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Get Out the Traffic Cones Already!

The Providence Bike Plan needs to be more ambitious.

Providence’s bike plan emphasizes a paint-only strategy that lacks ambition and imagination.  Illustrative of this, the height of excitement at the last Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee meeting was discussion of “sharrows” on Camp Street--a calm East Side residential street that does not really need amendments in order to be bikeable.  BPAC has suffered the same fate as many progressive projects in the United States: it acts as its own worst enemy, constraining its vision to peripheral reforms before it even faces any opposition from outside.  If the political process will inevitably whittle down cyclists' proposals, then we should focus on making our initial demands bigger.  Sharrows shouldn't even be on the table.

The most common excuse for BPAC's lukewarm approach is that more serious changes to Providence's roads would be expensive, complicated, and permanent.  This doesn’t have to be so.  An ambitious bike plan can strike at the core of Providence’s transportation problems while leaving the city the option to reverse changes when they don't work.  The expense of experimentation can be minimal.

This Providence stress map shows 'bike routes' to be unwelcoming.
Philadelphia, the country’s number one large city for per capita biking, has shown us how to succeed.  In 2011, the Bicycle Coalition proposed a pair of buffered bike lanes on JFK Boulevard and Market Streets.  The plan required the removal of not one but four full lanes of traffic.  Rather than fret about the permanence and expense of such a project, or have a mini-panic attack about what suburban commuters might think, Mayor Nutter's office sensibly experimented with orange cones and caution tape to test the effects of a road diet.   

Philly's initial attempts to make Center City bikeable were a lot less bold.  The first east-west bike lane I remember in Center City was a bike-bus share lane on Chestnut Street.  It was a fiasco.  The “shared” lane gave neither buses nor bikes truly prioritized access to the street.  Cyclists who didn’t want to sit in unending stop-and-go traffic behind a diesel bus avoided the route entirely.  Buses inched along without their own lane.  The failure to create a critical mass of cyclists, and the periodic absence of SEPTA buses between arrival times left a void, which aggressive taxis were gleefully happy to fill.  Providence's approach to bike infrastructure reminds me of an even more tepid version of the Chestnut Street experiment.

By contrast, Philly's buffered Spruce and Pine lanes wildly succeeded, because they did not impractically require public transit users and cyclists to compete for the same road resources.  Innovations like timing the signals to 20 mph, so that bikers got a consistent "wave" of green lights helped to calm traffic and make the route safer.  They made major routes accessible and convenient, and didn't rely on volunteer cooperation from motorists.

The existence of a partial road block on Waterman near Brown shows that just a temporary narrowing of the street for construction is enough to make drivers act with some civility.  The speedway that Waterman becomes just a few short blocks beyond, from Hope Street until Wayland Square, shows that without changing the roads' construction, Providence's bike routes are little more than a hollow suggestion.

Concrete isn't necessary to change traffic patterns.  All it takes is a little imagination and the willingness to experiment.

(I am happy to report that this article has since been republished by Eco Rhode Island in their "headline news" category)

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