Sunday, February 02, 2014

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.


SFB said...

The impact on transit use from the Dinky relocation will be slight, but the proposed sustainability benefits are extremely dubious. Improving access to a parking garage only underscores a commitment to single-passenger vehicles as a commute mode. The University could and should have routed the Dinky to Palmer Square underground. As transportation is the biggest source of carbon emissions in Princeton, and global warming is the greatest threat to sustainability, it is quite clearly a 'pressing' issue.

Stephen Hiltner said...

How much fossil fuel will be used to dig 0.4 miles through bedrock to reach Palmer Square? Might that immense expense be better directed to other measures to reduce fossil fuel energy use? How will lengthening the Dinky route affect its ability to connect with trains on the main line?

SFB said...

Using fossil fuels to construct infrastructure that enables carbon-lite mass transit seems much more like something to celebrate than creating a new access road to a multi-level garage. The British and French dug under 15 miles of seabed to build a rail tunnel, the Swiss manage to bore through entire mountains and I never heard anybody say it was a bad idea for sustainability. Anyway, the fact that the project is not happening does not mean that an equivalent expense will be directed toward other measures to reduce fossil energy use. The exact sum that has been dedicated for other transit measures is $500,000, which is not enough to make a substantial difference to transit use. When it comes to lengthening the Dinky route, the only way to do it effectively was within its own right of way. The Arts and Transit construction will force any future extension to take a more circuitous route and compete for road space with existing traffic. That will make the benefits of the extension less impressive, and reduce the chance of it ever getting funded. As things stand, the Arts and Transit construction is going to make Princeton more car-dependent and more reliant on fossil fuels. I don't think the town could have done much about it to be honest, but it's still a missed opportunity.

Stephen Hiltner said...

Again, when being highly critical of the decision to move the Dinky, it's really important to direct a similar skepticism and critique towards the proposed alternatives. How costly and fuel-intensive is digging a tunnel? Is it even possible to dig through bedrock underneath a university? What's the gain, and would the lengthened route defeat efforts to have the Dinky run more frequently? And how well can mass transit serve a spread-out community of people conditioned to go directly where they want to go whenever they want to? The Dinky station issue is essentially mute at this point, but if even a small amount of the criticism people direct outward was instead diverted towards self-reflection and vetting one's own ideas, public discourse in Princeton and elsewhere would be much more productive.