oriented suburbs – healthier, more social, more entertaining, more fiscally efficient, safer, easier on household pocketbooks, environmentally more sound, more economically productive, and more equitable, in that they support greater independence for senior citizens, children, and members of other mobility-challenged and low-income communities.

I am also convinced that the majority of our community enjoys the Princeton area precisely because it offers many of these benefits in an attractive setting. Activities from my own experience and observation that illustrate the idea of sustainable activity in a suburban town setting include:

• Middle school kids riding their bikes to the John Witherspoon School
• Browsing shops along Nassau Street, coffee or ice cream in hand
• Taking drinks in town after a concert at Richardson Auditorium
• Grandparents walking with children to neighborhood school playgrounds
• Senior citizens taking the FreeB for daily errands, or taking shuttles to evening shows at McCarter
• Taking a dog for a walk or run in the Institute Woods (or along the canal or any of the many area trails)
• Teens taking the bus to visit malls or the city
• Grown-ups biking to jobs in town or to the Dinky station

Feel free to add your own iconic experience to this list! But the fact that so many can do so much so easily in an attractive setting is something I think we all want to preserve.

As is so often the case, however, disagreements over the character of our community’s future have less to do with divergent objectives of planning and more to do with conflicts over the means envisioned to achieve commonly held goals.

A key premise for this and subsequent essays is that preserving the best of Princeton’s character may require an embrace of change. This will be a counter-intuitive idea for some. But since Princeton’s geography places it within surrounding development, whether one desires change or not, Princeton’s famous beauty – the community’s and the University’s alike – are being affected and, arguably, undermined.

As development surrounding Princeton continues, and as driving throughout the region increases, efforts to preserve community character through a local policy of stasis will only guarantee that Princeton becomes harder to get to, harder to leave, more hemmed in, more beset by traffic, and less attractive. Instead, active engagement is needed to preserve community character and quality. Growth oriented around an extension of the municipality’s historic qualities of walkable, bikeable, transit-accessible, and active places is the only way to achieve the preservation of character and quality that is so broadly desired within the community.

Another premise is that Princeton University possesses both the long-term perspective and the resources to promote desirable change. An alliance among Princeton-area communities and the University is the only way to achieve mutually-supporting growth goals, by channeling future growth into walkable, bikeable, transit-served places. The University is uniquely positioned to use its land-holdings, long-range strategic view, regional connections, political strength, and intellectual and creative resources to support growth that simultaneously meets the University’s own strategic objectives and also improves the character and strength of surrounding communities.

A third and final premise is that defining and working towards objectives of mutual interest can reduce tensions and create a more hospitable environment for the exchange of growth-related information, and for more coordinated, and more effective, planning. This stands in contrast to the oppositional atmosphere that results when “preservation” is believed to be in conflict with change. Instead, opportunities for cooperative problem-solving will build a stronger town and engaged citizens, and a better coordinated Greater Princeton area.

The “moral high ground” of sustainable growth in this country is currently held by cities in general, and in particular by cities such as Portland, Boston, Washington, DC, New York, and Chicago that have had success in growing urban populations while leveraging transit investments and innovating in areas like car and bike sharing. There is, however, another model, one that would take advantage of the suburbs as a continuing locus of economic activity and growth, and that is rooted in the many attractions that suburban settings continue to offer. This model, which has potentially increasing importance in the 21st century, is one in which suburban towns are easily walkable, bikeable, and interconnected with one other and with metropolitan areas by accessible transit service. Towns such as Princeton and its neighbors have all the tools to support sustainable growth that preserves historic character, particularly when those towns have the regional accessibility that this area enjoys. The specific innovations needed for this vision to succeed in the suburbs are only now emerging, just as the innovations that have supported the revival of city living were not evident a decade or two ago. But believing in a vision of sustainable suburban growth and change is a necessary pre-condition for considering and adopting needed innovations.

An alignment of planning between and among Princeton, West Windsor, Plainsboro, and Princeton University could achieve a vision of sustainable growth in the area that would be an example for not only the state but the nation as well.

In subsequent articles I will:

• Describe in more detail what is meant by “walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented development,” particularly as it might be appropriately applied in the greater Princeton community.

• Speculate about how walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented development could be of strategic interest to Princeton University.

• Imagine how growth in the area could benefit the greater Princeton community, including residents, businesses, institutions, and governments.

• Lay out what would need to be done to create an ongoing program of collaboration in the greater Princeton community.

Nat Bottigheimer

Nat Bottigheimer is a professional transportation planner and consultant with a background in public policy and real estate economics. He is currently working on TOD, streetcar, and bus dedicated lane planning projects in the Washington, DC region. He was a member of the Alexander Street University Place Task Force, and is a current member of the Princeton Traffic and Transportation and Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committees. He's married to Eve Ostriker, an astrophysicist at Princeton University; and has two daughters, one at PHS. The most recent family addition is Basil, a one-year old labradoodle who gives the term "active transportation" new meaning.

  • SFB

    Nat can answer some of those questions. But I’ll say one thing: growth is definitely good, unless you think unemployment and stagnation is something to aspire to. We just have to appropriately manage the growth.

  • Alexi Assmus

    Are you recommending that housing and daily commerce be built close to the corporate centers on Route 1?

    I notice the NJ DOT report you cite states that “economic growth in the region has slowed in recent years, but an economic analysis identified substantial opportunities for future economic growth.” I’m sure there are economic opportunities for growth. But is this wise? Don’t we need to reframe away from a “growth” economy to ameliorate climate change? Is growth in the interests of residents of New Jersey?

  • SFB

    The Route 1 corridor is growing because our region is a winner in the knowledge economy, with a concentration of high-performing academic institutions, and a desirable location for corporate centers, based on proximity to major cities. I wouldn’t give Christie too much credit for it.

    I don’t want to anticipate Nat’s future articles, but I will observe that growth should allow people to live as close as possible to their workplace. Traditional zoning separates uses and spreads out development over large areas, which is a recipe for car dependency. We are seeing the effects of that now with increasing traffic. Another path is necessary and desirable.

  • Alexi Assmus

    So should growth occur in suburban neighborhoods?

    Why is the Route 1 corridor growing? I understand that the Christie administration is business friendly and offers tax credits to lure big businesses into New Jersey — of course this is good for one of NJ’s biggest industries, the real estate industry which builds both commercial and residential space.

  • SFB

    The Route 1 corridor is growing- the only question is how and where we want the growth to occur. Existing policies have pushed growth to surrounding rural areas, causing loss of open space and dependence on cars. Nat is right that we need to take action to maintain and enhance our quality of life. The ‘Route 1 Regional Growth Strategy’ is the key document on land use in central Jersey. I would encourage everyone to check it out. It was written by experts at the Bloustein School of Planning at Rutgers University and NJDOT. Here is a link to the short version: http://policy.rutgers.edu/vtc/rgs/short%20verson%20final.pdf

  • Alexi Assmus

    Photos of Philadelphia Museum of Science climate change exhibit — the pros and cons of town, city and suburban living. Towns are called “compact suburbs” and cities the “urban environment.”

  • Alexi Assmus

    A couple of thoughts in response to Mr. Bottigheimer:

    1. Princeton is unusual in having a walkable center-of-town that is
    already at “smart growth” densities. Why do so few people walk? I
    feel like a bit of an oddball walking and biking around town for
    transportation — and my kids give me a hard time that
    I make them walk or bike to their piano lessons because they don’t want
    to seem out of place. Luckily walking or biking to school is okay.

    2. Most of the center of Princeton is at densities between 8-15 units
    per acre. According to Massachusetts State Law these are considered
    “smart growth” densities. The concern is much lower suburban
    densities. Take a look at the attached photos from the
    Philadelphia Museum of Science’s climate change exhibit. Towns, or
    “compact suburbs,” as the exhibit calls them, and cities or the “urban
    environment” get high marks. Towns have advantages over cities (more
    trees, less water runoff, easier to compost)
    and vice versa. “Low density suburbs” have more cons than pros.

    3. Princeton did support public transportation decades ago. There was
    a streetcar running down Witherspoon Street. If people used public
    transportation instead of cars, center-of-town densities would support
    it.

    4. Don’t we need to reframe away from the “growth” economy to solve the
    problem of climate change? What ever happened to the worldwide
    discussion regarding population control?

    5. Can you summarize the work of the Alexander Street/University Place
    Task Force in your remaining articles? What solutions were suggested?
    Is their a plan for a rail link from the Junction to Nassau Street?

  • Doug DaMan

    You’ll get those JW kids to all take their bikes to/from school . . . after you and Michelle and Rush convince them to give up their chocolate milk.

    Hence the arrogant ignorance in these kinds of essays where long-winded central planning ignores personal choice.

    Now if you can convince the Boro and Palmer Square to reduce the supply (and increase the cost) of CBD parking, then people may begin to make different personal choices . . . like vote you out of your position.

  • Fantod

    I love the idea of making Princeton more livable through the better use of public transportation. More walking and biking is always a good thing. The article hear is well thought out and inspiring in many ways. However, I do have a problem with the seeming focus on continued growth, as if it should be assumed that economic growth is always a good thing. As one who was born, raised, and now is raising his son in Princeton, I’ve watched so called growth all but ruin the character of this town: massive parking garages, the leveling of appropriately-size homes replaced by over-size mansions, the skyrocketing of property taxes and rent costs that makes it nearly impossible for middle class people to live here, the replacement of locally owned businesses with national chain franchises. Yes, I know it’s a different world now, and we can’t go back to the lovely, quaint town it used to be. But, the unbridled expansion in Princeton over the decades is threatening to wipe out what people actually love about this town. Don’t get me wrong: much of the economic and cultural growth in Princeton has been an asset to the town. However, too much of a good thing can lead to bad consequences.

  • SFB

    This looks set to be a great series. The idea of making Princeton easier to get around without cars is not new- you can read lots of stories in the ‘Packet’ from the 1970s about how some planners wanted to make the town easier to get around by foot, bicycle or transit. But somehow, cars have always won out. It’s worth considering why that is, and what the costs have been. The town recently adopted ‘Complete Streets’ as a planning policy, which in principle will give equal weight to non-car transportation, but the hard work of implementing this has only just begun.

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