Saturday, December 17, 2011

Philadelphia Story, Part 2--Waterworks

The first post entitled Philadelphia Story, as some readers may remember, was a tragicomic tale of the hazards of parking in the historic district. That drama took place on the Liberty Bell, Ben Franklin Bridge, Penn's Landing, Delaware River side of town, where I-95 streams through. That was the only part of Philadelphia I knew until recently, other than WHYY's inauspicious Shadow Traffic reports, which detail the endless permutations of rush hour congestion.

One beautiful fall day last month, some friends introduced me to Philadelphia's flip side, west of the Delaware and just beyond the Art Museum, along the Schuykill River. A google-eyed view of Philadelphia shows the Delaware and Schuykill rivers looking like two sides of a vase, with downtown in the middle. Traveling the I-95 corridor and occasionally straying downtown, one sees only one side of the vase.

To visit the Schuykill River side, then, is akin to getting a glimpse of the far side of the moon.

We owe the lovely vista in this photo to the water pollution that, by the late 1700s, forced Philadelphia to seek a cleaner drinking water supply. The Schuykill River was dammed in 1822, and land upstream was purchased to prevent polluting development.
All that land is now the long and lovely Fairmount Park, with bike trails extending all the way westward to Valley Forge. The impoundment is used for rowing races.

Until 1909, the dammed water passed through a Waterworks, turning big drums that in turn pumped fresh drinking water up the hill to a reservoir. From there it was piped down into the city. All very elegant and sustainable. You can see the whole layout in the photo, just as it once looked, except that the Philadelphia Museum of Art is perched on the hill where the reservoir used to be (upper left), and the downtown in the distance has sprouted skyscrapers.

Inside the Waterworks is a first rate, federally run interpretive center that explores all matters having to do with water. You can learn where wastewater goes after it leaves one's house, how the city is trying to reduce stormwater runoff,

and how the shad that once migrated upstream in enormous numbers each spring to spawn played a critical role in keeping George Washington's troops alive at Valley Forge. (Presumably the dam has fish ladders to allow them access these days.)

Along with the appealing ingenuity and sustainability of 19th century technology was a greater valuing of public spaces, and a belief that beauty and utility can cohabit in architectural design.

All in all there was much to cheer about during this visit--a beautiful public space on a beautiful day, and we found our car just where we had left it.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Are Rollout Bins Right For Princeton?

If New York is the city that never sleeps, Princeton has become the town whose streets are never clean. The dumping of yardwaste in the streets is now year-round. Municipal fear of taxpayer outrage may be the reason that ordinances meant to control the dumping activity, and to bring Princeton in to compliance with state regulations, go unenforced.
There are places in America that have clean streets. I know because sometimes I jump on my horse and ride towards the horizon to see how other people live, and can say definitively that we can rescue ourselves from this self-imposed squalor.

Take San Francisco as an example. Once a week, three rollout bins are placed at the curb. Gray is for trash. Blue is for recyclables. Green is for a combination of foodwaste and yardwaste.

Because the yardwaste is containerized, collection is efficient and the streets remain clean. Of course, this neighborhood has fewer trees than Princeton does and thus less generation of leaves and brush. But there are many tree-packed municipalities that don't allow dumping of leaves on the street, and instead expect residents to compost most of them in the backyard and place the rest in rollout bins and yardwaste bags at the curb.

This sign shows what goes in the green bin: food-soiled paper, food, and yard trimmings. All of this gets composted outside of town. Princeton township began offering this service last year, and recently extended service to anyone in the borough willing to pay $20 a month. (More on this in another post.)

One of the benefits of rollout bins is that their contents are mechanically emptied into the trucks. Princeton's recyclables and the borough's trash are lifted manually into trucks, which puts workers at risk of back injury. The lack of rollout bins also means that residents must do heavy lifting to get their trash and recyclables to the curb.

Some trucks can actually grab the rollout bin at the curb and dump its contents without having a worker on the street.

When in the past I've recommended that Princeton shift over to rollout bins, the idea was reflexively rejected due to concerns about the cost of this sort of truck. Imagine my surprise when I saw one of these trucks collecting trash in Princeton township. Midco, one of the private haulers township residents can contract with, has obviously seen the cost savings in this approach.

Consolidation of Princeton township and borough into one entity offers an opportunity to reshape services. Rollout bins have worked elsewhere and are now being utilized by private haulers in the Princeton area. It's time the municipality look at ways to put them to use.

Monday, December 05, 2011

What's Recyclable and Where Our Recyclables Go

If you live in Princeton, you may occasionally wonder what items are supposed to be going in the green and yellow recycling bins residents put at the curb every other Monday. Though local government websites are useful, they may not for various reasons be able to provide the most up to date information. Here's what I was able to find out recently:

Mercer County: The county, not Princeton township or borough, is in charge of the curbside recycling program. (Note: The county's recycling website was revamped in late Feb/2012. Its list of recycling do's and don't's can now be found here.)

That list is useful to some extent, but the private company that the county contracts with to pick up the recyclables posts its own list, which I've pasted below in quotes. (If you like pictures, here's a downloadable flyer.) The hauler lists several additional items as recyclable, which I've marked in red, that the county does not include on its list.

(The list below is from the Central Jersey Waste and Recycling website)

"The following material can be recyced ONLY if they are clean (free of food waste.) A good rinse should be sufficient for most items!
• Plastics marked with numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 (but not compostable #7)
• Aluminum cans
Aluminum trays and foil (cleaned)
Aerosol cans
• Steel and tin cans
• Glass jars and bottles
• Metal lids
• Newspapers and inserts (remove plastic sleeves)
• Magazines, catalogs, phone books
• Office and school paper
• Cardboard
• Boxboard (cereal boxes, etc.)
• Brown paper bags
• Paperback books
• Paper-only junk mail"

Update, Aug/2012: I've adjusted this list to reflect changes on the Central Jersey Waste website. They've added #6 plastic as acceptable, and removed plastic lids from their list.

Why the contradictory lists? It turns out that the county is reluctant to expand its list, in part because any change requires an amendment to the Mercer County Solid Waste Management Plan. The county also wants to make sure there is a longterm market for any item it adds to the list.

Where our recyclables go: The hauler (Central Jersey Waste and Recycling) takes the recyclables down to Trenton, then transfers them to semis to haul them up to the Colgate Paper Stock Company in New Brunswick, where all the various recyclables are separated out. Colgate is a so-called MRF (materials recovery facility) that has its own list of items it accepts or rejects for recycling. That list includes plastics numbered 1-7.

Plastic lids: I always thought that, since there are rings on the plastic bottles that are made of the same material as the lid, then the lid must be recyclable along with the bottle. The Colgate sorting plant, though, makes it clear they don't want plastic lids. What I've been told is that the rings are detached from the bottle by the plant that makes new products from the bottles.

Plastic bags: Many bins put curbside have recyclables in plastic bags. A representative of Colgate told me that plastic bags occasionally gum up their sorting machinery. He also said that though they accept all numbered plastics 1-7, the plastics 3-7 end up getting shipped out of the country, to destinations and fates unknown. 

Styrofoam: Some residents put styrofoam (#6) out for recycling. I've heard contradictory opinions about its recyclability. This link, which has info on what various plastics are used for, says styrofoam is one of the more useful plastics to recycle. But obviously it's so bulky that it's hard to transport efficiently, which may be why the Central Jersey hauler excludes it from its list.

Princeton Township has a web page with lots of links to info on recycling, though its list, like the county's, does not include all the items that are accepted by the private companies actually doing the recycling. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Cargo Bicycle On Princeton's Streets

Of all the vehicles that parade by my house on busy Harrison Street, this one stood out as distinctly different. Two big rollout bins on a trailer being pulled by a bicyclist. Having long imagined a world in which bicycles are adapted to fill varied transport needs, I decided to head off in pursuit to find out where this one-man sustainable parade was headed. He was moving along at a good clip, but I caught up with him on Valley Road, and learned that the vehicle is owned by the Whole Earth Center grocery store on Nassau Street.

Every year, staff vote on what to buy with the accumulated loose change found on the floors during cleanup. Last year, they bought this bike and trailer.
It often carries their food up to the farmers market in good weather, but on this particular day, it hauled a week's worth of salvaged plastic packaging to the municipality for recycling.
At the same location (corner of Valley Road and Witherspoon Street), the township makes yardwaste bags available for residents, and you may be able to recycle your electronics there as well.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Free B Expanded Service

The Princeton Packet reported this past Friday that the Free B shuttle will now run on weekends for the Christmas season. The "Free B Jitney Shuttle" link on the website does not tell the whole story, since the Free B now apparently runs straight through from 5:30am to 9pm. These two links

along with the text below, borrowed from a public library newsletter, should tell the whole story of the stealthy shuttle's current schedule.

"Starting at the Suzanne Patterson Center at 9:30 and 10:30 a.m. and 12:30, 1:30 and 2:30 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, the free jitney will stop at Elm Court, Palmer Square, the library, Princeton Shopping Center, Community Park Pool, Princeton Community Village and many popular intersections throughout Princeton. Thanks to Princeton Borough, Princeton Township, Princeton University and the Community Transportation Coordination Initiative for extending this service on a trial basis."

It really takes conscious effort to change one's habits and take advantage of this service, which is not exactly advertising its existence in a big way. This photo was taken back in February, at the Dinky station, where I searched in vain for a posted schedule.

Princeton's Downtown Scarcity of Recycling Receptacles

You're looking at the only downtown location I know of where recycling containers can be found on the streets, at Hinds Plaza next to the public library. They are expensive stainless steel models, but their design could be improved to better distinguish them from the trash containers they are, or should be, paired with.

I've informally explored and documented recycling receptacle designs--which vary from effective to self-defeating--in Princeton and elsewhere, many of which are posted at A post about how the Hinds Plaza containers could be retrofitted to improve their function can be found here.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Princeton's Community Park Pool--Endings and Beginnings

Princeton's Community Park Pool, poised for the wrecking ball beginning tomorrow, September 12, cast quite a spell on longtime Princeton residents. For most of my seven years as a member, it seemed serviceable but not extraordinary in any way, except of course for Larry Ivan's signature closing refrain. Only when I began hearing the eloquent testimonials, delivered at public meetings about its planned redesign, did I begin seeing this unassuming pool complex in a new way.

Surprisingly, it was the changing rooms, which looked like dull boxes from the outside, that received the most rhapsodic treatment by residents at the meetings. Inside, they were lavishly spacious, with large portals to the sky. The building breathed effortlessly, and like a deep breath conveyed to those within a feeling of expansiveness and relaxation.

If there was a theme that permeated the complex, it was the way it played with light. Lap swimmers had plenty of time to notice the infinite patterns of light dancing on the bottom of the pool. The buildings, as if to emulate the water, would allow light to pass through open beams, or portals in the roofs, casting shadows whose angles would shift through the day--quiet reminders of the sun's arcing passage across the sky.

The complexity of patterns in the water was mimicked by the weathering of the wood.

A new, redesigned pool complex will emerge in coming months, to open next summer. It will no doubt have more efficient pumps, better filters, and make more efficient use of space. Solar panels may sprout on the rooftops. A waterslide will entertain.

But for now, I'm grateful to have caught a glimpse of something soulful and profound beneath the old pool's simple facades.

Another homage to the pool, with more photos and text, is posted at

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Communiversity and Recycling

Princeton borough just received an $18,000 "tonnage grant" from the state. This is an annual grant, fluctuating year to year, to be used for recycling in the borough. In the past, the borough has simply used the money to help pay the county for routine curbside recycling service, but the money can also be used for initiatives that would actually improve recycling in town. Here's a post started back in April that shows one of the many ways recycling could be improved in Princeton, through a mix of education and smart placement of receptacles.

Traffic streeeeetched all the way to Moore Street,
as Communiversity 2011 drew some 40,000 people to downtown Princeton.
It was a fun party, and everything appeared to go smoothly, except for the traditional lack of recycling. I'm sure that outdoor events in Princeton have to conform to various rules and regulations, and one of them should be that, when an event includes vendors selling beverages in recyclable containers, receptacles for recyclables need to be paired with all trash cans.

When people have a clearly marked choice, they recycle, as shown here in a borough park.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

And We Shall Go A' Sharrowing

Aye, if roads they are

a' narrowing,

and bicycling

grows harrowing,

try sharrowing.

-- Burma Shave

Friday, June 17, 2011

Background Info On Campus Sculptures

Anyone seeking edification about the various sculptures to be encountered on the Princeton University campus, click here for photos and short descriptions on the PU website.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Climate Ride 2011 Passes Through Princeton

(The post below is from 2009. Climate Ride came through town this past Friday. I saw they had their tents pitched at the YMCA, but didn't have my camera. Saturday they biked to Philadelphia. You can read their daily accounts here.)

What is a tent village doing in the YMCA field? My daughter wanted to know. We stopped to inquire, and learned that Climate Ride was coming through town. Bicyclists, including a family with an eight year old, rode yesterday from New York City to Princeton, on their way to Washington, D.C. via Philadelphia.

The purpose of the ride is to draw attention to the need to confront the increasing impact of climate change on spaceship earth. They have a website,, that includes live feeds of the five day journey.

Long before there were cars, Princeton served just as it is now for the bikers, as a rest stop halfway between NY and Philadelphia.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Princeton's Energy Use

Remember all those nice sounding goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by this or that percent by such and such a year? Whether it's 50% reduction by 2050, or 80% reduction by 2020, or 100% reduction by 2100, the numbers were meant to stir action, but instead serve as place holders for good intentions while life goes on as usual.

Princeton's contribution to goal setting came in 2007, when mayors Miller and Trotman signed the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 7% from 1990 levels by 2012. Though the founders of Sustainable Princeton got some potentially useful data for 2006, no one knows how much energy Princeton used back in 1990, and no one's looking at how much energy we're using now.

Numbers matter, particularly those that slowly build and build, just below the radar screen of the news media until suddenly we have a brand new crisis on our hands. In an effort to at least track some of Princeton's contribution to a global problem, I looked into how we could get numbers from PSEG for Princeton's consumption of electricity and natural gas. It turns out that PSEG can provide these numbers back to 2007. With some help from municipal staff and the chair of the Princeton Environmental Commission, I was able to gather all the information needed by PSEG for them to provide energy use data for Princeton's residential, business, industrial, public school and municipal sectors.

Now it's a matter of waiting until PSEG provides the numbers.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Current Public Transportation to the Dinky Station

In Princeton, it's possible to travel to farflung places without getting in a car. I have tested this a couple times, most recently back in February, for a trip that included four trains to get to the Philadelphia airport, one plane, and another train to get within two blocks of my destination in downtown Cleveland. The trains to Philadelphia are well-timed so there was very little wait inbetween.

When I returned, using the same combination in reverse, I arrived at the Dinky station at 5pm--what seemed like an auspicious time to catch the FreeB shuttle (click to follow link). That would have dropped me just a block from my home--truly a public transit advocate's dream. But the sign was buried in a snowdrift, and I couldn't find any schedule posted, so asked a woman who also seemed to be waiting for a shuttle.
She was waiting for a Tiger Transit shuttle, and was checking the website with her cellphone to see if one would arrive soon. Turns out the public is welcome to use Tiger Transit shuttles at no charge (that's what one university rep told me, anyway.) And you can even track their movements on TigerTracker, which could prove to be even more exciting than reality TV, and more useful. One of their routes appears to reach within a short walk of the Windsor Green Shopping Center (Whole Foods, Staples, etc.) out along Route 1.

Not knowing when the FreeB might arrive, or if it even still existed, I ended up making the mile and a half walk home, which in scenic Princeton can be a pleasing thing to do, even with a suitcase in tow.

A 2009 post on the FreeB can be found here.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Arts and Transit Neighborhood Letter To the Editor

The Dinky has been giving Princeton quite a ride, in more ways than one. Though I ride it occasionally to get to the main line, I had been avoiding hitching a ride on the debate over its 460 foot move to a new station as part of the university's proposed Arts and Transit Neighborhood. Given how much community brain power was being brought to bear, the Dinky's dilemma was sure to be propelled to a win-win solution.

That the result was, and may still be, looking more like a lose-lose shocked me into seeking out opinions. The result was a letter to the Princeton Packet and the Town Topics, and the page of Dinky Q and A above, accessible via the tab entitled "The Dinky Debate".

Below is the letter:

Catch a ride on the Dinky opinion train and you will find that, like the Dinky, it sweeps you vigorously from one terminus to the other, with no stops in between. Respected friends will have opposite views, delivering you either to the conclusion that a rail line really should reach up to Nassau Street, or that the best chance for sustaining the Dinky is to move it 460 feet down the hill, as the university now says it will do, regardless.

   The debate about the university’s proposed arts and transit neighborhood would be greatly expedited, and needless ill will avoided, if people would look at the university’s proposal as a whole, not just one aspect. The Dinky, though its horn sounds like a cross between a tugboat and a mourning dove, has taken on the qualities of an elephant being intently scrutinized at too close a range. Some aspects of the beast that I’d like to mention are these:

   The 460 Feet: Having made the locally famous 460 foot, two minute walk to the proposed new Dinky station location, I found it to be a surprisingly minimal change. For those parking at the nearby Lot 7 university garage (free to the public after hours and on weekends), the new location will actually reduce the walk by that same 460 feet. Though the university plan would lose the appealing interface with University Place, it offers improvements for traffic congestion, parking access, and train station facilities.   

Extending tracks to Nassau Street: If extended to Nassau, as would reportedly still be possible via Alexander if the university’s proposal goes forward, the Dinky or any other heavy vehicle (“light rail” is not necessarily lightweight) will encounter steep inclines that could substantially reduce energy efficiency compared to the current relatively flat route. The combination of steep inclines, longer route, more stops and interactions with streets could affect the most important factors determining Dinky ridership: dependability and frequency. Though a train stop on Nassau Street has symbolic power, even with more downtown density most Princetonians would still live well beyond the 10 minutes people are supposedly willing to walk to a train stop.

   It’s important that we defend town traditions and dream of an even better Princeton. Sustainability, whether environmental or in reducing the Dinky’s dependency on state subsidies, is a vital part of any vision for the future. The danger comes when the strong sustainable, cultural and civic aspects of the university’s proposal are ignored due to focus on 460 feet. Nor is it fair to delay the university’s vision for years while the serious logistical and budgetary challenges of alternative proposals are indefinitely explored.

   If people agree on a foundation of facts as they can best be determined, look at the big picture, and are as skeptical of their own opinions as those of others, then there’s hope this four-year opinion ride can finally pull in to a pleasing destination.I have assembled a summary of information about the university proposal and the Dinky at

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Free Jazz Performance at the Arts Council

A fine series of upcoming performances and movies at the Princeton Arts Council includes a free performance by top-flight jazz musicians this Sunday. Info from the Arts Council website below:

Sunday, April 3 | 3 pm | Solley Theater | FREE
Anthony Branker & Word Play
The Arts Council of Princeton and the Program in Jazz Studies at Princeton University present Anthony Branker & Word Play, featuring Ralph Bowen (tenor & soprano saxophones), Kenny Davis (acoustic bass), and Adam Cruz (drums). The title of the program is "Dialogic" and will include special guest pianist Jim Ridl. Funding is provided by the Program in Jazz Studies at Princeton University, Bloomberg, and the Wachovia Wells Fargo Foundation.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Carpooling for Old TVs

My friend Steven delivered this urban harvest to Saturday's Mercer County electronics recycling event. I had put word out that we were making a run, and several residents enthusiastically dropped off electronics to add to our cargo.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Electronics and Chemical Waste Collection Day, March 26

 Mercer County has three of these electronics and chemical waste collection days every year. The first one is this Saturday from 8am to 2pm. Since it's illegal to put TVs and computer monitors out on the curb for trash pickup, this is the main opportunity to get rid of them. There can be a line later in the day sometimes, but the lines move quickly. Dropoff is past Quaker Bridge Mall a short distance. More info here.
The urban farmer delivering his harvest.