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Part 1: Mark Baumer Reflection: Impounding Vehicles & Immigrant Rights

This is part of a multi-part reflection I've been doing following the death of my friend, Mark Baumer . There's nothing graphic i...

Small State Democracy

A state senator in Rhode Island represents fewer people than a city councilor in Philadelphia. Here, Councilman Bryan Principe of the West End's Ward 14 tours the 6/10 Connector. Should Philadelphia be able to lead highway-removal campaigns in its boundaries? Sure should-- especially since the major designer of the Schuylkill Expressway, Edmund Bacon*, described it as one of his failures in life. But will Philly? Probably not. As tough as the 6/10 Connector campaign was in Rhode Island, the smallness of its political units made it much  more likely to get a campaign even going. God bless the person who finally gets Philly off its urbanist laurels, because whoever does has a great city to work with.
Readers of this blog, who know that my theme is complaining bitterly about how behind our city and state are, will be shocked-- SHOCKED, I say-- to find me warmly regarding the Ocean State's political system as I make way for a return to Philadelphia. There are a lot of things that Philadelphia is ahead on, and I make use of my home city to push that point often, but in a lot of ways Philly and Providence are both cities that are stuck inside themselves and unwilling to think big (maybe I'll move home and find that that's changed, but it's certainly how I remember it). Philadelphia has one of the better transit systems in the country and is the #1 biking city over a million in the U.S., but like Providence (and Rhode Island generally) is resting on its laurels.

But more than that, what I fear about moving back to Philly is the city/state dynamic. Lord knows the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations is not kind to Providence-- just look at the environmental racism that motivated Governor Raimondo's White-Citizens-Council-like stand on the 6/10 Connector-- but by contrast with Pennsylvania, Rhode Island as a state is quite cozy with its largest city. If all of Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh excluded, possibly-- but possibly not?) could pass a law saying that Philadelphia had to join New Jersey, they would. 

Why is it that Philadelphia (and increasingly Pittsburgh) are such progressive hubs, but the state of Pennsylvania is such a regressive dumpster fire of scary Pennsyltucky racism and exclusion? Some of it is demographics-- there just are yuge (pardon me, the Philly is kicking back in) parts of the Commonwealth (yeah, Pennsylvania is a commonwealth) that are expansive tracts of white ruralness. But part of it is that the districts that Pennsylvania pols have are so much larger than in Rhode Island, that political leaders of any stripe or any political flavor are less accountable to local activism.


So take someone like Philadelphia's City Council President Darrel Clarke. Clarke has been around on the council a long time, and his big project seems to be trying to tear apart what urban advantages Philadelphia has. I'm sure that as I'm moving back to the edge of District 5  into District 7 that I'm going to find myself eventually crossing swords with this guy. His attempts to subsidize his own driving in a district that has very low car ownership in a city that should be chasing transit and biking make housing in the city less affordable and assure that Philadelphia will fail to meet its climate and equity goals. But what if I wanted to challenge Clarke on that? What would that look like?


Philadelphia has 17 council people (10 that serve specific districts, and 7 that are at-large). For a city the size of the Narragansett Bay that has 70% more people than Rhode Island as a whole, that's a very large swath of people being represented by just one person. You take the 1.6 million people of Philadelphia and divide that by 17, and you get just shy of 100,000 people. And if you just divide by the geography-specific councilpeople-- ten of 'em-- you get basically a Providence-sized district that is represented by a single city council person. 

Contrast that to Providence, which has 15 city councilors: You take 170,000 people and divide that by 15 and get just a bit over 11,000 people. There are probably some block captains in Philadelphia with more (unelected) power than that. 

As a young person who was intensely political, I voted in all the local elections. But through my years at Temple University, and even as a West Philly neighborhood activist, I had little sense of what really mattered in local politics. I see some of that here in Rhode Island as well. Certainly, because Pennsylvania is a swing-state, there was an intense push to get college-aged kids to vote. I could stumble out of the Broad Street Line and get accosted (yes, accosted seems the right word) by three or four people to get me to register before I made it a block from the station. The seeming lack of effect that a Rhode Island vote can have on anything national probably results in a lot of disengagement from city politics from the Renaissance City's tens of thousands of students. And yet you look at the results of activism and there are a lot of things to be envied: the Community Safety Act is a herald of incredible activist strength in Providence, and makes us a leader nationwide. Would that happen in Philadelphia (Well, there is this to be encouraged about. . .). Not sure.

At the state level, one's ability to challenge leaders to do anything is also much more limited in Pennsylvania. I've been to Harrisburg a few times in my life-- one of the things I remember was marching to end the death penalty in freshman year of college, and though there is a moratorium on death sentences, that still has not happened (!). But I can't count how many times I've been to the Statehouse here. When I walk down the Statehouse hallway, there's a pretty damn good chance someone in a major position of power is going to say, "Oh, hi James." And while I like to comfort my ego by saying that that's because I'm some kind of hot-shot extraordinaire, it's not really true. It's a result of having a state capital that is highly accessible to the whole population, and of having government processes that are relatively open. Pennsylvania would be so lucky.


Take a look at how many people a state senator has to represent in Pennsylvania vs. Rhode Island:


In Pennsylvania, you have 50 state senators, representing 13 million people. That's more than a quarter million per senator. 

For Rhode Island to have that many people per senator, it would have to have a state senate of just 4 people. It has 38 state senators, so they actually represent just a tenth of that.

Even with large districts, in Pennsylvania there's a sense in which certain urban districts allow a person to get out on foot and door-knock their way to fame. When I lived in Philly the big potential upset seemed to be maybe getting one Green Party activist for state rep. (representing close to 70,000 people). It came close, due to the heowme-spun Philly charm of the candidate (Oh, Lord! The accent!) but ultimately it failed. Whereas here, in Rhode Island, I get some serious interest in the issues I represent even from some Republicans, because despite being far outside of anyplace I could vote in, there's a sense of statewide cohesion and vulnerability to statewide bad press that motivates bipartisanship. The fact that Rhode Islanders keep wishing me well "in Pennsylvania" strikes me as odd, because I have never in my life ever identified myself as a "Pennsylvanian" as if that were a thing. I say I'm from Philly, or maybe from Delco, and people from Scranton or Pittsburgh or Altoona or Lancaster all do the same. And they should-- I ain't got nothin' in common with those Midwesterners out in Pittsburgh. They should go join Ohio. :-P 

So Rhode Island, as usual I got a lot to kvetch about when it comes to your political system, but I will miss your small wards and districts. I wouldn't have had so many extended conversations with the two front-runners of my city council ward if not for that (but Darrel Clarke, look out! That parking promotion's gotta' stop!).

~~~~
*Kevin Bacon's dad! Yeah, get your six-degrees of Kevin Bacon going! 


Transport Providence Conditionally Endorses Mark Santow

Update: After getting a call from candidate Nirva LaFortune and having extended discussion with her about her transportation and land use influences (Philly, Portland, Denver), I waffled considerably back and forth between Santow and LaFortune and finally decided to vote for LaFortune.

What this came down to for me was a feeling that, though less specific, Nirva had shown considerable interest in the issues that animate our blog and had assured me that her values were with us on the same issues. I do think Santow performed more strongly on the issues than LaFortune, but not enough to overcome my feeling that Providence deserves a more gender/race-diverse council.

But now that Nirva has won the primary and is a shoe-in for the general election, what you can do is follow up with her and remind her how important these issues are. I think with the right organizing and pressure, Nirva will shine and lead the council on this list of priorities, just as Mark would, and I'm even hopeful to use her Philly experiences to pressure Philadelphia in a positive direction too.

Transport Providence is endorsing Mark Santow, with some reservations.

As urbanists, people who care about climate change, social justice, and responsive government, it seems pretty clear that the two candidates to consider strongly are Nirva LaFortune and Mark Santow. Both candidates express a similar constellation of values. It was actually my expectation that by the end of the campaign cycle, both Santow and LaFortune would distinguish themselves fairly equally as candidates, and that the tie-breaker would be the added experience of LaFortune's having grown up as an immigrant Haitian woman in South Providence. While these factors still feel incredibly strong and weigh heavily as a counterweight on the blog's endorsement, and while Transport Providence feels enthusiastically that Nirva would make an excellent city councilperson, only Mark Santow has returned our survey, and his responses are frankly very strong. The ideas he espouses-- broad reform of zoning, protected bike lanes on major avenues, free transit for all, highway removal, parking reform, aggressive affordable housing policy-- are ones we hope that LaFortune campaign would also endorse, but we've only heard them explicitly from Santow. These would be transformational changes, and transformation is what the city needs right now.

Transport Providence did not issue an official deadline for submission, though of all the candidates our blog has personally interacted with LaFortune the most often and has certainly made it clear that we'd like to hear from her. It feels unfair to close the door on a future submission, though the primary on July 12th is growing so close as to make it critical for readers to have the time to sort through the answers before making a decision. We welcome a submission from the LaFortune campaign, and because of the strong need to include women, people-of-color, and immigrants in the city government, have to keep open the possibility that we might change our allegiance in the future. However, it simply does not make sense as a blog to issue a questionnaire, get just one (very strong) response from one candidate, and not offer the backing to that candidate. It would make a mockery of the process of filling out the questionnaire.

Who Not to Vote for is Even Clearer than Who to Vote For
Neither candidates Dan Chaika or David Lallier have even responded to numerous requests for the questionnaire. Transport Providence was intrigued by Chaika's statement in a Go Local Prov interview that he opposed getting rid of the car tax, but has not found anything especially inspiring about his campaign beyond that that rises to the level of Santow or LaFortune. Lallier has run his campaign on opposition to the recently-passed Community Safety Act, which Transport Providence feels will be an important part of continuing to expand racial justice in our city. Candidate Chris Reynolds, while actually himself a cyclist, has disqualified himself completely from consideration because of his racially-charged comments at the most recent debate.

Vote Splitting? A Consideration for Santow and LaFortune to Go Over
And so either LaFortune or Santow would make good candidates, but our endorsement goes to Santow. As a blog, it does seem clearly observable that many of the people who want to vote for one or the other or those two candidates come from the same value set, and so if either Santow or LaFortune intend to win, it may be a good idea for one to drop out and endorse the other. 

The Survey
Here are Mr. Santow's responses (bold is the questions from TransportPVD, and regular typeface is the Santow campaign).

1. Where do you see the ward, and the city more broadly, adding protected bike lanes in the coming years? If you had 25 miles of protected bike lanes to distribute throughout the city, where would they go?

On the East Side, and in Ward 3 especially, it seems like adding protected bike lanes for large stretches of Hope street would make sense – between Rochambeau and Olney, for example, and also perhaps from Overhill up to the end of Lippitt park (essentially, starting at the end of the Hope Street merchant area).  North Main Street would be another viable site, since many people in the ward commute to downtown by bicycle, and presumably many more would do so if we had protected bike lanes there.  Rochambeau from Hope down to Blackstone Boulevard is another possibility.  I’m not a bike rider, so I’m not entirely sure where it’s feasible and where it isn’t.

  
2. Are there places where you would put neighborhood greenways to improve walkability and bikeability for children, the disabled, and the elderly? Where would they go, in your opinion?

I'm not familiar with the concept of neighborhood greenways, though I certainly do favor any changes in transportation, development policy, land use laws and infrastructure that would lead to greater density and walkability (and more green space). 


3. What will your candidacy do to move the city closer to repealing exclusionary zoning like parking minimumsR1 and R1A zones, and anti-student housing provisions? 


Like much of the country, Providence has an affordable housing crisis.  And land use laws are a big reason why (they’re also a main contributor to economic and racial segregation, and the geographic concentration of poverty).
The crisis has 3 parts to it:
 A lack of affordable units;
 A lack of affordable units in areas of high opportunity; and
Stagnant incomes for renters. Far too many Providence families are spending much if not most of their income on housing.
One result is housing insecurity and eviction, which can have a powerful and lasting impact on children, emotionally, physically, and in terms of chronic absenteeism from school. In my time on the Providence School Board I've seen the consequences of this. Another result is that paying so much for rent is effectively a cause of poverty, not just a consequence, because it destabilizes families, and makes it hard for them to save and build wealth. This connects directly to issues that many families are facing right here in Ward 3, as gentrification raises the cost of both owning and renting, in Mt. Hope in particular.
While federal rental assistance is one of our most effective anti-poverty programs, 2/3 of poor renting families don't receive it.  That situation is only going to get worse under Trump. We're going to have to find our own solutions here in RI.
As a professor of US history and urban studies specializing in the historical origins of racial and economic segregation in housing, I have a pretty good sense of the broader issues at stake here.
What ideas might we consider in Providence?
If we want affordable housing in areas of high opportunity -- housing that doesn't reinforce racial and economic segregation, in other words -- we need to consider stronger inclusionary zoning in suburbia, and similar measures in Providence. For equity reasons as well as sustainability reasons, we should consider using our land use laws to encourage more density, and allow for more multi-family and rental units.  So I certainly think we should consider repealing parking minimums and exclusionary zoning.
We should consider lowering the landlord tax, which leads to higher rents and discourages the production and preservation of affordable rental housing.
Whenever any high-end residential development in the city is subsidized by the taxpayers, some portion could be kicked into an affordable housing trust fund (perhaps some revenue from a more progressive homestead exemption could be used too).
We should encourage non-profits to create community land trusts or community development corporations in gentrifying neighborhoods like Mt. Hope, to keep some units affordable over the long haul.
We should follow Philly's lead, and consider property tax breaks for long-time home owners in gentrifying neighborhoods, to enable them to stay in their homes;
The City Council (and the State House) should prohibit source-of-income discrimination, so that families using rental assistance vouchers have more options.
We could try to learn from Massachusetts. In November 2009 MA passed a law known as Chapter 40T that—among other things—gives the state the “right of first refusal” when owners of affordable housing properties are selling them without a commitment to maintaining affordability. In other words, the state gets first dibs if it wants to preserve the affordable housing. This would help preserve at least some of our current supply of affordable units, in Mt. Hope and elsewhere.
I'm open to a wide variety of ideas here, and I'll do my best to bring these concerns to the City Council if I'm elected. My approach to housing is similar to my approach to urban development more broadly: a preferential option for people who already live here, for the local, the equitable, and the sustainable.

4. The city charges a much higher tax rateon apartment dwellers than homeowners. Will you challenge that to promote affordable housing?

Yes -- see my answer to #3 above. In general, Providence needs to move toward more walkable mixed-use development and affordable housing, by changing its land use laws to reflect this goal.  This is where equity and sustainability goals overlap; if we can move toward denser mixed-use development that is well-served by public transportation, we will reduce racial and economic segregation, and foster a way of living that is healthier and more ecologically sustainable, and more able to support small local businesses -- thus reducing our dependence on expensive tax subsidies to attract large outside companies.  We have some of the oldest housing stock in the nation, especially in the rental sector; these units are expensive, and far more likely to have lead paint, be in poor condition, and have asthma triggers.  We have some of the highest rates of child asthma in the country.  Both lead and asthma directly affect the health and academic achievement of our children.  Part of having a healthy and sustainable city has to include fixing this, by providing better and newer affordable rental options in neighborhoods of opportunity. 


5. What are the top three things you'd like to see improved about RIPTA service in the city? Are there particular routes you use or have used, and what is most frustrating or exciting about the way RIPTA runs?

I certainly favored restoring the no-fare bus pass for seniors and disabled people who are living on a limited income, and was heartened to see the powerful movement that arose (RIPTA Rider’s Alliance, etc) to push it.  I would also like RIPTA to be free for all Providence public high school students, regardless of how far they live from school.  Indeed, I think we should find a way to make it free for everyone, period, paid for by a revenue source that simultaneous discourages private gas-guzzling car use (like a carbon tax, perhaps).  And RIPTA needs more frequent service in walkable dense areas.


6. Our blog has proposed a parking lot taxfor a number of years, which would help raise funds to lower property taxes, and could help promote better land use and address climate change. The econ. on thissupports the idea that wealthy parking landlords like Joe Paolino would have to eat the tax, rather than commuters.

I am certainly open to this idea, because it will encourage land currently used for parking lots to be developed, creating greater density and widening the tax base.  The money raised from the tax could be used to provide tax relief, perhaps covering the revenue lost from reducing the landlord tax – or it could be used to reduce property taxes for long-time homeowners in gentrifying neighborhoods like Mt. Hope.  Or maybe the revenue could be put into an affordable housing trust fund.  Or it could be used to fund RIPTA.


7. I presume you both support immigrant licenses and will push the state to address that (Yay!).

Yes, I do support them.


8. Our blog has stood out for pushing against the notion of lowering the car tax, especially in upper brackets-- what we have called "the Jaguar Tax Cut". This is a state issue, but one which city officials have commented on. Where would you stand? (Here's an Economic Progress RI report supporting our position).

I’m inclined to agree.  Overall, and especially in our urban areas, it seems to me we should be doing our best to discourage car use, and to shift the balance toward public transit, biking and walking – whether we do this through land use policies or through tax policy (or both, ideally).  The state can make better use of its resources by strengthening public transit, and perhaps creating incentives for wider use of alternative fuel cars (and disincentives for the use of cars with low gas mileage).  Given the large bill for public school repairs, retrofits and construction that we have coming due, the opportunity cost of getting rid of the car tax seems just too high to me. 


9. What can we do to make it easier to allow people to put affordable housing in their unused driveways?

It’s a really intriguing idea, given the affordable housing crisis we face.  I would want to look more deeply into other cities that may have tried it; perhaps we could experiment with the required zoning change in a few places, and see how it plays out.


10. How can we address the fissure that I-95 poses to connectivity between neighborhoods in the short- and long-term?


I would have to hear more about this, and look into what some other cities may have done, to connect neighborhoods separated by highways, or even to take down highways altogether.

~~~~

Keep (and Expand) Jorge Elorza's Roger Williams Park Changes

Councilwoman Castillo on the right, as featured in a film about her
.
Update: Yesterday I met with Councilwoman Carmen Castillo, whose activism as a union hotel worker is depicted in the photo to the right. Councilwoman Castillo (Ward 9) has joined Councilwoman Sabina Matos and Council President Luis Aponte in opposing the changes to Roger Williams Park, but we had a very productive conversation about it. Here is the gist of my argument for Mayor Elorza's plan, and for why the city needs to expand beyond it to a more expansive bike network.

Councilwoman Castillo is not someone I've ever met, but she has a broad reputation as a fighter for low-income causes and workers' rights, which I have heard amply about from our friends at UNITE HERE 217. I suspect that her position of wanting to revisit Roger Williams Park and push a traffic study comes from her desire to advocate for the neighborhoods around the park. Some neighbors definitely do feel that keeping the park as a fast cut-through for drivers onto Route 10 would be best, and that may indeed be a loud constituent opinion she hears. Here, below, is why that's wrong.

This won't be the first foray into Roger Williams Park, but the last one was (admittedly) before I had gone in person to see the park arrangement. Now that I've seen it, and I've interviewed some park users, I feel even more strongly that the Roger Williams changes are good and will grow popular with everyone over time, including drivers.

The Park Changes Are Popular
Changes to transportation arrangements people are used to are often unpopular in a knee-jerk way until the general public sees what they look like. Imagine the reaction to proposals to close traffic going through Broadway in New York City, or to tear down the Embarcadero: these were very unpopular decisions until people saw the results. In Copenhagen, Jan Gehl talks about how trying to make the streets bike friendly resulted in shopkeepers complaining that "This is not sunny Italy". Now, Copenhagen is a leading city for non-car travel, and the Italians might say, "This is not Denmark" when someone tries to remove cars from a city street.

In a short time, many people have realized how great it is to have a livable park.

 

 

I tried interviewing a bunch of Spanish-speakers on this question too, and found none that were willing to go on camera. But all of the people I spoke to in my broken Spanish said they liked the walkway and bikeway (and many were in the process of using it). The one couple I spoke to simply kept saying "perfecto" to describe the new walking opportunities.

The Park Changes Don't Harm Traffic Congestion
Much has been made of how the original traffic study on the park only covered the park itself, and did not consider diversion of cars out of the park and into neighborhoods. The NIMBY opposition to having a protected bike lane has surprisingly centered less around the direct desire to keep open driving for cars, and more from a fear that the traffic will go elsewhere like a pink cat ring.
But that's an unrealistic fear. The study found that the park receives just over two cars per hour per minute (Sorry! Got it right the first time!) on the route that was made a one-way loop. Two car per hour is not enough to create a traffic jam. Of course, all of us have been in Roger Williams Park on the handful of occasions throughout the year when a big event brings a large contingent of drivers into the park. But for the vast majority of time, it's clear that there will not be any traffic under current conditions-- which means it's pretty hard to imagine diversion.

Even If There Was Diversion, the Solution Would Be Doubling Down
The biggest single thing wrong with the park design, as currently completed, is that it is an isolated loop int he middle of a park that can only be approached on busy roads from all sides. So if our goal is to reduce congestion in and out of the park, the goal should be to double down on the policy of converting driving spaces to biking or walking ones. Why? Because bikes and people walking take up exponentially less space, meaning that if the park were to be made accessible by people on bike and foot (or by transit) then fewer people would have to drive to get there.

The space advantage is overwhelming:

 
Many people currently drive to the park. In fact, though I did not specifically ask the question, I would bet 1,000,000 to 1 odds the people I interviewed from San Juan via Massachusetts, and the man from Central Falls both drove to get to the park. Even the other residents who were from the South Side very well might have driven. But there's nothing inherent about the situation that says it ought to stay that way. The residents don't walk or bike because Elmwood and Broad Street (and even the roads into the park) are scary to walk or bike on. Central Falls, for instance, has really lousy transit connections, but is a dense, walkable town very near corridors that could be served directly to R.W. Park by bus. Even the woman from Massachusetts, depending on what park of Mass. she's from, could have taken transit or biked to this park, depending on her desire to do so. But if some drivers continue to show up in the park from places like Massachusetts, that's not a big deal. What matters most is the fact that we can build neighborhoods to allow the vast majority of local users not to drive: that means adding protected bike lanes on Broad and Elmwood, and continuing to bike- and walk-ify the park itself.


The Equity Stance is the Transit, Biking, and Walking Stance
It may be a voice in the wilderness at this point, given Rhode Island politics, but advocating for drivers is always the anti-equity stance. In Rhode Island, people-of-color are twice as likely not to drive, in line with many other places in the country. We still do not allow drivers' licenses for undocumented immigrants. People who are very young, very old, disabled, or poor often cannot or do not drive. And the cost of driving-- which is staggering-- is so great that even for those poor, old, disabled, or of-color drivers out there, it would be easier for government to provide alternatives to driving than to directly subsidize or support the habit. 
Consider that in the United States, immigrant populations are actually the most likely demographic of all to bike. That doesn't match with the perception that media (and even some bike advocates) put forward of white, athletic men in their forties donning Lycra to go for a race. But it is backed up by demography. In places with successful bike infrastructure efforts, equity is improved and segregation lessened by the increased physical access it gives to people of lesser means. And bike infrastructure is a way to support the people we tend to think bike least: the elderly and the disabled. 






There's a perception sometimes that the elites bike, and the "real" residents drive. But to the extent that that is true, it is only because our design efforts on streets make it impossible for most people to do anything else. In the Netherlands, immigrants arrive from countries in the Middle East where biking is not particularly popular or common, and quickly develop a knack for biking just as any new Manhattan resident suddenly learns to use the subway. In the United States, our largest flow of immigration actually comes from Latin America and Asia-- places with long histories or developing tendencies towards bike infrastructure and transit. Yet the U.S. quickly trains its immigrant population to become like native-born whites, and to drive.

We can honor Providence's Latin American roots by doing as Latin America does:


So, for Councilors Aponte, Matos and Castillo to be fighting to return Roger Williams Park to a car-drenched expressway is the wrong position. It may feel like the easy populist stance, but as we've seen in the past year, easy populist stances are often harmful (Sad! Apologize!).

When you take the pro-car position, you ride with Trump.



Please support the mayor-- and in fact push the mayor to go much further than he's gone. The loop at Roger Williams Park is not enough. We need City Council to start taking action to push the Elorza Administration to the left on issues like transportation equity and climate change. We need councilpeople like Councilwoman Castillo to be central in that push.
~~~~

Sharon Hill

Map: Red represented existing right-of-way transit. Purple represents the 113 bus, which I think could easily become BRT. The green lines represent places where protected bike lanes could be added easily.
When people ask me where I'm from, I usually say Philadelphia, and if people push me harder, I usually say "Well, Upper Darby. It's like the Pawtucket of Philadelphia." I do a lot of Upper Darby pride jokes, but maybe it's time to look to Sharon Hill, another town I lived in, as well.

Sharon Hill is another nearby trolley suburb of Philly, and recently as I've gotten talking to old friends about my times there, it's sent my mind back to what that time was like. I've been thinking lately about how easily Sharon Hill could become a bikeable place, and take advantage of its transit-oriented connections. It sits as a tiny, fairly dense borough just outside of Darby (not to be confused with Upper Darby). It's just miles from the Philadelphia border, and Darby itself is one of the densest places in the United States, with really great trolley connections into the city. Sharon Hill itself has an even better transit history. The trolley line it's on (the 102, formerly one of the Red Arrow lines), is mostly on a
right-of-way, so except for a few places where it sits in mixed traffic, it can speed people along through Delaware County to 69th Street, which has transit connections in all different directions. The R2 line (effectively the regional version of the Northeast Corridor) runs right through Sharon Hill, and the R3 (connecting Media, Swarthmore, and a bunch of other towns all the way into 30th Street Station) is all of a ten minute trolley connection away.


"Suburban" Philly housing, but of course a lot of people nationwide would cut off their left arm to have the kind of walkable bones that Philadelphia suburbs have. If we could only get a good transportation policy to connect all of that good land use!

The rowhouse is the most common Philadelphia form, even in the suburbs. Philadelphia has a lower percentage of detached single-family housing than even New York, as a region, though it also has a lower apartment percentage. This lower-middle class housing stock is missing from many regions because of exclusionary zoning, but it builds a beautiful "street wall" that makes these towns greater than they'd be if they were all detached housing. Jane Jacobs would salivate.
My family members who grew up their whole lives in Sharon Hill would boast of its past transit history, but Sharon Hill is one of these places that's really stagnated economically, and so when I lived there I had no sense of what the hell they were talking about. Just like how I thought living in Upper Darby in a rowhouse near trolley lines was normal "suburban life", I had no sense of how connected the Philly region was in Sharon Hill. Now that I live in Rhode Island, and spend all my time pining away about how to improve transit and biking here, I'm appreciative of the advantages of my old communities, and I want to help them to move along further. In fact, because the economic stagnation can be such a challenge for eastern Delaware County, transitizing and bikeifying the area should be a central goal. It could also help to relieve gentrification pressures on the city of Philadelphia itself, and to desegregate what ought to be by right a very diverse region.

The core memory that a lot of my family holds about Sharon Hill is the death of my cousin when he was just two. My Aunt Sharon and cousins were walking along Sharon Avenue when an older driver had a health issue and ran his car off the street, jumped a curb, and killed my cousin. My other cousin and aunt were severely injured. So I think that there would be quite the appetite for smart-growth in what more elitist voices would probably assume is a place not politically interested in change. Several of my uncles-- unfortunately now, a few of them have passed-- used to ride unicycles or penny-farthings to get around. The hashtag #KeepSharonHillWeird would probably trend if you got Delco people going at it, and it would probably be my father's side of the family pulling a lot of the weight on the weirdness.

MacDade Boulevard and Chester Pike are kind of the main drags through town (MacDade is technically in Collingdale, but much of Delaware County is full of tiny little continguous towns that would remind Rhode Islanders of Pawtucket, Warren, or Central Falls-- Collingdale was a block from my house, which being on the edge of Sharon Hill, can't have been more than a half-mile from the other side of town).

You can see where MacDade has been allowed to "stroad"ify.

 At the same time, this is what's left of traditional development. We take for granted the idea that everyone looks at this and immediately sees financial success, because this development pattern pays for itself, while the stroad doesn't. But I bet many people walk through this town center (or more likely, drive through it) and think not a lick about it. Note how even here, in a very much friendlier road design, the lanes are ginormous and unnecessary. This road is pretty flat for miles, until where it slopes down steeply into Darby. If you put a protected bike lane on MacDade, it would get used. I used to ride my bike on the sidewalk nearly everyday as a teenager-- just a crappy $30 bike we bought from the neighbor's garage down the street. But the biking I started doing in Sharon Hill was the first real "transportation biking" I ever did in my life. I would make it all the way out to Swarthmore, or would snake through Darby and check out the rowhouses and old shops (not a lot of great shopping in Darby-- but there could be). The segregation between someplace outright tony like Swarthmore (say "Swathmore" by the way) and someplace that people tell you not to go like Darby is due to the physical separation that all this overbuilt car infrastructure creates.

Chester Pike, which traditionally had Red Arrow trolleys on it, and now just has the 113 bus, is right at the end of the Sharon Hill trolley line (102). This is the gigantic configuration of the street, which we had to walk along, sun-drenched, as high schoolers. The trolley stop is in the background of this shot, and the reason you have cool little districts all throughout Delaware County that are walkable is because the original burst of development was all based around rail and trolley lines. As the U.S. unfolds silly little mixed-traffic streetcars-to-nowhere, Delaware County is one of the few places that still exists with right-of-way connections. That means that the trolley can get you places, and not get stuck. And that's yuge, as we'd say back heowme.
Gigantic. No one thinks this is successful, because it's not. Imagine the amount of public money that has to be shelled out in order to maintain the scant strip-mall environment that exists here. And yet, the great connection that could ferry transit riders back and forth between Philly and Chester is not there, except as a mixed-traffic bus. This road is so big it could get protected bike lanes and transit lanes, and still not have a traffic problem. And honestly, what Sharon Hill and other towns like it should vy for is to have a traffic problem. The only thing worse than congestion is no congestion.

This is where my uncle tried to set up shop with a magic business. The business did not survive. We think of the city and all its grungy hipster neighborhoods as places for cool, weird things, but actually the suburbs can often be a place of creativity too. But there's no analysis in most towns of how a cool little shop on Sharon Avenue brings in tremendous wealth with little infrastructure investment. The tax revenue from sprawl along stroads like Chester Pike probably looks impressive, but doesn't pay for itself when all the costs are taken into account. And that's before you consider things like the deaths of small children like my cousin. 

This failed magic shop was on the same block my cousin died on, back in the '80s.


Some Sharon Hill weirdness for your entertainment. #KeepSharonHillWeird


I wonder sometimes what it might mean to organize smart-growth movements in suburbs. "Suburb" of course is a very loose term that means a lot of things to a lot of people. The Sharon Hill area is a racially diverse place with walkable bones that has been completely devastated by the misdeeds of PennDOT or local planners. But it's also the type of place that could easily start making smart choices and reinvigorate itself, improving its environmental footprint and its equity/access for working-poor people.

It doesn't take magic or sleight-of-hand, just a return to traditional ways of building cities and towns.

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Becoming Self-Sustaining

Transport Providence has been your place to find news and opinion on transportation issues in the Ocean State since 2012. Now we'd like to make the blog self-sustaining, and we're asking for your help to do that.

I have written this blog as a volunteer, but I'd like to get to the point where I can make $1,000 a month on the blog. Given my generally frugal lifestyle, $1,000 a month is probably enough to sustain most of my needs until we can create deeper fundraising goals. Given that our Twitter base is more than 1,700 followers strong, I think we can pull that off. If 10% of our blog readers gave $10/month, we could make closer to $20,000 a year doing this.

What has Transport Providence done in the past five+ years? Here's a very partial list:


*We've submitted hundreds of articles on our blog and elsewhere on issues ranging from parking, to affordable housing, zoning reform, highway removal and bike infrastructure.
*We've led Jane's Walks through downtown exploring the need to connect our neighborhoods with protected bike lanes and to institute a parking lot tax.
*We've submitted testimony at the Rhode Island House and Senate Finance Committees on issues ranging from truck tolls to highway removal and the state's car tax plan.

*We've collaborated voluntarily with groups like Economic Progress RI to highlight the equity issues that face non-car owners in the Biggest Little.
*Despite hating cars, we've stood up for our immigrant neighbors in their fight for dignity and to get driver's licenses with Safer Rhodes.

*We've helped amplify the need to for drug policy reform with groups like Regulate Rhode Island, because persecuting safe drug use is a bad policy goal when our policing power could be used to create safer roads instead.

*We've crossed swords with and collaborated with the state's conservatives: despite being a stridently left-leaning voice for social justice and environmental action, Transport Providence has collaborated with voices as far to the right as
Mike Stenhouse and Justin Katz. 
*We co-organized the first two Providence Park(ing) Days, which also included in the second year the first-ever temporary protected bike lane in the state of Rhode Island.
*We collaborated on a voluntary basis with the City of Central Falls to measure streets so that then-planner Stephen Larrick could organize the creation of a protected bike lane on Washington Street.
*We've cross-published at RI Future, Eco RI, Greater City Providence, and other respectable Ocean State publications, bringing major stories to light like the 6/10 Connector boulevard effort. 
*We've brought national coverage of issues in Rhode Island to Streetsblog, Strong Towns, the Urbanophile, and other outlets, all free-of-charge.
*We've fought to bring forward ideas that no one else cares about, and we've succeeded in changing the dialogue from a one-sided echo-chamber to a two-sided debate on issues like the Jaguar Tax Cut.
*Transport Providence took submissions from then-candidate Jorge Elorza and
his opponent Brett Smiley to push them to be accountable on transportation issues.
The Transport Providence endorsement, Elorza, promised significant parking reform and protected bike lanes, and today Transport Providence can boast that Providence has its first protected bike lane. In fact, collaborations between Transport Providence media coverage and local activist-father Jeff Leary of Cranston made it possible to turn the lane from being a protected parking lane to a protected bike lane.
*Transport Providence is pushing candidates Nirva LaFortune, Mark Santow, David Lallier, and Daniel Chaika to take on transportation projects to improve Ward 3 after Kevin Jackson's ouster in the recall election.
*Transport Providence submitted original research on the death of blog-friend Mark Baumer, which Baumer's parents described as some of the deepest coverage that his death received worldwide. The blog recently collaborated with the Mark Baumer Sustainability Fund to lead a walk honoring Baumer's first day across-country. 
*Who else but Transport Providence would offer you up-to-the-minute live-tweeting of the empty parking garages and full buses at PVD Fest? Where else could you count on to push the city to improve the bad design of bike infrastructure it's put down?
Transport Providence is often the only institution in the state pushing for a transportation system that works for all of us. Over the years, I've heard many of you say that you feel the blog has "changed the conversation" on transportation in Rhode Island. We need to accelerate that change. Help us to make the blog a self-sustaining job instead of an extensive hobby. You can donate at PayPal using the email james.p.kennedy@gmail.com.

Thank you so much for your support! 

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