Monday, February 17, 2014

Knot Now--Nonsensical Non-Recycling

Build it, and they will ignore it. In the lobby of the Princeton Particle Physics Laboratory, the staff have built monuments to recycling--impressively edifying edifices, temples to diversion from the landfill--and put them on full display in the lobby and lecture hall.

After sipping coffee and munching on generously supplied bagels and donuts before the Science on Saturday lecture, the crowd had plenty of paper cups and napkins to throw away. The lined up containers were like a choir, calling to us to put the paper products in the receptacle for compostibles.

And where did people tend to throw their paper--this brainy bunch, intellectually curious enough to seek out a lecture on the mathematics of knot tying on a Saturday morning, and resourceful enough to find the PPPL campus despite lousy google map directions and minimally marked winding roads? (Maybe I'm the only one without GPS, or who didn't look at PPPL's directions.)Without a thought, or perhaps consumed by other thoughts, the attendees I observed completely ignored the recycling signage and the nicely contrasting containers and threw all their paper in the trash.

It may be that the concept of composting paper products is too new for people to have changed their habits. But it's also likely that brains big enough to delve into the subtleties of Reidemeister Moves and Tricoloration knot theory are not going to pause to consider the individual's trivial but measurable role in solid waste management. Perhaps each paper cup needs its own GPS to direct the user to the nearest compost bin. Otherwise, we seem to be at the mercy of an extremely primitive instinct. When it comes to awareness of what each of us litters the world with, the brain must have a convenient shutoff valve.

One paper cup tossed here or there is of course trivial, and yet the cumulative effect of something as trivial as individual snowflakes falling on the ground can bring whole cities to a standstill. It is the repetition of trivial acts, be they carbon dioxide molecules streaming from exhaust pipes and chimneys, the consequent accumulation of carbonic acid in the oceans, and the water dripping from Greenland's ice sheet, that will ultimately determine our fate. That seems to be something that most brains are cleverly wired not to understand.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

British Panto Comes Alive in Princeton

Despite the impediment of multiple snowstorms, a panto production of Jack and the Beanstalk drew full houses at the Stuart Country Day School's Stuart Little Theater yesterday, with another show this afternoon.

The brain child of the Variety Theater Team--Zoe Brookes, Per Kreipke and Todd Reichart--the show features community actors of all ages in a spoof of Princeton life, replete with comic takeoffs on town/gown tensions, a highly choreographed rantfest of wouldbe mayors, a cameo by the mayor herself, songs of love and yearning, a dancing cow, an economist who lectures Jack on the "means of production" before trading a dubious but fortuitous envelope for the cow, a standout performance by Ruth Schultz as a highly gymnastic telescope,

and keystone interventions by Campus Security.

I play woodwinds in the band, which I see from the program is called "The Hokum and Hackery Consort of Yooniversity", directed by Michael Jacobsen.

The play begins with a talented mime, who is then shooed off the stage by the director, who explains that British pantomime does not fit the American definition. Thus commences two afternoons and an evening of high hilarity, many months, brainstorms, and snowstorms in the making.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Jaw-Dropping Film on Hemp

Though the crowd was relatively sparse for a noontime showing Friday of the film "Bringing It Home" at the Princeton Environmental Film Festival, that just left more floorspace for my jaw to occupy. The title refers to the extended exile from the U.S. of a farm crop that puts all our current ones to shame.

If hemp were a character in a movie, it would be a superhero, with talents beyond all others. In fact, it would be a whole family of "supers", like the multi-talented bunch in the 2004 movie The Incredibles. Want to get your omega 3s from vegetables rather than the overfished oceans? Hemp swoops in with the healthy oil made from its seeds. Want a "carbon negative" building material and home insulation that's less noxious to work with than fiberglass? Hemp is there for you, with "hempcrete", batten insulation and fiberboard. Clothing? Hemp's got it covered, needing less water and fertilizer to grow than cotton. Want to fight against pesticide use? Hemp again comes up super, naturally deterring pests and growing so tall and dense in the field that weeds don't have a chance. And of course, any super plant worth the name will leave the soil healthier than when it was planted. Hemp's deep root system does the job.

So, if hemp is so super, where is it? Why don't we see it growing in the farmers' fields? Why are its products limited to health food stores? Well, like the Incredibles, even though it was working miracles, long supplying fiber for paper and sails, and then coming through big time with rope and military uniforms during World War II, people complained about some collateral damage. The federal government forced it into exile, to live a quiet domestic life in Europe, Britain and Canada. It's illegal to grow in the U.S. without a permit, which turns out to be nearly impossible to get.

Hemp's banishment, one could say, was one big misunderstanding. People said it had a drug problem, but it wasn't hemp that had the problem, it was its equally brilliant but troubled sibling, marijuana. Okay, they're the same species, but hemp has essentially no THC, while marijuana is loaded. There are about a dozen grown varieties of industrial hemp, readily identifiable by inspectors. Hemp looks similar enough to marijuana, however, that a decision was made to banish both. The result of this criminalization of a super plant has been the huge cost of the failed drug war--prisons bulging, budgets draining, lives losing, developing countries destabilizing--and a loss to the public of tax revenue and the countless benefits of hemp's long and able service to mankind.

Now, it seems, hemp's black sheep sibling, after living a long, covert life on the street, somehow got into medical school and is making a comeback as a legit medication for chronic pain relief. Dr. Marijuana is now practicing in twenty states, filling medical needs while providing states with revenue and the chance to regulate rather than criminalize its use.

Could marijuana and its reformed image be the gateway not for harder drugs but for the return of its decidedly straight-laced sibling hemp? If so, hemp will return to a country in dire need of its heroic services. Carbon dioxide is seeping out of every pesticide and concrete plant, out of every pump keeping the cotton fields watered. Our diets are begging for its nutrition. Our farmers need its productivity.

I mean, come on, how many plants out there provide medicine, nutrition, clothing, housing, and the paper to sing its praises? Drafts of the Declaration of Independence, singing freedom's praises, were written on hemp paper. Let's free this "super" from legislative tyranny, so it can finally come home.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Something's (Not) Rotting in Princeton

The whole idea of recycling is to reduce the amount of trash being trucked to the landfill. What matters environmentally is not how much material gets recycled, but how little material gets thrown away. We used to try to measure environmental progress by the tonnage of material recycled. In fact, the main duty of municipal recycling coordinators in New Jersey is to compile how many tons of paper, plastic, glass, etc. got recycled in each town. But the numbers have been losing their meaning. Heavy glass is being replaced by light plastic bottles. Fewer people get newspapers. So tonnages can go down even if people are being more conscientious about recycling.

This is why Sustainable Princeton's goal for solid waste doesn't mention recyclables, but instead puts the focus on trash reduction: 50% by 2016. (Hey, that's coming up!)

Recycling will help reach that goal, but you can see in the two photos that, even when recycling is done well, the trash cans are still overflowing. The basic rule of recycling is being followed here. The recycling containers are visually distinct, and paired with the trash containers. So, why is the majority of material still ending up in the trash?

What's missing is an additional container that would hold compostables. Many cafes have shifted away from styrofoam, fortunately, but there's no protocol in place to keep all the resulting paper containers from filling the trash can. Food waste and all of these food-soiled paper containers should be getting composted. The result, as any Princeton resident who either composts in the backyard or has signed up for the curbside service has discovered, is a dramatic reduction in trash volume and weight.

There are a number of obstacles in the way of doing what obviously needs to be done. One for merchants is space constraints, both in the store and in the back alley. You'd think that keeping compostables out of the trash would greatly reduce the footprint of trash cans and dumpsters, but it would require considerable motivation and commitment to change the status quo. The other is that, though a more local composting facility is in the works, the closest current destination for foodwaste is 70 miles south in Wilmington, Delaware.

In the well-meaning time, while all of this is getting worked out by the often seemingly powerless powers that be, there are individual solutions. A year or two ago, after consuming a large dose of environmental documentaries at the Princeton Environmental Film Festival, I decided to incorporate some aspects of camping into my town lifestyle. Camping is pleasurable. We don't get around to it very often, so why not make it part of everyday life? One way is to emulate the "leave no trace" approach to camping. Pack it in, pack it out. And so the paper products I use at the cafe get scrunched up in a pocket or a backpack, to be carried home and either used to start a fire in the woodstove or composted with the food scraps in the backyard. This approach to camping avoids the long drive to some distant campground, and the local "campsite" serves a great cappuccino.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Climate Theater: A Playwriting Debut

Having written a lot about climate change, and not seeing any substantive action to address this deepening global tragedy, I started imagining theatrical scenes a couple years ago. January 18 marked the first performance by professional actors of two of these scripts. Thanks to the One-Minute Play Festival and Passage Theatre for this opportunity.

The plays can be found in an online video  at minute 58:00 (Stronger Than the Storm?) and 40:40 (When Time Went On Forever).

Here's some background:
Last month, Passage Theatre in Trenton hosted New Jersey's 4th annual One-Minute Play Festival, "showcasing 50 Brand New one-minute plays by New Jersey's best playwrights." They were nice enough to include me in that group. An email mysteriously but gratifyingly appeared in my inbox one day this past fall, inviting me to submit exactly two plays, each of which was not to exceed one minute in length.

I used it as motivation to squeeze the theme of climate change into the one minute format. No problem!

According to the 1MPF's website, "The One-­Minute Play Festival (#1MPF) is a NYC-­‐based theatre company, founded by producing artistic director Dominic D’Andrea, and is America’s largest and longest running short form theatre company. #1MPF is a barometer project, which investigates the zeitgeist of different communities through dialogue and consensus building sessions and a performance of many moments."

Twenty cities now have One-Minute play festivals, with each one drawing from its own region's playwrights, directors and actors. This year's material in NJ was heavily influenced by Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath. Five directors and five groups of actors each performed ten pieces, with no breaks inbetween. Very exciting.

The online video documents the January 19 performance. The show's intro starts at minute 12:10 on the video. My two plays are at 40:40 (When Time Went On Forever) with actors Steve Caputi and Susan Gaissert, directed by Steve Gaissert, and at 58:00 (Stronger Than the Storm?) with actors Amy Crossman and Scott Brieden, directed by Artem Yatsunov. Other plays before and after the "Stronger than the storm?" also explore NJ's response to Hurricane Sandy, including a piece by Clare Drobot that asks the question, "How can you be stronger than an inanimate force of nature?"

Thursday, February 06, 2014

After the Ice Storm

Most people have an argument with the weather. It should be more this and less that. The audacity of water in whatever form to precipitate upon us precipitates in turn as much complaint as taxes and the deluge of leaves in fall. My argument is instead with houses, which go into a feint the moment an ice storm comes along, but I have to admit,

freezing rain is a lousy tree trimmer. There are no two ways about it. This is shoddy work. I'm no expert, but you don't trim a town's trees by applying weight to every branch in town to cull the weak from the strong, and just let it all fall helter skelter. I did appreciate, though, that the branch that fell on our car was dropped in such a way as to do no visible damage. There are many stories like this after a storm, of branches or whole trees falling in an uncanny way as to do no damage.

The upshot for our neighborhood was an unexpectedly modest two hours without power, and an unusually peaceful Harrison Street. Despite the major repair job underway at the intersection of Harrison and Hamilton Ave, life seemed normal enough by evening to set out by foot across town for a talk on "Legendary Locals of Princeton" at the Historic Society of Princeton's annual meeting. The premise of the walk was that most any tree branch that was going to fall had already fallen. The bartender at the Nassau Club asked how my trip there in a car had gone. He was surprised to hear I had walked. I had worn my dressiest pair of hiking boots, and actually found it very pleasant to walk the length of Nassau Street when there were so few cars out. I ran into friends I hadn't seen in years, and got to appreciate the (mostly) well-cleared sidewalks and the fresh wintry air. None of this seemed worth telling the bartender, who was probably expecting some cathartic complaints about parking.

Our Mayor Lempert introduced the speaker, using the opportunity to inform us that Princeton got hit harder by the storm than most other NJ towns. Winds were in store overnight, and another storm Sunday. In an example of community collaboration, one of the soccer associations was supplying lights for the street repair crews. The speaker and author, Richard D. Smith, credited the Lenni Lenape's trails as much as the university in positioning Princeton to become a "legendary locale". Indian trails tended to run along ridges, which in this case later grew into Nassau Street and the Lincoln Highway. The Lenape village was apparently down along the Stonybrook in that rich bottomland near where the society's Updike Farm and future home base is located. In a couple years, they plan to complete the move from the university-owned Bainbridge House out to the farmstead, which they envision as becoming a Princeton Historical Center with enough room to put Einstein's furniture on display.

The legendary locals turned out to be a refreshing mix, with the standard greats like Einstein, Robeson, and Woodrow Wilson mingling with notable merchants, Olive McKee (John McPhee's high school english teacher), and a couple of the guys whose names I didn't catch, who over the years have been highly visible riding their electric carts around town.

It's the guys chugging around town on electric vehicles that I take my inspiration from, in that I see their mode of transportation as being part of the solution to the tendency of houses to feint. One of the historical society's staff had lost power at 8am, prompting her family to move in with friends for the duration. This shouldn't need to happen, and there needs to be a better option than investing in a generator that will rarely be used.

When I was college aged, my argument with houses was that they were too square, too boxey. Given that in the intervening years they have steadfastly refused to lose their boxiness, I have shifted my concern to how they get energy. Houses essentially make no sense whether they're getting energy or not. When the grid is up, it feeds houses the kind of energy that is destabilizing the climate. When the grid is down, houses are helpless to feed themselves. Either the future or the present suffers. What a lousy choice we're given. When the power goes out in our house, I want to have a low-energy mode it can go into, in which the frig, furnace and internet continue functioning, fed by dual purpose batteries that can drive the electric car day to day and the house during power outages. At those times, the house would automatically shut itself off from the grid, so that none of the electricity would head out to the street where lines are being repaired. A few solar panels would offer some energy to recharge the batteries or to replace some of the grid energy. My research staff--that would be a neighbor and myself--are exploring these sorts of plug and play options.

Walking home from the talk, I saw a bicyclist pedaling up the hill on Linden Lane. On the night following a freezing rain, few, including me, would think to ride their bikes, yet there he was, well dressed, getting where he needed to go, apparently unaware that this wintry world is a terribly harsh and dangerous place. When I was a kid, I'd ride my bike to school in the snow, impressed by the imprint my bicycle tires made in the snow and mud. No need for big machines. Tread was my power. One winter, a freezing rain coated the whole landscape with ice. It was the one and only time I was able to skate to school. That was the best, especially skating downhill.

I arrived home to find the dog needed a walk, and so we headed out while the workmen continued their work down the street. The latest form of precipitation was not coming from the sky, but instead took the form of ice cubes that a feint breeze was causing to fall in earnest from the ice-coated trees. They made shimmering sounds on the pavement when a tree released many shards at a time, but felt cold and mischievous when one fell down the back of my neck. Leo was not going to settle for a perfunctory walk. When I headed left to circle around the block, he stayed behind at the curb, resolute, looking hard at me like a major league pitcher shaking off a signal from the catcher. Why settle for a fastball when he was game for a slider all the way down Clearview. Not that he was going to find much of interest. Snow in a dog's world must be like giving an Etch a Sketch a good shake. All past communications are erased. He was undeterred, however, and immediately set about beginning anew what seems like a meaningful correspondence with the neighborhood canine penpals.

The new layer of ice fragments landing on the snow glistened in the street light. If it were all broken crystal, it would be a great tragedy. But nature creates crystalline beauty, then dismantles it with complete nonchalance, ever restless to make something new, sure of her bottomless talent to combine and recombine, never making anything quite the same way twice.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Flame Logic in a Wood Stove

While visiting friends out of town, I got a fine tour of the inner workings and intrinsic logic and beauty of a woodstove. Not everyone can have a wood stove, but its pleasures and dependability raise the question: What else are we missing? How else could we gain some freedom from the fossil fuel energy the grid feeds us, and in the process realize a new level of comfort, dependability and peace of mind.

Our home in Princeton came with a 1978 Vermont Castings Vigilant wood stove, which still does a good job, putting out lots of heat and burning cleanly enough that no smoke comes out of the chimney. But newer stoves have more efficient designs, delivering air to the combustion chamber in more sophisticated, strategic ways. Since pollution is caused by uncombusted gases, a well-designed and well-tended wood stove turns those gases into heat before they can become pollution.

Pleasures a Furnace Can't Provide
It begins with the sheer pleasure of having an active, radiant hearth in the living room, of sitting with family in the evening, talking of the day and basking in its warmth and glow. Our older stove, by contrast, lacks the glass front and so provides warmth but no glow.

Then there's the more technical aspects, which also have an aesthetic dimension. There's pleasure, for instance, in tending a fire and getting it to burn as cleanly as possible, particularly if one lives in a neighborhood with lots of houses around. The fire in this photo is burning the actual wood, my friend tells me. You can see that the flame is close to the wood itself.

If he gets the fire hot enough, then turns off all the air into the fire except what comes out of small holes at the top of the chamber, the fire burns not the wood but the gases cooked out of it by the high temperature. You can see that the flames appear to be suspended in air rather than rising from the wood itself.

A closeup of those rows of airholes show an effect more like a gas stove, with jets of flame seeming to shoot out of the airholes themselves. The more thorough the combustion, the fewer pollutants head up the chimney.

The stove is part metal, part soapstone. Water in the teapot humidifies the air, and the flat top works for cooking soup.

Its slim profile owes to it not having a catalytic element inside, which requires more room in the back of the stove to protect the catalytic element from direct contact with flames. Though a catalyst can help combust gases that might otherwise go up the flu, it's possible to meet EPA standards without it.

Vital Ingredient: T.L.C.
No matter how good the design, though, burning wood cleanly depends on the owner supplying dry, well-cured wood and making sure the fire's getting enough air. EPA can set standards for design, but it's tender loving care that determines whether the stove performs up to those standards.

Benefits of Integrating Grid and Off-the-Grid
Being a country-city person, a nature enthusiast who plays urban jazz, I like the idea of a fusion lifestyle, finding ways for the town's grid and the country's off-the-grid elements to complement each other.

Particularly during a power outage, one of which we just had this morning in New Jersey, a wood stove brings a sense of empowerment and peace of mind, providing a backup for the furnace and the cooking range. What is taking longer to figure out is how to develop a similar complement to the electric power grid. For some, that means buying a generator, either gasoline or natural gas. Not having a basement flooding issue or other critical energy needs, I'm looking for a system that would help meet ongoing energy needs, not just during energy outages. That will likely be some combination of a few solar panels and an electric vehicle with batteries that could be used both for short trips and powering the house in low-energy mode during power outages. The ongoing improvements in batteries, "plug and play" solar panels, and electric vehicle technology show promise for putting such a system together.

Note: A maker of soapstone stoves won the Wood Stove Decathlon, which took place on the National Mall this past November. The winning stove was chosen based on "efficiency, cleanliness, consumer appeal and price."

Woodstoves--Making Heat and Making Sense

A wood stove is at its best on a snowy afternoon. In winter's chill, it attracts all heat-seeking souls with its radiance. Quietly, with no moving parts, it warms daughter and our canine version of Leo the Lion, thaws out chilled feet and a frozen watering can for the chickens, all the while heating water to humidify the air and somehow broadcasting its beneficence to the far reaches of the house. It would cook dinner if anyone thought to ask.

But just beyond the woodstove's island of sanity, life is not making as much sense. The man's socks, for instance, don't actually match, nor do the seven other socks he found in the drawer.

During the housewide search that ensued, the man managed to find only two matching socks, which perhaps due to one's accidental trip through the dryer had lost their parity and felt a little funny on the feet.

Outside, the ducks are in a similar quandary. Winter has done something strange to their favorite pond. Their feet too are ill-equiped, lacking ice skates.

Once one has experienced the radiance and simplicity of a woodstove, it's hard to understand why the modern world largely turned its back on radiance, in favor of complicated machinery that at least in our house exhales tepid, often too-dry air through a labyrinth of heating ducts, warming all but satisfying none. (Sealing and insulating the ducts one of these days will surely improve the situation.)

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Drive an ELF, Bikemobile of the Future

Have you been wondering when and if the future will ever come? The future here referred to is the one where we aren't forced to choose between driving climate changing cars or riding bikes in a downpour.

Well, meet the ELF, which is basically a bike with a roof, cargo space, electric assist and rearview mirrors. It weighs in at 150 pounds, has two wheels in the front,

one wheel in the back.

It seats one,

carries cargo,

and goes fifteen miles on a battery charge.

The battery can be charged two ways: by the built in solar panel, which takes about seven hours,

or by taking the battery inside and plugging it in. I'm particularly interested in whether the battery, or batteries, rechargeable by solar panels, could be used to run the house in low-energy mode during a power outage. That way, the same purchase that provides energy when the grid is down would also have ongoing use for transportation.

One of the more interesting aspects of this carcycle, or bikeamobile, is that it's made not in Detroit, or Japan, or China,

but in Durham, North Carolina. That's where I heard about it during a recent visit, and was offered a test ride. This particular unit is owned by the president of a nonprofit watershed association I founded while living down there back in the 90s. Jerry Seinfeld is an enthusiastic supporter of the technology.

Top speed is around 25mph, and you can add additional batteries for longer trips. Whether it's classified as a bicycle or something else depends on where you live. In Durham, at least, it's considered a bicycle and no license is required. Much more info at One of the articles written about it can be found here. The founder, Rob Cotter, offers us his vision in a TedX presentation.

Eyes on the Dinky

A lot of eyes have been on the Dinky in recent years, scrutinizing and questioning every step in the transformation of the Dinky station area by the university.

Personally, as someone very active in calling for Princeton to be an example for state and nation by shifting much more rapidly towards a more sustainable path, I found it hard to engage with the Dinky issue. It threatened to, and often did, suck oxygen out of many other pressing issues in town.

While many saw the extension of rail to Nassau Street as an important goal, I saw the potential gains in sustainability as being more symbolic than substantive. Nassau Street is already congested. The Dinky would have to power its considerable weight up a fairly steep slope to get there. And the challenge of getting the Dinky to run more frequently is made all the more difficult if it must travel farther, and in more congested terrain.

Despite a great deal of news coverage, many people are still unclear on where the new Dinky station will be built. Photos make distances seem greater, but they'll at least help with some orientation. In this photo, the current Dinky station buildings are on the right. The new station will be the oft-mentioned 460 feet away, at the near corner of the parking garage that can be seen down and to the left.

Looking up from the current, temporary Dinky station, you can see the parking garage in the middle of the photo, with McCarter Theater up on the left. The station will be to the left of the parking garage, at the uphill end.

Moving the Dinky station will allow the garage to be easily accessed from Alexander St. Though it seems mundane to shift the Dinky station downhill in part to improve access to a parking garage, passionate ideals like sustainability can only be realized through a lot of seemingly mundane actions. Reducing the distance people need to drive to get to their parking spot has a big impact over time. And the benefit is not only to university employees but to the public as well. The university parking garage is open and free to the public except during weekday working hours.

Though the stations and canopy were a beautiful and historic setting for the train station, and I wish a way could have been found to relocate the canopy if it couldn't stay in place, the buildings were not much used. The building on the right was open on a limited basis for commuters, but otherwise empty. The other building, next to where the Dinky stopped, had a small office that the engineer would disappear into. Another portion of it, according to a train employee, had been fitted with a mock dorm room that the university would show to prospective students.

In the future, the buildings will be used much more intensively, one as a restaurant, the other as a cafe, particularly by patrons spilling out of McCarter Theater after a show. A similar repurposing was done long ago in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the old train station was made into a restaurant called the Gandy Dancer. With the WaWa to be moved right next to the new train station, Dinky users will no longer need to walk half a block from the station to get a cup of coffee.

The transformation of the intersection of Alexander Street and University Place, from stop light to roundabout, has been slowed by the winter cold snap, but is due to open soon. At that point, we'll find out whether nightmare predictions of traffigeddon will come true, or if it will move traffic more efficiently than the stoplight it is replacing.

Back in April, 2007, I got the brilliant but, alas, naive idea that if everyone could agree on the basic facts of moving the Dinky, there would be much less contentiousness, and even the beginnings of agreement on what to do. Below is a letter I had published in TownTopics, augmented by a QandA published previously on this website. At this point in the process, with a one-way sign pointing towards Arts and Transit, they mostly serve archival purposes.

Look at the University’s Proposed Arts and Transit Plan as a Whole

To the Editor:
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 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 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 St. has symbolic power, even with more downtown density most Princetonians would still live well beyond the ten minutes people are supposedly willing to walk to a train stop.

It’s important that we defend traditions and dream of an even better town. 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

Update, June 29: As part of the agreement to move the Dinky station, a lot of money will be devoted to studying and presumably implementing a better means of getting people to and from the new Dinky station. Even as a supporter of the concept of mass transportation, I find the emphasis on buses/shuttles to be risky. What if we end up with little more than an expansion of the current situation, with mostly empty shuttles driving around town? 

People are habituated to jumping in a car and heading directly to their destination. Breaking that habit won't be easy, and it's not particularly efficient for a heavy shuttle to be hauling people on roundabout journeys to places likely still distant from where they really want to go. The future remains a puzzle with stubbornly elusive pieces, but here are a few prototypes: 
  • Capital Bikeshare is a program in Washington, D.C., that's being well-received. Users pay $75/year for access to bikes stationed all over the city. Manhattan has a similar program just starting up, and Seville, Spain had a popular bike rental program when I visited in 2007.  
  • Building on the bikeshare concept is a fleet of foldable minicars developed by MIT, that can carry two people around town, fold into compact rows, and would be available at the swipe of a credit card. 
Update, March 23: Information on a website encouraging people to sign a petition not to move the Dinky is a bit misleading. In particular, in the "Why This is Important" section, contention #8 states: "The University argues that the station needs to be moved in order to create access to Lot #7 Garage, which is already full."  This completely misses the point of improving access to Lot 7, which is to shorten the drive needed to access it. Reduced miles driven by employees and towns people alike will make the new configuration more "sustainable" than what currently exists. Since the university's Lot 7 is free and open to the public after working hours and on weekends, the improved access, and having the station closer to the parking garage, will improve convenience for many Princetonians who do not live within walking distance of both the current and future Dinky stations.

Update, Jan. 24, 2012: Twice in a week, in discussions with friends about the moving of the Dinky station, I had to point out that the station is not being moved all the way down to Faculty Drive, but only 460 feet (not yards). This made them feel much better about the move. It's great to have discussions where people are able to modify their views in the face of new understanding. Two people is a small sampling, but it does point to the possibility that many people remain confused about basic facts on the issue. A map of the Arts and Transit Neighborhood design can be found here, though it doesn't show Faculty Drive, which is far down from where the new station will be.

Update, Jan/2012: I compiled this information about a year ago in the hopes that some agreement could at least be reached about the underlying facts of a highly controversial issue. What I found is that emotions were running very high, and that very strong opinions tend to block out consideration of contradicting information. There is some very deep resentment of the university, particularly in neighborhoods that border it and fear its encroachment. The proposed moving of the station also takes it and the Wawa grocery store out of the borough and into the township, meaning a loss of tax revenue for the borough. Though there are many sustainable features about the University's proposed development, opponents tended to judge its sustainability value solely on whether the train tracks would ever reach Nassau St.. Describing all the unsustainable aspects of extending the tracks up to Nassau (see letter) proved futile. Still, it was worth a try.

--compiled March, 2011

To my knowledge, there has been no previous attempt to gather information relevant to the Dinky's future and the university proposal in a reasonably concentrated form that would help people get up to speed on the issue. Controversy can sometimes be reduced if people of varying views can agree on underlying facts. What follows by no means answers all questions, and I would appreciate any suggestions for additional questions and answers.

The following information was gleaned from Princeton Future’s website, several articles in the Town Topics, and Princeton University's website. Thanks in particular to Princeton Future for making available full transcripts of public meetings about the proposed development. Links to the full texts are provided below. 

1) Below are selected questions and (primarily university) answers regarding the Dinky (mostly excerpted, with permission, from a 11.13.10 meeting of Princeton Future).

Q: How long have discussions been going on about the arts/transit center?
A: Plans have been in the works for 4 years. The last two years, there have been some significant conversations that have occurred in public. -- Kevin Wilkes AIA, Borough Council, PU ’83

Q: Why does the university want to locate the $300 million arts center next to the Dinky station instead of at 185 Nassau (some community members are suggesting this as an alternative site)?
A: The location. One of the things that drives the university’s planning for the arts is that it should in fact be well distributed throughout the campus. 185 (Nassau) will continue to be a major center for the arts. As would Intime, as would Richardson, as would Taplin, as would the Art Museum and other locations around the campus. What drives this is the growing synergies over time, particularly theater, dance, McCarter and Berlind. So being adjacent to McCarter and Berlind is a real attraction. And it brings in to this part of campus (the Dinky terminus), which is a part of campus where 2 things happen that are really helpful: 1. Lots of students live in this part of campus. So getting them in and out of this space is attractive. And it is an easy place for members of the community to get to. So that is why it is there.  – Bob Durkee, Secretary, VP Public Affairs, Princeton University ‘69

Q: How many people ride the Dinky on an average day?
A: From New Jersey Transit, we have a current estimate of 2045 daily riders on the Dinky. We would like this (arts/transit center) project to increase that ridership because of the amenities. The all-important Wawa has 2600 daily customers. -- Ron McCoy FAIA, Princeton University
A: In 2010, according to NJ Transit data received by the borough, there were 613,500 trips on the Dinky, which works out to 1680 per day. The same document said there were 2210 daily trips. (The search for truth continues.)

Q: How much is the Dinky subsidized by the state of New Jersey?
A: Quotes (without any clear basis) have varied from $4/ride to $8/ride. The borough recently asked NJ Transit for more accurate numbers, and were told that the annual operating deficit is $822,000. Divided by 613,000 trips in 2010, that comes to about $1.30/ride. The NJ Transit info also mentioned $3.9 million in capital improvement costs, and it's not clear if those were factored in.
        Reducing the need for state subsidy by increasing ridership and, perhaps at some point, reducing operating costs by switching to a lightrail system, is an important goal of both the university and the community, with consequences for the Dinky's longterm sustainability. -- Editor

Q: Why does the university want to move the Dinky station away from its current location on a public street (University Place)?
A:  We asked (the consultants) if there was a way to make this work with the Dinky Terminus where it is. Their answer is “no”. You can’t get access into the (Lot 7 parking) garage. You can’t keep the parking as close as you need to keep it. You can’t keep the Wawa close to the station. You can’t meet all of the needs you need to meet in terms of traffic and circulation. ….. We have no desire to move it for the sake of moving it. We also asked them whether we could do it with the roundabout to the south….They came back and said it doesn’t solve the problem. We have over the course of time looked at lots and lots of different models. The terminus is a magnet. Things that go with it: parking, Wawa, drop offs, shuttle connections and all of that. If you have to keep all of those things with it, you have to put it in a place where that can happen. If you leave it where it is, you more or less have to leave the site the way it is. -- Bob Durkee, PU

A2: One of the reasons we have congestion here now is that we have all modes of
transportation: buses, taxis, cars, Wawa, pedestrians, bikes. They are all attached to the terminus of the Dinky. (at University Place) The best way to describe it is “The train is like a magnet”. If you move the terminus of the train into a dedicated transit plaza (as proposed), then you move all of those other things with it. So they are now located in the transit plaza along with metered parking and commuter parking. So all of that gets off the public street. So the public street moves quicker and faster. …. We would provide all of the parking that is currently provided. And we would give the riders an attractive public space with art venues. It will be a multi-modal space and this shows the ability to connect to structure 7(parking garage). This structure will then provide parking for McCarter evening performances. -- Ron McCoy FAIA, Princeton University

Q: Moving the Dinky 460 feet down the hill would increase walking time from town by 2 minutes. How many non-university Dinky riders would this affect?
A: Princeton University reportedly conducted a survey in October 2006 about East-bound Dinky ridership on a Tuesday and Wednesday. Combined results were roughly 45% walked, 30% drove, 10% were dropped off, and 5% rode bikes. (doesn’t add up to 100%, but close enough) If 40% of ridership is university people walking to the Dinky (according to more recent data), that leaves only 5% of ridership being non-university walkers currently.

Q: Why does the university object to putting the Dinky tracks underground so that the tracks would not interfere with the proposed arts center?
A: The question whether it really makes sense to have the entry experience into Princeton be an underground one. For us that doesn’t feel like something that would be appealing to Dinky riders. It raises issues of safety. We have taken it seriously. We have done some work to figure out what it would cost. It is $60-80 million dollars to try to do that. I don’t think anyone has that kind of money to put into the creation of a tunnel and an underground station. I understand the motivation. It strikes me as one of those things that in time, people would really wonder why a community of this size, with the number of people coming in late at night would really want to come out into an underground location. -- Bob Durkee

Q: Is the moving of the Dinky station 460 feet south inevitable? 
A: From a March 30, 2011 Town Topics article: Even if the municipalities did not approve the zoning changes requested by Princeton University to build its proposed Arts and Transit Neighborhood at the intersection of University Place and Alexander Road, the Dinky terminus will still likely move farther away from downtown Princeton. In a letter to University Vice President and Secretary Bob Durkee dated March 25, New Jersey Transit Executive Director James Weinstein explained that his organization had “no objection” to the “University’s interest in moving the borough terminus station of the Princeton Shuttle Line (the Dinky station) some 460 feet southward.” Mr. Weinstein’s letter reads, “It is my understanding that such a move was specifically contemplated in the October 30, 1984 agreement of sale between NJ Transit and the University for the station property.”

Q: Does the university see future alternatives to the Dinky?
A: What seems to us … promising is to think about, whether over time, the existing Dinky technology could be replaced with something more like light rail…a way to extend the life of rail service into Princeton for a much longer period of time. And it would have a. the advantage of reducing operating costs, and b. creating the possibility that over time, you could have a second stop in West Windsor. That has some attraction because it might keep out some of the car traffic that comes in here. We have also been exploring that idea and it is one that is really worth doing something about. --university rep

Q: Does currently available parking for the Dinky meet the demand, and has building a garage structure somewhere in the vicinity of the current Dinky station been considered?
A: In the short run, “No”. The thinking about parking in this area really began with “Could we provide the parking that is needed for people who want to park and use the Dinky? Could we provide the parking needed for the new Arts venues? The amount of space that is now available in the permit lot and in the metered lot seems to be meeting the need. The waiting list to get a permit is about 2-3 months. There are meters available every day when we check. There seems to be enough parking for now. –Bob Durkee, PU

Q: How much does the Dinky cost taxpayers?
A: Though the figure of $8,000/day in state subsidies has been reported, the recent data obtained from NJ Transit by Princeton borough puts the operating deficit at $2250/day. Again, it's not clear if the "operating" deficit includes all costs.- Editor

Q: What are some aspects to consider when proposing an extension of rail service up to Princeton's business district on Nassau Street?
A: A train stop on Nassau Street would have strong symbolic value, bringing together two great Princeton traditions--its downtown and the Dinky--and making it easier for some to walk to the train stop. There are potential downsides, however, that must be examined to determine the idea's overall impact on sustainability and ridership. If extended to Nassau, 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. 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. -- writer of this blog

Q: Could rail service be extended to Nassau St. later on, even if the university is allowed to build its Arts and Transit Neighborhood as proposed?
A: Yes, by routing the tracks over to Alexander, then up. -- recent conversation with a University official

2) The following description of benefits of the university design for the Arts and Transit Neighborhood is excerpted from the Princeton University powerpoint presented at a Joint Meeting of Borough Council and Township Committee January 31, 2011.

Relieving Congestion
Roundabout improves traffic flow.
Purpose-designed space provides a multi-modal hub for shuttles, jitneys, buses, taxis, bikes.
Provides safer pedestrian crossings.
Separates conflicts and moves them off the main corridor.
Deliveries from campus: all fronts, no backs.
Provides easy access and safe Wawa parking.
Allows direct access to/from Lot 7 garage saving 350 vehicle miles per day and reducing north-bound traffic entering Alexander at Faculty.
Provides bike lanes and storage
Replaces all existing parking in-kind.

Access to Lot 7 Garage
•Convenient access benefits arts patrons & neighborhood visitors.
•Reduces vehicle miles traveled by 350 miles per day –reduces pollution, saves fuel, saves time.
•Reduces traffic on Faculty Road.
•Relieves congestion at Faculty Road/Alexander Street intersection.

Preserve/Enhance the Dinky Experience
New heated/air conditioned station with restrooms, Wawa, bike amenities.
Easy drop off/pick up.
Easy access to shuttles, jitney, taxis.
Convenient parking: permit and daily.
Dinky riders provided with attractive public spaces, retail, and arts venues.
University support for a more extensive public transit linkage with the Dinky.
Arts, retail, and lower Alexander residential use may attract additional Dinky use.

Dinky Ridership
About 40% of Dinky riders are affiliated with the University; additional riders are attending University meetings or events.
Unaffiliated riders get to the Dinky by driving themselves, being driven by others, using public transit, biking, and walking.
The walk from Nassau Street to the current station via the Wawa is longer than the walk to the proposed new station with the Wawa in it.
Future development along Alexander in the Township would add new riders from the south.

Already a Public Space
175,000 annual McCarter patrons.
2,045 daily transit rides.
2,600 daily Wawa customers.
1,050 daily customers at new restaurants.
150-250 average evening patrons of new arts venues, approximately 50 performances a year (first phase).
Unknown number of summer performance participants and patrons -indoor and outdoor spaces.
Special event participants, e.g. McCarter gala.
160-290 housing unit capacity south on Alexander.
600 current residents within a 5-minute walk.

Enhance the Dinky experience (new station in an attractive setting with Wawa incorporated, convenient drop-off/pick-up and parking, connection with shuttles and jitney, bike access and storage).
Direct access to Lot 7 reduces vehicle miles traveled by 350 per day.
Extensive landscaping; existing area is predominantly surface parking lots, roofs, and impervious surfaces that tax stormwater infrastructure and create heat island effect.
First phase buildings include geothermal heating and cooling; green roofs; grey water recycling; solar panels; etc.

Greening the Neighborhood
•Increased landscaping and greenspace replace paving.
•Green roofs, bio-filtration swales, and stormwater harvesting.
•Alternative energy: geothermal wells and photovoltaic panels.
•Direct access to Lot 7 garage reduces vehicular miles traveled by 350.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Skating Here Today (Saturday, 2/1/14), Gone Tomorrow

If you want to skate on Carnegie Lake or the pond at Community Park North, you better race on down there. Warming weather will bring the red flag out at dusk today.

From an email sent out by Princeton Public Schools:
 Princeton Recreation Department, Ice Skating Update: February 2, 2014
As of dusk today (2/1/14), all locations will be closed for skating until further notice due to rising temperatures.
Red flag = NOT SAFE
White flag = SAFE
For the most up to date information on ice skating, please call 609-688-2054 or follow the Princeton Recreation Department on Faceboook and/or Twitter.