My first summer in Princeton, seven years ago, I set off on foot exploring my new Littlebrook neighborhood with my 5, 3 and (nearly) 1-year-old children in tow. Smoyer Park seemed made for our crew with its playground, open fields and walking path. It turned out, quite literally, to not be a walk in the park for long, however, as the pathway out of the Smoyer Park shoots pedestrians like us onto a narrow section of Snowden Lane with no sidewalk and moreover no shoulder for pedestrians to step into. As oncoming cars approached at the speed limit of 35 mph, I mentally weighed my escape options of either rolling my double-wide stroller into the ditch or standing my ground and praying for attentive drivers to notice and swerve.
Lesson learned. I stopped walking the stretch of Snowden Lane from Van Dyke Road to Overbrook Drive with small children. I do continue to “run the Snowden gauntlet” myself as it is only a one block gap in the sidewalk from the Smoyer Park pathway until it resumes on Snowden at Overbrook Drive. I am not alone, as there is a steady flow of foot traffic on this route which connects the Littlebrook neighborhood to downtown Princeton, Smoyer Park, the Herrontown Woods, Littlebrook School, Princeton Middle School (PMS) and Princeton High School (PHS).
Snowden Lane is classified by the town as a “minor collector road” meaning it serves to move vehicular traffic from local streets to arterial roads. In other words, it is how Littlebrook residents drive in and out of town. The problem is the overlay of a vehicular “collector road” with a natural pedestrian walking path without any safety precautions in place. Tragically, in Princeton, vehicle-pedestrian collisions have resulted in 3 pedestrian fatalities and 49 pedestrian injuries in Princeton from 2019-2022 according to this Princeton Police Department December 2022 Report. No one wants to see Snowden Lane in these statistics, but many fear that it is only a matter of time under the current design. The time is now to be proactive and preventative.
Vehicular traffic on Snowden is the highest during the morning and evening commute. Of course, this is also the time children and teenagers are using (or would like to use) Snowden Lane to commute to and from Littlebrook, PMS, and PHS. The 2022 Princeton Mobility Survey asked PHS students how they commuted to and from school. Notably, the route most biked in the whole town by PHS students is eastward on Franklin Ave and connecting to Snowden Lane. The high school students themselves have exceptionally flagged Snowden Lane as dangerous for students of all travel modes (pedestrians, bike and car).
My own children are now 12, 10 and (nearly) 8-years-old. There has been no study to survey how they and their friends would like to commute to school, but the intersection of Snowden Lane and Overbrook Drive is only is 0.5 mile away from Littlebrook and 1.2 miles from PMS on otherwise walkable/bikeable paths to these schools. Parents would like to give their elementary and middle school children the freedom to bike and walk to Littlebrook and PMS but the lack of safe passage along Snowden Lane restricts them from doing so.
Even Einstein could not have foreseen the modern problem of large SUVs + pedestrians on Snowden Lane as he strolled this very path to meet up with friends in the Herrontown Woods. The stone arch footbridge he would have taken on Snowden at Overbrook still stands today beneath the “new” vehicular bridge which functionally replaced it in 1965. This roadway here is frozen in the 1960s though society has changed drastically. Walking down the same block late Sunday morning this past weekend, one would have come upon the scene (pictured here) of an SUV upended in the ditch, with pedestrians and a cyclist stopping to offer assistance to the driver. All this was directly next to a “Sidewalks on Snowden” petition yard sign. Hopefully the small crowd took the time to scan the QR code and sign the petition as they awaited help.
Looking ahead, the Windy Top and Prentice Lane developments bring more households, vehicles and foot traffic to Snowden Lane. And up the road, the residents of the new developments on Terhune ought to be able to safely walk or bike to Smoyer Park or the Herrontown Woods rather than drive. The situation looks to only get more dangerous in the near future.
There is hope, however. The Princeton Council is presently overhauling its 30-year-old Master Plan (please fill out the 5-minute Survey to let your voice be heard). A sidewalk on this portion of Snowden Ln. has been on the existing Master Plan for years, but not yet completed. It will likely stay on the new Master Plan as well. So why hope for change now? One likely element of the new plan is the adoption of a “Vision Zero” policy. The “Zero” means zero pedestrian deaths by vehicles. A key principle of the “Vision Zero” model is that the onus of accidents shifts from roadway users to roadway designers. The city planners can smartly configure/reconfigure our roadways to ensure safety for all road-users. Also boding well for Princeton’s pedestrians, Mayor Mark Freda has recently been selected as a member of the Mayors Institute on Pedestrian Safety, a nationwide cohort of 9 mayors that will meet with national experts this year to discuss pedestrian-safe solutions. Attitudes and awareness towards pedestrian safety are changing for the better in Princeton.
There are surely hurdles that must be overcome to construct a sidewalk. There will be financial costs to the town, for one. Second, the town would have to gain permanent easements from local residents. Local residents no longer have to pay assessments for sidewalks; just as if a street is paved, sidewalks are considered for the common good. Finally, there are protected wetlands in the nearby area that would require consideration and state permits to work nearby. This may take heavy lifting by the town’s engineering department. I have confidence that the town’s engineering department could dream up a solution to serve the community now and into the future.
Earlier this year, we did see progress as the Windy Top development added a shared bike/pedestrian path on Snowden north-eastward towards the Herrontown Woods, though it does dead-end at both sides of the development. This portion of Snowden had also been on the old Master Plan and can now be marked complete. This leaves a smaller (but critical) gap in the sidewalk network along Snowden for the town to complete. Demonstrably, with sufficient funding and motivation, a sidewalk along Snowden has proved feasible.
I am not the only nor the first voice crying for change. Steve Hiltner, President of The Friends of the Herrontown Woods has been advocating for a walking/biking path along Snowden Lane long before I came to town. His suggestion is that the historic footbridge “be preserved, repaired, and used as part of a bike/pedestrian route to give the Littlebrook neighborhood safe access to Smoyer Park and Herrontown Woods.”
Another, quicker, suggestion put forth is to add “Advisory Bike Lanes” to Snowden Lane (as on College Road) to make the road safer for cyclists. The implementation would be a matter of striping and signage. Advisory bike lanes define a preferred space for bicyclists but do not prohibit motor vehicle use, as do dedicated bike lanes. They are deemed appropriate for narrow streets with low to moderate vehicular usage. Based on past traffic volume data, the volume of traffic on Snowden Ln. would just fall under the maximum recommended threshold.
Whatever the ultimate solution looks like, safety on Snowden is not an impossibility, but it will take determination by Princeton residents, Council members and Mayor Freda. We must consider whether Princeton can expect to reach the “Vision Zero” ideals without some heavy lifting along the way. To date, more than 400 people have signed the Sidewalk on Snowden Petition and are in agreement that a sidewalk on Snowden makes good sense and is worth the effort. The petition has already received the support of the Friends of the Herrontown Woods, Walkable Princeton and many other neighbors and leaders in the community. Residents who feel the same are urged to sign this petition so that in the not-too-distant future, we can safely explore to Smoyer Park and beyond.
Kristi Cole has been a Princeton resident for 7 years, where she and her husband, Kevin, are raising their three school-aged children plus Scout the dog. She values the Princeton community dearly and serves it as a volunteer with the Littlebrook PTO, Stone Hill Church of Princeton and as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) of Mercer County.