Recommended steps to fix Princeton’s parking meter problems

To the Editor:

My December 11, 2018 letter to the editor generated online interest. It’s easy to point out problems. Some people have asked what I would recommend as next steps based on my technology and strategy development experience. Clearly, the new parking meters, rate increases, removal of spaces, and changes in metered hours have hit a nerve with readers, and the changes have the potential to negatively impact our downtown businesses.

My recommendations:

  • Listen, listen, listen, and then listen some more. Mayor and council should convene at least two public outreach meetings dedicated to parking issues – one during the day, and one in the evening. A facilitator should be charged with recording the observations and ideas so they can be categorized and analyzed.
  • Provide data for comparison. How many new meters do we have in each category compared to the old system? There seems to be a significant reduction of available metered spots. Be accountable and transparent.
  • The administrator should renegotiate the contract with the consultant. At this point, this is a failed project implementation. The consultant should be required to return at no additional cost to attend the meetings and as a follow on offer possible solutions as the extent of the issues become known.
  • Determine goals for our parking system. Just saying that prices haven’t increased in ten years is not an acceptable response. Prices should vary depending on desirability and time of day.
  • Determine an owner. A corrective action project that is this important requires a single point of contact and coordination.
  • Analyze the business needs in town. We have multiple coffee shops and other businesses that depend on take-out and customer pick-up, all of which involve parking for 15 minutes or less. A high minimum fee for a short stay (55 cents for about 15 minutes, 90 cents if you add the 35-cent app fee for app users) increases the consumer’s transaction cost significantly. A $3 cup of coffee is now effectively $3.55 to $3.95, an 18-32% increase. Olives, Small World Coffee, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Milk and Cookies, and eateries on Nassau are all establishments that rely on high turnover and available metered spots with a reasonable fee. Being able to attend a movie and have dinner is a time-honored “in town” activity. The new system makes it difficult. Think again about what is going on in town and what we want to achieve. Ultimately, a thriving retail economy delivers more to the Princeton community than increased parking revenue.
  • Reassess the use and increased space allocated to loading zones. Some owners and employees continue to abuse the zones at the expense of the town, and to the detriment the other businesses and residents.

Based on social media comments and my experiences, other problems identified so far include:

  • Jammed meters. Are so many people using coins that the meters are full? Are they structurally flawed?
  • Meter design. The screen is difficult to read in low light and rain. The screen message is truncated.
  • Software issues. The Park Princeton app is clumsy and not intuitive. I don’t know if Princeton’s software is proprietary or a rebranded standard offering.
  • Proprietary software will make fixes more difficult.
  • If the software cannot be fixed in a reasonable amount of time, abandon the software and install something that works out of the box. Take appropriate legal action, as this will be an expensive fix.
  • Zones are not consistent with demand. The decrease in 10-hour zones makes longer visits to town difficult.

Judging by reactions to my earlier post, Princeton residents are dissatisfied and discouraged. Future communications from our mayor, administrator and council should be frequent and open. Social media use is strongly recommended.

Lou Valente

Mr. Valente is a Princeton resident. His original post, “What we lost with the new Princeton parking meter system,” received more than 30 comments on the Planet Princeton website and more than 100 comments on social media channels.


  1. Agree with all of the above, mayor should resign. In addition to making it impossible to enjoy a coffee, or a meal; shop shoes, clothing, books, a gift; or watch a movie downtown, the new parking meters / regulations make it impossible to do research in the Princeton University Firestone Library, attend the world-class concerts at McCarter Theatre or the Richardson Auditorium at Alexander Hall, or a play at McCarter and the various little theaters on Campus, or to visit an exhibition at the Princeton University Art Museum. The town’s social and cultural life of high standards, its long traditions, not to mention its economic flourishing have been senselessly destroyed.

  2. This is a great list of recommendations. Thank you, Lou.

    In addition, I would like to see a SmartCard II, a new debit card that is compatible with the new meters. It would have all the features of the old SmartCard, including a refund for time not used on the meter. Surely, software could be written to accommodate this feature. Competing parking systems, e.g., Sentry meters, already have this option.

  3. This is truly insightful. Princeton has replaced a completely adequate system with a poorly conceived clunker. WHY DOES THE APP WORK ONLY WITH ANDROID? APPLE”S I-PHONE IS THE GOLD STANDARD IN THE WORLD. I tend to do less business downtown because of the inconvenience. I have lived here for more than forty years.

  4. AGAIN….PLEASE, PLEASE — ONE OF OUR RESIDENT-MERCHANTS PLEASE RUN FOR COUNCIL!!! We desperately need this voice on council! For goodness sake, we have a Mayor who pushed for sustainability and a council person pushing for bike lanes all over town…when is a downtown merchant’s voice going to have representation??!!

  5. The Mayor says we have to be “fair to the Town”. Apparently, Princeton is a living, breathing, feeling entity that matters way more than the people living in it. That’s why Council will approve a new hotel, 30 multi-family buildings, & a light rail system downtown. Merchants, who tough out this engineered parking crisis & the heavy construction to come, will someday be in a newly engineered, urban Princeton. Downtown’s walkers get their dream City. The new meters are just the first urban installment. Our old meters worked & Council could have opened a parking lot on Witherspoon to help merchants & residents today (that would have been appropriate, sustainable, & helpful for the people already living here) but Council could care less about our needs & struggles. Just like Princeton leaders forced many seniors to fund long concrete walkways in wooded neighborhoods, residents will have to support the coming urbanization of downtown. Council expects us all to open our wallets & our minds for their big “vision”.

  6. Thank you Lou for your review of our newly created abysmal parking situation, and the excellent recommendations towards corrective action. Other than turning a relatively well functioning parking situation into an annoying reminder of Council’s apparent lack of competency, the new system has essentially turned the CBD from a user friendly, business friendly environment to one that seems to exist primarily for the benefit of the parking system provider. (The “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” concept, stood on its head and brilliantly implemented by Council).
    Our previous system, with its imperfections, helped portray Princeton as a user friendly town, exemplified by a now forsaken ‘grace period’, in contrast with a system that seems designed to discourage short term usage, essential as you point out to many merchants. (not to mention the unpleasant tattletale function of the new meters, allowing ticket writers to zoom in as time expires, so as to have more time to park side by side and enjoy the benefits of the new system). It is unfortunate that none of Princeton’s abundance of Committees (Princeton Complete Streets Committee, Princeton Joint Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee, et al) were tasked with complementing the parking consultant’s report with a little common sense.

  7. The old parking system needed an overhaul…if you want to talk about accessibility—how about trying to run an errand in town and finding you have no coins, or that the parking lots are full? And there are so many meter guards it almost feels adversarial. Princeton has got issues, and parking is a piece of a much bigger puzzle. The population and traffic is ever-increasing, but the roads remain small and unequipped to deal with the volume. Meanwhile residents live in a bubble, not wanting anything to change. Something has got to give. It’s going to require serious strategic thought that goes beyond parking meters to find a solution. Investing in ring roads and making the CBD pedestrian only seems sensible. So, you might have to walk a minute to get your coffee—small price to pay for making the businesses available to far more people than the lucky few who find a parking spot, isn’t it?

  8. Council did a good job with the new meters. I think it’s great that we can pay with a regular credit card now, or the app. Every other town in the area has pay-by-app, Princeton was left behind! The advantage of the app is clear: it tells you how much time you have left, and you can even renew the meter, without leaving your seat. It’s really good, and Council deserves a lot of credit for making this happen. I get it that some folks struggle with the new technology, but ultimately it is a better system. Lou Valente, I’m sure your business, whatever it is (what is it anyway?) will be fine! We’re probably looking at 6 months or so of getting used to the new system, but it is a better system!

  9. “The screen is difficult to read in low light and rain. ”
    at night, the screen is IMPOSSIBLE to be read unless one has a flashlight. For elderly who do not carry iPhone, this means paying in complete darkness. A suggestion: parking should be free unless Princeton will fix the meters and make the screen fully visible.

  10. the screen is very difficult to read, in all weather and lighting, but especially night and rain.

  11. I think the comments and discussion are helpful, but I also note the self-interest in many posts. As I stated in support of the Council’s actions back in the Fall, “parking spots are a scarce commodity, that during most times of the week are underpriced.”

    Folks who need a spot for multiple hours should consider parking in the decks, not right in front of a store. Ironically, higher prices, mean that more spots will be available in proximate locations for short-term parking needs and yeah, convenience is sometimes worth $.50 extra.

    Heck, even along US1, one has to walk 100 yards or more between one’s automobile from/to the store’s, restaurants or offices one wants to visit.

    There is no such thing as a free lunch . . . and parking spots (that occupy 150+ sq.ft of very valuable real estate), just like apartments and retail spaces in downtown Princeton are valued by many.

  12. Doug,
    You make some very good points. Your main one — that we should charge more for parking spots as they are valued — is economically true, but goes to the issue that Princeton has become a town designed primarily for the wealthy. Those with more money don’t need to be concerned about what parking costs. Those with less money will need to walk farther or perhaps shop elsewhere. Perhaps this is inevitable, but the real anger in these comments is that the Town Council shouldn’t be helping the process along. Instead, they should be looking out for people of all economic levels. The sheer incompetence of the implementation hasn’t helped either.

  13. Here’s a thought. Provide Princeton residentswith a free parking card of $X to be used each calendar year. Like the yellow recycling buckets, the parking card would go to each family that owns or rents residential real estate. The amount could enable one to park free for two hours each week; c. 100 hours.

  14. I do not believe that the new parking system is something that it will just “take time” for us all to adjust to. I think it is punitive, unreasonably expensive and hugely counterproductive to fostering a thriving downtown, both for merchants as well as residents and visitors. One writer to Planet Princeton wrote of the “self-interest” that was evident in some critics of the new system. It is not selfish to want a downtown that is user-friendly and accessible by automobile. This is not New York city. Twenty-five cents for 7 minutes is absurd. The emphasis of the discussion is on the need for short-term parking. Yes, there is the need for that, but there is also the need for parking that will accommodate those who wish to spend a day, or part thereof, in Princeton. To discourage this is short-sighted. The parking decks are often full, and also expensive. I noticed an additional issue that is worth addressing on our parking meter on the block between Moore St and Vanderventer (a particularly long block). The meter read that parking on the same block after the three hour limit was prohibited within the following two hours. In other words, If a person parked on that block, and then left and came back an hour later, he/she could not park on the same block. The new system is in need of a total overhaul.

  15. Wow. How did we mess this up so badly? Ultimately, the market will decide if this is viable going forward. Empty storefronts and lower revenue for our local merchants who work hard to make downtown a fun place to visit. While the town nets a few more dollars. I can get good sushi elsewhere with free parking so why would I wrestle with this new system?

  16. Under the old rules, if I have to run an errand to a business on Nassau Street, I could park, buy what I need. If I need something else an hour later, I would come back. Each time, I pay for parking and that would be fine.

    Under the new rules, I need to wait several hours before I can return and park on Nassau Street.

    Just an example of how government has messed up big time here.

  17. to “Central NJ Yimby”
    “Council did a good job with the new meters”

    a good job? Good job with meters that cannot be used in darkness? A terrible job. I suggest that as long as the parking meters will not be equipped with well lit screens, and this should be corrected at the expense of the designers, NOBODY should pay, after darkness, for parking that requires a flashlight to read what is on the screen. After all the inconvenience that we had to go through when the “half-technology” parking meters were being installed, this is what we got? Simply embarrassing. Dear Council you can do better.

  18. Dear “Frustrated Resident” (and everybody else complaining about the meters being hard to read at night)

    Just press any button. That switches on the backlight. Then you can read it just fine.

  19. Net net, I spent about $100 less on holiday shopping in downtown Princeton as a consequence of the parking situation. This is not a princely sum and will not put any stores out of business; however, multiply that by other shoppers making the same decision, and Princeton merchants may have a problem.

  20. I think Lou Valente’s note was spot on and I thank him for taking the time to craft a well thought out objective non emotional note. When the selection process was underway did we (?) ever look at ParkMobile? They seem to be all over the country, so why pay to re-invent the wheel if someone else already has? I use them in Lambertville and it works great and is easy. And did the parking rates go up to pay for the new meters since I missed the reasoning.

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