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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...

What a Squaauhh! Bettuhh Even Than Tivuhhhton!


One of the things that continually surprises me as a transplant to Rhode Island is that many of the things that I enjoy most about the state are not things that Rhode Islanders themselves are proud of.  In fact, my frequent statements that I like the downtown of Woonsocket, or that you really can't beat the view of Providence from Riverside, or that Pawtucket is just the nicest place have so far mostly met with strange looks.

My favorite response of all time to this type of conversation was the inspiration for the title.  A lady from Little Compton once told me that "I nevuh been tuh Pawtucket.  Why go?  Tivuhton's got such a nice squaauh."

True, it does.  No argument there.

But since we're exploring things that aren't obviously lovely the way that Tiverton is, let's stick to the topic of squares.  I think--I know you'll be shocked--that Cathedral Square is one of the nicest places in Providence.  It's absolutely a highlight for me every time I walk through it.

No, really.  Now, I'll emphasize that the highlight ends for me as soon I have gotten through it, because I'm immediately reminded of why so few people take the detour.  Service Road 7 rears its ugly head on the other side of the Square, and then the only way to walk across is to take one of two ugly options: Washington Street's I-95 bridge or the Broad Street one.  But the square itself is nice.

Where else in Downcity can you be under a canopy of trees that are large enough to cover you?

There would be even more pedestrians here if going up these steps led somewhere besides I-95.
The need for slight renovation of the brick work aside, this is actually a lovely space.

Nowhere to cross, except to detour back to the other streets.  Hmm, what was the point of a pedestrian mall here?
This guy's got it figured out: This is a lovely squaauh, but for cahhhs, not pedestrians.

Where else can you see such a nice view of Westminster Street?

Where else do you have the feeling that you're in a Sicilian Square at the foot of a medieval cathedral?

The topic of pedestrian malls came up at the last Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, with a few members of the committee--most notably Eric Weis of the East Coast Greenway--taking the bold stance that Thayer Street could someday be pedestrianized, like on Church Street in Burlington, Vermont.  The committee's only paid member, David Everett, who works for the mayor's office, grumbled on for several minutes about how awful an idea this was, and how pedestrian malls are "just a 70s thing for small college towns", and that they'll never work in Providence.  Everett motioned out the window to Cathedral Square as his evidence.  It was built in the 70s as part of Mayor Cianci's plan to pedestrianize Westminster Street.  The plan never really caught on.  Not enough pedestrians really used the mall, and soon the city just decided to turn it back over to cars.

You can tell I'm not a fan of David Everett's position--I really think that the sole representative of the mayor's office on the committee should represent the city a little more creatively--but the fact remains that objectively the pedestrian mall did not work on Westminster Street.  So the real question is, why?

Atlantic Cities did a fairly good piece on this, highlighting the worst pedestrian mall failures--Buffalo Place and Kalamazoo Mall--along with the architectural form's greatest achievements--Faneuil Hall/Quincy Market in Boston, Times Square in New York, and Church Street in Burlington, Vermont--and explored what made these places pass or fail.  Faneuil Hall, to me, really sticks out, because the article explains that the space really wasn't successful at all until after the Big Dig connected pedestrians to a larger space.  

We recently visited Burlington Vermont, and shared some of our positive experiences there.  It is true that Burlington is a college town, and that it's pedestrian mall started in the 70s.  But college students aside, what felt really great about Church Street was that after the pedestrian mall ended, there was plenty of town to explore on either side.  Transit stations were located there.  Businesses were on the mall.  There was a reason to be there.

A rainy, rather cold day in Burlington, before the height of the tourist season, but after UVM's students had left.

If Westminster Street were pedestrianized again like in the 1970s, short of intervention to change its connection to other spaces, it would probably fail yet again.  It isn't that there's nothing there to see.  There are lots of nice businesses.  Even the part of the "mall" area that everyone agrees is the most in need of repair, Cathedral Square itself, has a lot of aesthetic upsides.  But on one side of the mall you've got 1-95, and on the other you've got Memorial Boulevard.  There's no reason for people to walk straight through the space, as their means of going from one neighborhood to another, the way one would definitely do up Broadway in Times Square.

As the city explores a Greater Kennedy Plaza revamping, I hope it will keep this in mind.  The Kennedy Plaza plans I've seen all look very nice within the space that is affected by the reconstruction, but there still appears to be a total blindspot in the city's thinking about Memorial Boulevard and how that affects pedestrian and bike traffic.  You can pedestrianize Kennedy Plaza all you want--like Cathedral Square, it's already not that bad to go through on its own--but the spaces around Kennedy Plaza are the problem.

Will we deal with Memorial Boulevard?  Or just ignore its role in Kennedy Plaza's problems?

I can think of a famous space from my own city of Philadelphia, Love Park.  Everyone and their mother has seen the four letters, L-O-V-E, standing two-on-two with the "O' slightly crooked, and Rocky Balboa's Art Museum steps behind it.  It's beautiful in postcards, which is why it's always on them.  But who goes there, who actually lives in Philadelphia?  Nobody.  It's one of the few sections of Center City Philadelphia that is difficult to exist in as a pedestrian, because at some point someone decided that 15th Street and 16th Street should be widened to allow faster car traffic.  No one wants to cross that, even for the postcard moment.  After a stint in the 90s of working really hard to kick skateboarders out of the park--yeah, Philly, that was really the problem there, mm hmm--Philly is only now beginning to think about how to do something with City Hall/Love Park's problems after having to invite some Dutch planners over to point them to the obvious.

What a postcard picture!
How many Americans does it take to screw in a lightbulb?  None, you get Dutch people to do it.  Love Park just beyond this point in the photo.

So, could a pedestrian mall work on Thayer?  Thayer Street doesn't have any of the problems that Westminster currently has.  My guess is that if you pedestrianized Thayer above the bus tunnel until where it hits Cushing, that a mall would work perfectly.  It's not just for the 70s.  And last I checked, the East Side is a college town.

A temporary pedestrian mall on Thayer Street:  What if this was everyday?

With some effort--and perhaps a mixed-use pedestrian/bike bridge like the one the East Siders are getting?--there's no reason to think that West End folks wouldn't start appreciating Cathedral Square for the beautiful place it is.  And actually walking through it.

Shahhh, it's a nice squaauh, but who's gonna' go theuhh when theuhh's Tivuhhhton?

That Awkward Conversation at the Bubbler


If you've found yourself in a conversation with a coworker or family member about how the gas tax just keeps going up, or how there really needs to be a highway expansion to get rid of this traffic, or the always fun one about how people who take public transportation should pay for their own services and stop raking everyone else for tax money, you may share my anguish in not quite being able to step away from the conversation, but also not being able to bring it to a constructive result.

So what are some things we can do that might change this picture?

As usual, I think Rachel has the wisdom that I lack.  She's always gently suggesting that I ask more questions, and make fewer statements.  Perhaps us activist-types should stop thinking we can bring the right facts to people to have them change their minds.  Instead, maybe we should ask a few more questions about why their minds are where they are in the first place.

What Not to Do (But What Most of Us, Myself Included, Actually Do)

Family Member/Coworker:  God, the gas tax is going up again!  The government just hates cars!

You:  Well, the gas tax doesn't even pay for the roads you drive on in your hummer, dude.  Maybe you should pay for the roads with the gas tax instead of making people in buses, trains, and on bikes pay for it.

Uh uh.  Not going to work (although you're right!).

What Might Work Better (Although Probably Not as Well as You Want)

Family Member/Coworker:  God, the gas tax is going up again!  The government just hates cars! (It's Groundhog Day around here, so your coworker just keeps saying the same thing at the proverbial water cooler/bubbler).

You: (Deep breath!)  Hmm, why do you say that? 

Family Member/Coworker: It's just getting more and more expensive to get to work.

You:  (Uh uh uh! Don't blow your load yet and give facts! Another deep breath. . . ) Yeah, it is really hard to get by sometimes.  Where you coming from? (Or some other probing question. . .)

Family Member/Coworker:  Kingston!  Takes me forever to park!  Grumble, grumble.

See, now you've got something:

You: Oh, Kingston!  I used to live there.  Have you tried taking the 66 bus?

What follows may go in any sort of direction.  It's probably not going to end with your coworker deciding to take the bus (although, at least in a couple situations, when I've had the patience to listen, I've ended up picking a convert or two up).  More likely, though, it will open up a place for you to subtly introduce some of the knowledge you've picked up about the subject of transportation reform, hopefully with minimal eye-twitching at the awful policies your acquaintance has suggested to fix transportation problems.  After all, you've just introduced them to a reasonable person who takes the bus/bikes/whatever.  They may not think they know such a person.

Just remember, the policies your conversation mate has in mind (low gas taxes, wider roads, get rid of those damn cyclists, etc.) may be totally wrong, but you have to have patience if you're going to have half a chance to show them that.

Do as I say, not as I do, that's all I can say.

How Much Time Do High Speed Limits Save?


It's true that as a pedestrian or bicycle advocate, one might shun high speed limits.  But don't drivers have some rights too?

I did a calculation after our recent Blackstone Blvd. speeding piece was published by Eco RI.  The highest speed I clocked was 44 mph, in a 25 mph zone.  Assuming that that driver faced no obstructions during his or her entire trip, how much time was saved by this speeding driver?

Google Maps says that Butler/Blackstone Boulevard combined, from Waterman Street up to the intersection with Hope, is 3.3 kilometers or 2.05 miles long.  At a steady pace of 44 mph, a driver will save two minutes and thirteen seconds over a driver going the speed limit.  Not a lot of time.

That assumes that the driver continues driving at 44 mph the whole way.  But my personal experience has been that fast drivers often meet me again at the next red light or stop sign.  That's because it takes several seconds to accelerate to such a high speed.  And as the study showed, a large number of obstacles besides lights do get in the way of fast drivers.  One-third of drivers going under 30 mph were slowed down due to a turning vehicle.  

Around the country, 25 mph speed limits are actually being lowered--to 20 and even 15 mph--on many streets, as a way of improving pedestrian and bicycle safety.  How much time would be lost for a lawful driver on Blackstone Boulevard if he or she had to obey this new speed limit?

At 15 mph, It would take approximately eight minutes to get from Waterman & Butler to Blackstone & Hope.  At 25 mph, the driver who is following the law already takes about 5 minutes to get to their destination--that assumes they never hit a light.  Is three minutes worth it?

In some cases, lowering speed limits while synchronizing lights may make a 15 or 20 mph journey faster than a 25 mph one.  Slow and steady. . . 

Blackstone Boulevard, Speeding, & Bike Safety


June 21, 2013--Yesterday I undertook a mini traffic study on Blackstone Boulevard, between Irving & Lloyd Streets.  Another 25 mph street, Blackstone is a featured piece of the citys section of the East Coast Greenway.  From 3-3:30 I clocked speeds on the southbound side, and then switched to watching northbound traffic for the next half hour.

Although the speed limit was 25, as in the Westminster study I chose to count cars going up to 30 mph as within the speed limit.  Out of 606 cars counted, 381 or 63% were within this technical limit.  The statistical mode for "non-speeding" cars was 29 mph, demonstrating that many "non-speeders" were within close reach of the more permissive threshold.

The previous study of Westminster Street raised the question of what role obstructions such as turning cars had to play in keeping people to the speed limit. In this study, 31 cars, or 8% of people traveling under 30 mph, were making a turn. Typically two to three cars were slowed by each turning car, so I estimate that  almost one in three "non-speeders" (124 out of 381) were under 30 mph because traffic flow had presented them no other option.

Speeding was common on this street, but not as common as on Westminster.  165 drivers, or 27%, were driving between 30 and 35 mph on a 25 mph road.   

Extreme speeding was also present.  Twenty-four cars were between 35 and 40 mph.  Six drivers were above 40 mph, with the top speed an astonishing 44 mph--higher than the greatest speed clocked on Westminster.  Drivers moving faster than 35 mph constituted 5% of drivers.  In one sense this is not a lot, yet one could contrast the figure with the number of everyday cyclist commuters in Providence, which by the 2010 Census was only 1%.  In Providence, that 1% is omnipresent--as the bumper sticker says, Bicycles are everywhere!--so imagine that for every bicycle seen there are five motorists speeding more than ten mph over the speed limit--even on the East Coast Greenway.

Why concern ourselves with this? As an experienced cyclist, I must admit that Blackstone offers few problems to me and feels very pleasant to ride on.  But as a teacher in a bike program at Nathan Bishop M.S., I was surprised to return to that same road with my students over several months this spring and suddenly feel uncomfortable.  Noted among my findings during the study was that none of the many cyclists who passed me were children. In cities like Portland, Oregon, 40% of students ride their bikes to school, while in the Netherlands the figure is closer to 90%.  A healthy youth contingent of cyclists is a signal that a city is pursuing effective policies.

Cycling is overall a very safe transportation mode.  Estimates by health officials say that biking is twenty times more likely to lengthen your life than shorten it.  Helmets add another level of safety, eliminating most serious head injuries.  So safety is in part a matter of subjectively creating the feeling of comfort.  The Netherlands, for instance, categorizes roads over 35mph--25 mph!--as fast, and in need of physical separation.  Nearly all the traffic on Blackstone--including the "non-speeding" contingent--would be felt as uncomfortable and unsafe by the Dutch public.

Hopefully this study offers policy-makers and citizens some tools to change that.

Can We Get Westminster Street's Speed to the 20 mph Gold Standard?


As part of an ongoing series of traffic studies for Eco Rhode Island, I sat in a lawn chair this morning to count how many cars were speeding at Westminster & Parade Sts.

Motor safety in American cities has focused on getting speeds to 20 mph.  At 20 mph and below, the chances of injury to pedestrians and cyclists is near zero.  At 25 mph the risk increases.  Between 25 mph and 35 mph, the risk of serious or life-threatening injury to pedestrians and cyclists doubles from its 25 mph levels.

The study took place from 7:20-8:00, using a radar gun.  For the purposes of the study, cars were tallied in columns representing 5 mph intervals, because traffic was too heavy to write down individual speeds.  When the speed gun (which had a range of 15 mph-199 mph) did not register a speed, cars were tallied as obeying the speed limit by default, although there were many instances where this assumption went against subjective visual evidence.

181 cars were counted on the eastbound side of Westminster.  Approximately 54% were within five mph of the speed limit.  The remaining 46% were speeding significantly.  Seven cars  (about 4%) were driving over 40 mph on a 25 mph street.  The highest speed recorded was 42 mph; the lowest 25 mph on the dot.

Other data help to deepen the interpretation that nearly half the cars driving on Westminster speed.  There was a visible correlation between driving the speed limit and being in a relatively dense cluster of cars.  Traffic on Westminster this morning didn’t ever get bad enough to slow people to below the speed limit, but it frequently held them in check to it.  Other reasons for people slowing down included cars turning in front of them, and buses or delivery trucks obstructing part of the lane.

During a five minute interval, a Fed Ex trucks made a delivery right in front of the survey area, which slowed some cars down, although many cars just kept pace and crossed the double-yellow lines to pass it on the left side of the road.

When cars were not prevented from driving more quickly, they usually did.  Almost all of the cars that had free road ahead of them drove faster than 30 mph, with most within that group pushing closer to 35 mph.  The seven cars that west above 40 mph did so when they had relatively empty road.

This study raises questions about what Providence can do to put Westminster businesses in a safer environment, how it can improve pedestrian access to the park, and what it’s plans are for improving safe routes to nearby neighborhood schools.

Some Highlights from Burlington, Vermont

OUR MEGABUS & FOLDING-BIKE TRIP to Burlington Vermont went really great.  Just look at all the amazing things we did without a car!

We bought our Megabus tickets in March, getting a $15 roundtrip cost for both of us combined.  We connected to the bus by the T train out of Providence.  The bus leaves right out of South Station.  Ironically, it cost us more money to travel the Boston leg of the trip than the Megabus one.

In Vermont, a number of bike paths helped us get around.  CCTA, the local bus service, only runs Monday through Saturday, but the service runs consistently every half-hour from the crack of dawn until 9 PM, and goes all over the northwestern part of the state.  There is also a car-share available on St. Paul Street across from City Hall Park, for the less transit-intrepid.

Things to Do Without a Car:  The Shelburne Museum

ONE OF OUR FAVORITE BUS ROUTES took us right to the door of the Shelburne Museum, going past a lot of employment and shopping for residents along the way.  There's a nice village in Shelburne as well, and a farm museum and other attractions we didn't even get time to see.

Stylish Public Transportation

ALL OF THE BUS ROUTES had these beautiful wooden bus shelters.  They were everywhere!  You never felt like taking the bus meant having to stand in the rain.  Contrast that with RIPTA, which makes you stand in the rain even at centrally-located stops like around the top of the trolley tunnel.  This picture was from the rural outskirts of the system, and there were a few more of these shelters within walking distance along this road.

Cherry Street, near the pedestrian mall in downtown, is Burlington's version of Kennedy Plaza.

Public transit was not without its problems.  Service stops at 9 PM, something we think a college town with plenty of tourists could extend until midnight.  Service also doesn't exist on Sundays.  But services run on a frequent Saturday schedule, are clean, prompt, and pretty effective for use as a commuter to most jobs.  The real question to be asked is not why a rural small town shuts down its buses at 9 PM, but why a major city like Providence stops many of its routes around 10.  

One of the things we liked about CCTA's system was that their bus guide was one big pamphlet.  No more stuffing three and four bus schedules into your pocket!  Every bus that they had running had its full schedule and map included in one booklet.  Admittedly, doing this with the entire RIPTA system might be a bit cumbersome, but RIPTA should consider combining several routes at a time into regional guides, to make the schedules more organized and easier to use.
Bike Valet Done Right

BURLINGTON HAS TWENTY-EIGHT ACRES of parking in it--something that Burlington residents see as a problem.  Like Providence, they have a bike valet program.  Unlike Providence, the city has worked to sponsor the program, as a means of reducing parking demand.  Local businesses have also been pretty enthusiastic to jump on board.  Stu at Local Motion talked to us for quite some time about the exciting things his group is doing in Burlington to make it a Gold Standard biking city.

Burlington meters the parking even in quiet residential areas.  And guess what!?  No one grumbles.  People understand that they either have to pay for parking through taxes on everyone, or charge drivers who use the parking for the expense.


THERE WAS A LOT OF FREE ENTERTAINMENT in the downtown of Burlington at night, including this guy, who stacked five chairs on top of a table and did headstands, juggled, and heckled the audience.  You can really see what making an area walkable does for business.

Bike paths

BURLINGTON AND THE SURROUNDING TOWNS have lots of bike paths.  Sadly, we didn't even discover all of them until we were about to leave, there were so many.  One of the nicer ones is up to the Colchester Causeway, which goes across Lake Champlain to a group of islands in the center.  A hurricane knocked out one of the bridges a few years ago, so it's currently only possible to go most of the way across the lake.

This path was considered mostly recreational, but a lot of paths in Burlington exist primarily as routes for people to get to work.  I was pretty skeptical that people would use them in the winter, but the people I spoke to insisted that "Of course we plow them in the winter".  This might be something RIDOT considers.  The extensive paths we have in Rhode Island are not plowed.  In one case, I asked Kingston officials--who control one of the few paths that is plowed (sort of)--if they would salt the path to keep ice down.  They told me that they couldn't salt the path for fear of disruption to the ecosystem around it.  This never stops the area of salting Routes 108 & 138, though.  None of that nonsense gets peddled in Vermont.  They realize that getting people on bikes is an important part of protecting their ecosystem--and in a place with much worse winters than us.

The Intervale

BURLINGTON HAS A NEAT SECTION of it within town that is called the Intervale.  It's the site of a lot of "urban" farming.  There are bike paths all along it, which parallel the highway, and connect to the other paths.

This picture here was taken from the edge of the Old North End.  Right behind us was dense housing, but the view was of countryside in the Intervale.

Ice Cream as Metaphor for Car (and Bike) Parking

A fine example of what free stuff does, even to a website.

RACHEL AND I ARE GOING TO VERMONT on the Megabus this weekend, a transit-oriented adventure we'll be pleased to share pictures of soon.  But as I got thinking about Burlington, the home of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, it occurred to me that ice cream is a great metaphor for what's wrong with parking in cities.

If you've ever been to the opening "free cone day" at a Ben & Jerry's some spring day, the lines are out the door.  I mean, truly horrendous.  And the cone that one gets for this effort is very small.  

By comparison, on any given day that's not "free cone day", you can find Ben & Jerry's--or for that matter, any ice cream joint--pretty full, but almost never with lines out the door.  And you can actually get a decent-sized ice cream cone.

Why do people wait so long for something that's free?

When we look at parking in a city like Providence, we're constantly being told that there's nowhere to park in the downtown.  But in reality, a huge segment of our downtown is parking, not even including the on-street spots.  I submit to you that this is the same problem.

Cities have frequently tried to solve the problem of people not finding a parking spot by regulating the supply of parking--putting parking minimums.  This basically approaches the ice cream problem by saying that if we just gave away twice as many free ice cream cones, the line wouldn't be so bad.

But what would happen if you suddenly said, "Hey, there's even more free ice cream!"?  

I don't think I even have to answer that.

Parking minimums might be even worse than free ice cream, because they create conditions that increase driving that go beyond just making the supply of parking free.  Since excess parking spreads things out, it makes it less attractive to walk, even if one ignores the price incentive to take a free parking spot.

People should pay for ice cream (I know... grouchy...).  And they should pay for parking too.