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Harris Avenue: The Next Greenway


Joggers on North Kinsley
WHEN I'VE SPOKEN to people who have lived their entire lives in Providence, a surprisingly scant few even know where Harris Avenue is. This may just be an extension of the Rhode Island method of giving directions.  "It runs along the Northeast Corridor tracks, roughly parallel to Valley Street," I say to these people, and their faces scrunch into a balls of mishegas,unable to place it.  It takes only the mention of a few of the buildings that used to be on Harris before they start to nod vigorously with recognition.


THE CITY CHOSE KINSLEY AVE. to carry cyclists from the Providence Place Mall west, even designating the street an interim part of the East Coast Greenway.  It's not hard to see what Providence had in mind.  Buildings like The Foundry captivate you on Kinsley with historic intrigue, while the Woonsasquatucket River slices down its belly.  Joggers congregate there, despite few access points, as if clairvoyant of what the place could be.

Despite this, Kinsley is a poor choice for a major bike route.  It would be better to call it the Bike Route to Nowhere than a route from Maine to Florida.  Its access point is a narrow, poorly marked wheelchair ramp through the courtyard of the Providence Place Mall.  Once on Kinsley, a narrow, muddy, potholed bike lane runs unseparated from several lanes of whizzing cars going 40-plus mph.  And no sooner has one gotten past that than the road suddenly intersects with the cavernous, ugly, and dangerous mini-highway that is Dean Street.  Relieved to have crossed that, a few blocks later North Kinsley ends.  Using one of the crossings to the other side of the river, you find that South Kinsley is one way in the other direction.    You're back at the mall you just left.   Wash, rinse, repeat.  

It's no wonder that Kinsley is a bike route with no bikes--and lots and lots of cars.

Cars along Kinsley  travel at 40 mph or more.  A narrow ramp is the access point to the "greenway".

One of many perfunctory 25 mph signs near a beautiful house on Harris.
HARRIS BEGINS unobtrusively at an its intersection with Broadway, on the Olneyville side of the Route 6 & 10 interchange.  Just yon that side of Broadway, the Amtrak NE Corridor/MBTA to Boston wonders aloud why it doesn't have a train station there.  Olneyville Square is no more than a few hundred feet away, and Broadway's bike lane just up the hill, making Harris' desolate emptiness feel out of place.

The posted speed on Harris is--like on many Providence streets--set at a perfunctory 25 mph.  Cars are rare here, but those that exist ignore the sign. Running just a block removed from Valley Street, it's weird to look at the heavy traffic there and contrast it to the silence on Harris, since they go to such similar places.  On the corner of Harris and Broadway sits a handsome house, solo, with artistic metal work in the yard.  One can't help but imagine how the addition of a few stormwater catchers to slow traffic and beautify the street, or a speed bump or two, would improve the fortunes of this surviving house.

Harris from Broadway to Atwells is largely built like a highway access road, but a strange one at that.  Along it, the defiant corner house is joined by a scattering of businesses and even a plucky church.  At the midpoint of the block a huge umbilical cord of a highway onramp stretches from Tobey Street to Route 6, and Harris narrows underneath it.  It's like the street and I suddenly have something to talk about: the aggressive drivers who speed down my block in the morning to the Tobey entrance ramp ignore me on foot as I try to cross the street, and as they sweep into the highway, Harris passes without attention as well.

If you ride your bike on Harris, you'll find it feels safer--at least in terms of car accidents--than even bike lane-striped routes.  Cars that would never slow down on Broadway do so respectfully on Harris.  It's almost as if the alone-ness of the place adds intimacy, and makes drivers ashamed to act like jerks.


A BLOCK OF COLORFUL offices shaped like containerized freight cars stacked on one another pops up near the intersection with Atwells.   I imagine myself a commuter to one of these freight cars, hopping off a brand new Olneyville Square stop of the T from my place in the suburbs, or down and expanded and green-painted Broadway bike lane from the West End, and continuing down Harris, now prioritized for bicycle traffic.  New houses and businesses join my fantasy, taking advantage of the beautified space.

In front of the box car, Harris actually has significant car traffic for once, and I shake my head and join reality.  All of the car traffic is headed into Harris just to leave by the entrance ramp to Route 6, over which survives an ancient rusted sign showing the way to Olneyville.  It's another surreal example of Providence's overabundance of ways to enter the freeway.  There are entrance and exit ramps scattered about this neighbhorhood everywhere, as if everyone has forgotten how to driver on local roads, and instead uses the freeway like some kind 1950s vision of the future: a ramp to each person's house, and no person's house without its own ramp.

As a non-driver, I double-take, because I have never used this ramp.  Where are they going?  I turn back towards the on-ramp, next to which is another branch of road.  The ramp fills, and the local road is empty.  Above it is a sign, rusted, telling me the way to Harris Avenue and Olneyville.  No one seems to be on their way to those places.  It feels clear to me that this ramp could be closed, and Harris Avenue made a different place.


This sidewalk could be connected to divert cars.
IF HARRIS AVENUE BELOW ATWELLS shows ghostly promise, then the part of it that continues on eastbound to the State House from its five-points intersection with Atwells  shows more.   Here, the street parallels the Kinsley bike lanes, continuing its journey with the train tracks.  Unlike Kinsley, though, it passes under the Dean Street highway and past a collection of beautiful mill buildings.  There are few cars.

One of the advantages to going with a bike boulevard model for Harris is that it could make the route as comfortable to ride on as a bike path, but without having to fully ban cars.   Harris' many connections back with Kinsley through side roads could be fitted with diagonal diverters, to allow cars only for local traffic. Its intersection with Atwells, which now has a sweeping, round design that allows cars to turn on a hair pin, could get an extended sidewalk to connect it with its island and prevent that sort of behavior.  A bicycle scramble could stop all traffic except bicycles to allow safe access to other streets.

Down Harris a bit, the wider intersection with Acorn, near the Twin City Supply Co. could be left open for necessary truck freight, but receive a garden roundabout.  Portland, Oregon and other cities use these roundabouts for stormwater collection, beautification, and traffic calming.

Infrastructure like this could be designed in partnership with the businesses of the street to make Harris one of the premier locations of the city.

Harris' width gives it room to add trees or other greenery between it and the Amtrak property, adjacent. 

Acorn and Harris could receive a roundabout with greenery to slow traffic and beautify.

Providence poking from behind freeways.
KINSLEY SHOULD NOT be abandoned in this plan.  Its proximity to the river makes a great place to bike, if only it received some work.  The city could enforce lower speed limits and give Kinsley a buffered bike lane to start in this direction.  A future bike network could take existing plans to connect Kinsley to the Woonsasquatucket Greenway and network those to Harris Avenue as a connection point south and west.  Since Harris eventually enters Kinsley near the mall, speed bumps should definitely be put in near that intersection, and behind the mall parking lot.  Treating Kinsley as the main part of the bike route, though, is silly, because it doesn't go anywhere.

Hayes Street ramp should stay closed.
On Hayes Street, a one-block stretch next to the mall and the State House, there is currently a closed freeway ramp that says "Under construction".  It's not clear to me for how long or for what purposes the ramp is closed, but it should also be a priority of the city to keep this ramp the way it is--gone.  Hayes, as it stretches around the mall and towards Kinsley/Harris, is relatively quiet, but putting the highway ramp back in would ruin that.


Imagine children playing here.

There are plenty of people who would benefit from this plan, and few who would oppose it.  Few cars seem to use Harris now, despite its wide design.  The street gives better access to bicyclists than other available options.  Condo-dwellers will want a beautified fron space, where they can come out to enjoy themselves or to let their children play.  Businesses like the Steelyard, which thrive on biking, would only do better.  

The Harris/Kinsley corridor could even become the locus of a Water Fire, in order to popularize the idea.  

The Bike Lane to Nowhere could become a Bike Lane to Someplace.


Thank you to Rachel Playe for the photos in this article.  You can see more of her work at www.rachelplaye.com.

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