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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...

Seattle Transit Blog: Case Study Shows Road Diets Help Business

This ought to be good news for the proposal our blog made to take away parking on Westminster Street and put buffered bike lanes.

More about the study at Seattle Transit Blog.

Providence PD: Disinterested in Bike Safety?


Today I was walking along Broadway on my way to Recycle-a-Bike, to fix a flat.  At the intersection with Barton Street, there was a car stopped at the light, and I had the walk signal.  I walked into the intersection.  The driver wasn't paying attention, and started to try to make a right turn on a red, partially forcing my bike under his car.

Overall, I'm really thankful, because I was not hurt.  I was concerned that the bike might have been damaged, though, so I asked the driver to provide his name and insurance in case anything turned up wrong with the bike when I checked it out.  He said he would, but when he pulled around the corner to supposedly stop, he just sped off and kept going.

So, I took the license down, and a description of the vehicle and driver (Grey Camry, CS 575, Latino male, in his forties, mustache).  The bricklayer working at St. Mary's Church let me use his phone because mine was at home.  I asked the police to send a cruiser so that I could file a complaint.

Then we waited.  And waited.

Cruisers actually went by several times while I waited, but I only got the third one to stop.  He said there was no report over the police radio of a hit-and-run.  I asked him to fill out a report, and he said he couldn't do that, that there was a specific police detail that worked on traffic that would come around.  After thirty more minutes of waiting without anyone coming by, I decided to leave.

I might have waited even longer, except that this is not the first time that I've had to report this kind of thing to the police department, and in every instance, I've been ignored. The day before Pride, I was riding my bike down South Water Street.  An SUV got behind me and revved its engine, and then whipped around me in the same lane and passed me going way over the speed limit. The construction people who were setting up for Pride actually yelled out at the SUV as it passed, which is why I have such a clear memory of when the incident happened.  So I had a whole crew of witnesses.

I waited an hour and a half for the police to come, which they never did.  I actually called the dispatcher back two more times after the initial call, just to make sure that there wasn't a problem locating me.  But a half an hour after the third call, and with no one in sight, I left.

I've been ignored like this at least four times.  Each time I've had the plate number, and at least one witness, to bolster my case.  This should mean that the case was easily prosecutable, and therefore worth the attention of whomever was on duty. Apparently that's not what Providence P.D. thinks though.

Nationally, more people are killed by cars than by guns--although sadly, in a few states, this trend may reverse simply due to the enormously high rate of gun violence in our country.  You would think this would mean that the police would treat these cases seriously.  A person who misuses a vehicle, especially in anger, is essentially doing the same thing as threatening a person with a gun.  I wish our criminal justice system would act that way.

Please feel encouraged to write your own instances of police ignoring your safety on the road as a cyclist or pedestrian, because I'd like to compile more examples.

Maybe We Should Cut Some Bus Routes, and Nix the Streetcar


Maybe we should cut some bus routes.  And nix the streetcar.

You're probably pretty surprised to hear me say that.  I'm a little surprised to hear me say that too. I just finished Human Transit (currently on sale online for $4.99) by Jarrett Walker, and the book has convinced me that in Providence, consolidating and eliminating some of our bus routes into coherent, easy to understand, frequent lines would be better for all of us.

Walker says:
Transit debates. . . suffer form the fact that today, in most of our cities, most of our decision makers are motorists.  No matter how much you support transit, driving a car every day can shape your thinking in powerful, subconscious ways.  For example, in most debates about proposed rapid transit lines, the speed of the proposed service gets more political attention than how frequently it runs, even though frequency, which determines waiting time, often matters more than speed in determining how long your trip will take. Your commuter train system will advertise that it can whisk you into the city in 39 minutes, but if the train comes only once every 2 hours and you've just missed one, your travel time will be 159 minutes, so it may be faster to drive, or even walk.
One of the car-based notions we have about transit is that it's good to have a lot of routes.  That's because it looks good on a map, as if there's a lot of coverage.  In reality, though, transit operates very differently than roads.  With roads (or perhaps, bike routes) you want a lot of options, because you're at the helm.  With transit, you really just want a simple, reliable, constant service, that helps to supplement how far you can get as a pedestrian.  The ample routes on a map trick us into thinking we're moving like a car, when we're not.

So on the West End, we have the 92, the 27, and the 19, and any one of these could be used to get to Downcity--and in fact, these are just the routes I happen to use sometimes.  I'm fairly sure there are even more.  

On the map, this looks like lots of options. In reality, none of these options is good though, because they're all infrequent and unreliable.  The 92 moves at glacial pace through Atwells Avenue traffic, while the other two, although faster, are still fairly infrequent.  It's like a Sophie's choice trying to decide whether to risk missing one route for the other, especially when on any given day the schedule may not even hold to be true.

Instead of the illusion of three routes, why not just have one line.  We call it a "line" because it's actually pretty permanent.  By combining these three buses, we could have triple the frequency, which means riders won't have to worry about a schedule.  Instead of using Atwells or Westminster, we'll put the line on Broadway, because that's no more than a third of a mile from Atwells at its farther point, and no more than a quarter of a mile from Westminster at its farthest point.

The 92, 27, and 19 don't go to the same places beyond my neighborhood, but another point that Walker makes addresses this.  Walker says its far better to have short routes that connect with others than to rely on complex routes that branch out and dilute service.  If RIPTA ran a consolidated east-west route between the East Side and Olneyville, and relied on connecting services to branch out in different directions, in could make all of the routes more frequent.  

You might say, as I did, "Don't transfers suck?"  I sometimes take the 92, even though, as I said, it's the farther walk for me, and moves the slowest of any of the bus routes, because at least it means the route will go straight through to the East Side.  The idea behind having a simplified transit map, though, is that it allows the routes to run at high frequency, so the amount of time waiting at Kennedy Plaza to transfer would be much shorter.  I'm not certain that we should force people to transfer for east-west trips at Kennedy Plaza, because I don't think that makes that much sense.  But if you were going north-south at some point, you'd get off of the main east-west line, and use any number of north-south routes at a transfer point.

Walker says the best system would work essentially like a pulsating grid.  RIPTA's current model is more like a labyrinthine octopus, trying to deliver a strange variety of specialty routes, none of which runs often enough to compete with cars for ease, rapidity, or spontaneity of travel.  We could have one simplified north-south line running along a transit-only Thayer Street, and along Hope Street, instead of a rather odd 42, which comes all the way down a car-cluttered Thayer, and then tuns down the tunnel and gets stuck in Downcity traffic.  Having a solid east-west route that connects with the Thayer/Hope one would mean that both ran more frequently and efficiently, but without greater cost. The transfer would be worth it.

Likewise, parts of the Dean/Potters/Cahir/Prairie/etc. north-south route could be made transit only, or at least have transit only lanes, in order to connect a useful north-south route connecting a variety of neighborhoods.  Instead of running several buses from Kennedy Plaza, each to neighborhoods that could only justify their service by their own ridership, RIPTA would run a consolidated north-south line that could be justified by ridership from Smith Hill, Federal Hill, the West End, Upper & Lower South Sides, and perhaps even parts of Cranston.  By alleviating choke points so that the bus can run efficiently through traffic, RIPTA could make the service useful, and reliable.  This would also be worth the transfer, and would add the usefulness of the east-west line.

There would be other routes, besides these, but the point is that there would definitely be fewer routes than today.  And they wouldn't have to be streetcars.  In fact, in terms of cost, it might be better if they weren't.  So, in conclusion.

1)  We should get rid of a lot of routes.

2)  A streetcar is probably not that great an idea.

Interested in your comments below. 


So I'm updating this with some comments and questions people have made in Twitter, because I think they're worthwhile, but I find that having full conversations in Twitter is impractical.  

Jason Becker had a lot to say, but these were some choice comments I picked out to republish:

And Jef Nickerson, of Greater City Providence, wrote
 Which followed with:
In terms of Jason Becker's thoughts, I'd be curious to see if you really can't get serious ridership increases on a bus if the bus has a right of way and runs frequently and efficiently.  And to some extent, even though I think the development question is important, I don't like the idea that we're wedding ourselves to a particular technology (rail) rather than a particular type of route (frequent), out of the hope that it's going to aid developers.  Development is a good side effect of transit, but the reason we want transit is to move people without cars.

In terms of Jef Nickerson's comments, I would welcome his elaboration below, because he may certainly have the better on me about that.  I'm curious.

I'm certainly emotionally with everyone else, because I love trolley/streetcar systems.  I grew up in a town that had two trolleys (the 101 & 102) that connected to SEPTA's El, and because they had a right of way, they were actually really helpful.  But I'm also aware of examples of trolleys from Philly that were not as helpful.  Although it was a pride and joy, culturally speaking, to have the 34, 13, 11, and 10 trolleys running through West Philly, a lot of times they got bunched up in traffic so that you'd have five at once and then none for an hour.  All it took was one Fed-Ex truck double parking (which happened five times a day, at least, on any given block) and you'd back the trolley up so that it couldn't move. 

And Walker's point about spreading out service along a bunch of branches also makes sense to me as a criticism of the way we treat transit.  If you lived in West Philly, you might stand on Chester Avenue in the middle of Clark Park and look to see which of the four trolleys was coming, and either bolt north or south depending on which one it was.  This was great if you were athletic, and living close to where the branches started to converge.  But if you lived farther out, it meant you had a less frequent service.  In a city of Philly's size, with the level of density it had, and so on, maybe that was worth it, because you could keep frequency and span relatively high from ridership.  But in Providence, shouldn't we be trying to focus really strongly on getting one or two good right of way lines?  The streetcar proposals I've seen don't seem to address this.

Westminster: Where Will All the Cars Go?

From Google Maps: Westminster near U.S. 6 & 10.  Note that there is significant off-street parking, and that each of the houses is separated by a driveway.


A bit east of picture one.
As mentioned on our Twitter, Fertile Underground's board of directors, internally referred to as "the G.A.", has taken on the task of debating whether to recommend, as a business, that the parking lanes on Westminster Street be turned into wide protected bike lanes.  Some of the owners have already started talking with other neighbors about the idea, and one of the questions that's been relayed back to me is, "Where would all the parked cars go?"  So this is my answer to that question.

I did a count of cars parked on the street at 3 PM Monday, from 1-95 to U.S. 6 & 10.  The long and short of it was that very, very little (11%) of the on-street parking was being used.  (If you're interested in the details of how I came to this calculation, read the next two paragraphs, or you can skip on if you're not interested).

Where 11% comes from:

There were ninety spots taken up (this translated into eighty-four vehicles--three trucks were counted as taking up three spaces each, as they unloaded).  Ninety may sounds like quite a few vehicles, but W. Westminster is 1.2 miles long according to Google Maps.  There are sixteen cross-streets on this stretch of road, most of them narrow, so that deletes a certain percentage of parking capacity, plus many of the properties have driveways into their back parking lots.  Nonetheless, assuming that one quarter of the potential on-street parking is not available for these reasons, that still leaves almost eight hundred places to park a car on the street.  In other words, there was about an 11% occupancy rate during a prime period of weekday shopping.

I don't claim that a one time count of on-street parking should stand as a fully scientific study of the parking patterns on a street.  I will say that as a resident of this corridor, who walks or bikes up and down it quite a bit, that the degree of parking occupancy didn't stand out visually as being out of the ordinary.  This was the amount of cars I'm used to seeing.  It may be interesting to revisit the street at night, or in the early morning, or on weekends, as see if there are changes. Anecdotally, when I do Bike-to-FUG Sundays, I get to stare at a large portion of the street for quite a number of hours, and the street appears emptier to me then than it did today in the afternoon.  So I would suggest that this is a heavy period of parking usage.


In addition to a low on-street parking rate, many of the shops, restaurants, and residences have parking lots.  Almost all the lots I encountered were either empty, or occupied by only one or two vehicles.  In other words, there was considerable parking capacity available outside of the street.  The only parking lots I saw that were anything close to full were the ones scattered around the various high schools at Hoyle Square.  Even these had some room for extra cars.

Westminster: Hoyle Square
(Whoa!  That's a lot of parking!)
I can already hear an argument being voiced against the proposal to make the parking lanes bike lanes from an opposite quadrant than those who want to protect the interests of cars.  Just as one could be against the proposal for how it supposedly hobbles cars, an urbanist objection could be brought claiming that parking lots should not be counted in the study out of the hope that we would eventually develop on those parking lots, and effectively lose all or most of their parking capacity.  I must say, I do not want my neighborhood to continue having the level of surface parking that is currently available, so this argument appeals to me.

That said, I don't think this is a real objection either, because it assumes that car usage is static, and that we can't accomplish the removal of some surface parking through redevelopment without re-encountering the need for on-street parking. As we fill in the numerous parking lots on the street with extra businesses and residences, it builds customer capacity for businesses from within the neighborhood, adds to the number of people who do not have to drive to work, and so on.  Jared Walker, author of Human Transit, which I just finished and highly recommend (the electronic version is only $4.99), points out that doubling the density of a corridor does far more than double the number of transit riders, for instance, because not only would there be twice as large a pool of potential bus riders, but it would also become more attractive to ride the bus.  There would be a shorter and more attractive walk, and the increased riders would create a feedback loop that would make it possible to run more frequent service, in turn increasing ridership.  So as we decide to get rid of some of this ugly surface parking, we don't have to worry about the bike lanes being a hindrance.
Westminster: Near I-95
(Again, could we fit some more lots in there?)

Another argument that could be made against making the parking lanes into bike lanes is that we need a place to load and unload goods.  This has some merit.  In our study, there were three trucks parked, doing just that.  I would counter that the trucks could unload from the parking lots for now.  If ever we entered an era when Westminster became free of parking lots, the side streets would be an option for delivery trucks, although perhaps this would entail using smaller trucks than the full sized tractor trailers.  In any case, the twelve spots taken up by trucks accounted for just 1.5% (note the decimal point!) of the available parking that was estimated after we removed driveways and so forth from the length of the road.  

What would a bike lanes cost?  A traditional bike lane costs $5,000 a mile, so for this 1.2 mile stretch, bike lanes on either side would run about $12,000.  This contrasts with the cost of one lane-mile of urban highway, which runs around $6 million.  A traditional bike lane requires the painting of lines along with bicycling stencils.  In our case, since the lines are already painted, it's possible that the wide bike lanes might cost less than the average.  It would be worth noting that the pavement on the bike lanes would need less repaving than ordinary roadway.  Since the average cost of a single U.S. parking space is something like $15,000, the full cost of painting the bike lanes would be the same as repaving one of those spots.  In other words, the savings from not having to repave the equivalent of 1,050 spots in length would probably more than make up for the initial cost of the bike lanes, in long term savings.

But what about the customers?  Well, like I said, in the immediate term, the customers have ample parking lot space.  That lot space may not be evenly distributed between businesses.  Perhaps if lots became the main form of parking available, owners would begin to see them as a commodity, and trade rights to spots with one another.  Even the School District buildings, which were the few parking lots I saw that were mostly full, had some spots available that could be marketed, and that money could be used to pay for school programs, which in turn would either increase school budgets or lower taxes, depending on the whims of the local voters.  Win-win.

What's more, as a resident of a side street (Tobey Street) I know that, especially during the day, there is a lot of available parking for people to use.  Currently, in order to park in one of those spaces, one has to have a resident permit, and there's a whole lot of harangue that goes on to get one (ask my downstairs neighbors, who have applied for one several times, but who don't have Rhode Island plates on their car.  They've been ticketed as non-residents even though they clearly live here).  Most of the houses have driveways, additionally, and then there are even some parking lots on the side streets.  Some smart deal-making by residents and businesses could work this out.  My street is covered with trash, despite my best efforts to keep up with litterers.  Perhaps local businesses (who also don't want trash) could pay me for my unused parking spot (I don't drive), and could thus accommodate customers, most of whom do not mind walking half a block to get to a store.  As a resident, I could use this to pay for better street cleaning.

What about all the customers to be gained?  Currently, there is a significant bike ridership on Westminster, even though it is by any account a dangerous road on which to ride.  We did a study, which was published on Eco RI's website, demonstrating that 46% of rush hour drivers speeded, with a significant percentage going above 40 mph (Westminster's legal speed limit is 25 mph).  With a low parking rate, a cyclist can often ride in the parking lane as it is, but this requires constantly merging in and out of traffic, which any cycling safety expert will remind you to be risky.  The other option is to try to "command" or "take" the lane, which in several instances has resulted in drivers trying to run me off of the road with their cars.  Remaining is what most people do, which is to try to occupy a point somewhere between the speeding cars and the parked cars.  If someone passes to close, or if a car opens its door unexpectedly, this can prove fatal.

U.S. Census data shows that Providence as a whole has a 35% non-car ownership rate, quite high by national rates, although not quite as high as some cities like New York, Philly, or Boston.  But in adjacent neighborhoods to the West End, like Olneyville, the non-car ownership rate is above 50%. Doesn't it make sense to allocate scarce road resources in a way that will benefit the majority of people in an area?

Since there are already so many cyclists on such a street, doesn't this show that with more safe routes available, the numbers would be even higher?

What's more, there is ample data showing that cyclists prove to be excellent customers.  They need very little room to park.  They do not make noise or pollution.  They spend more money, on average, than motorists.  And since they tend to come from nearby, they are often repeat customers.  

The strongest argument to be made for these bike lanes is that they would enable people to ride their bikes who are not a) athletically inclined and/or b) suicidally blind to risk.  This means, in effect, people who aren't in their twenties.  Children.  Old people.  People with disabilities.  People who are overweight, but who want to be more active.  A lot of people could benefit from the addition of bike lanes to Westminster Street who we don't think of as the usual suspects for cycling.  I think it's our responsibility to think of these people when we make decisions.

I'd like to end this article by thanking Fertile Underground again for even taking up this question.  The Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC) has been mostly unreceptive to talking about parking removal of any kind in the city, even though in many cases nothing meaningful can be done to improve safety for cyclists without dealing with parking.  FUG's interest in this question shows that the businesses of our neighborhood are often on the leading edge of improving our transportation situation. The city and state government (Westminster is technically a state road) need to get on board.


Our Park(ing) Day Pecha Kucha


Thank you to Andy Cutler et al. for introducing us to Providence Pecha Kucha.  Both of us gave this performance at Grant's Block on Wednesday.  We're excited to get the word out about Providence Park(ing) Day even more, so please check out our slides.

Everyone knows what a "Missed Connection" is.  Psychology Today did a study that cited the top locations for Missed Connections nationwide, and this showed a lot about the cultures of different states. 
Many states had public transportation as their number one location.  In Maryland it was parks; South Carolina, football games.  Indianans had many of their Missed Connections at home, which was. . . weird.

Our state, Rhode Island, stood out in the country as having its top location in parking lots.  Perhaps this shouldn't be surprising since so much of Providence's downtown is covered by parking.  The light colored areas in this map are garages, while the darker red/orange is surface parking.

Providence has gotten better, though.  In 1975, the river was covered with parking, as was the area by Burnside Park we now use as a skating rink.  

One reason cities need all this space for parking is that cars take up by far the most space of any mode of transportation.  This is sixty people, by bike, by car, and by bus, in Muenster, Germany.  Which street would you prefer to live on?  Which one do you think has the worst traffic?
And it's worth noting that Providence wasn't the only city that destroyed its downtown to make room for cars.  This is a densely settled part of Cleveland in the 1960s. 
And believe it or not, this is the same neighborhood of Cleveland, some decades later.  You can see that there are a lot fewer building--fewer places to shop, to live, work, etc.--although there are plenty of places to park your car.
Parking doesn't necessarily come about because people want it.  Our zoning requires developers to add more and more spaces for cars, which they then give away for free.

But free parking isn't actually free.  The cheapest apartment in the figure, at $800 month, is $1300 a month after underground parking is added.  We require parking spaces to be put in housing for people who can't afford cars, thus making the housing itself more unaffordable.

Parking has a big effect on how people choose to get around.  In California, there is a parking cash-out law, where employees can get the equivalent of their parking space in cash (usually several hundred dollars a month) if they bike, use transit, or carpool.  When people have a choice, they make better decisions, even though the cash-out still maintains free parking for those who do use it.

Nor should we assume that inducing people to drive is the only way that parking negatively affects our environment.  The Narragansett Bay is one of many waterways that has been polluted by storm water runoff, where sewage runs directly into the bay.  Rainwater running off of parking lots contributes heavily to this problem of storm water overflow.

A creative solution is Park(ing) Day, when we take a day to turn our parking into something other than a space for cars.

In Philadelphia's 30th Street Station, a woman has turned her parking spot into an art installation with plants.

Park(ing) Day happens all around the world.  Here in Chile, a family has turned their parking spot into a pool.  Imagine having this instead of asphalt on a hot day.

Many restaurants would rather have ten tables outside than two parking spots.  In Russia, this family is having a temporary outdoor cafe in their parking spot.

This New York baby girl is getting a private concert from her stroller.

We don't think of Dallas, Texas as a particularly urbanist or walkable town, but here a woman has taken a parking spot and temporarily used it for a day of yoga practice.

And we shouldn't assume that Park(ing) Day has to be temporary.  Here in San Francisco a restaurant is using their parking spot for a permanent outdoor cafe, and this is also done in cities ranging from Philly, to Boston, New York, and Miami, Florida.

Nor must we assume that parklets have to be just one space.  Why not a string of spaces, used to make a protected bike lane, like the one that runs through Prospect Park in Brooklyn.

We feel certain that with effort, Rhode Island will no longer embarrass itself by having its Missed Connections in parking lots.  Next year, if a similar survey were to happen of our Missed Connections, we hope that most of them will be at Park(ing) Day instead. 

Driverless Cars?


There was an interesting post on driverless cars at streets.mn today.  Brendan Slotterback asks a lot of insightful questions about how the potential for driverless technology would affect people's use of transit, and concludes somewhat sadly that a lot of even the best discussion going about this technology doesn't ask the right questions about that aspect of policy.

I personally think that driverless cars would be a nightmare, and am constantly confused by why so many people see the technology as hopeful.  I thought I'd link to the article and repost my comments about the idea.  I said:

I’m not sure I particularly understand why people would be more likely to carpool with driverless cars than with person-driven cars. Of course, I’m hopeful that that’s how they would be used, but the jump to the notion that there’s something about driverless vehicles themselves that would make that happen seems really tenuous to me.
The other big issues I see are:
1. I can’t see how driverless cars would deal with pedestrians and bicycles in complex crossings. I realize this is also a problem with actual drivers, but the computation involved in these kinds of decisions seems fraught with peril, should there be a failure.
2. If we had driverless cars as a regular feature of life, would most of us stop knowing how to drive? What happens if the mechanisms fail? Is there an override? And would any of us bother knowing how to work such an override (I suppose this could be dealt with through licensing somewhat, although it seems to me that that atrophy from non-use of a skill is almost as bad as not having the skill at all–I think of the Mark Twain quote about people who can read but don’t being worse than people who are fully illiterate).
3. And of course, I realize that our current car technology has a lot of computer-associated technology in it (fuel injection, for instance), but what are the implications for adding to that, in terms of pollution? Our society seems bent on assuming that computers are a clean technology, but they’re full of all sorts of horrible things. Right now, I know that a car’s manufacture and demise account for 40% of its lifetime pollution. How will that change if there is more intensive computer technology involved (perhaps it won’t, but it’s worth asking).

Particularly on the third point, I don't want to sound like a Luddite with my head in the sand.  Clearly, as a blogger, I see the potential for computers to be a positive force in our lives, and choose to use that technology to that end.  That said, I really don't think it can be overemphasized just how blind American culture is to the destructive aspects of computers, perhaps as a result of the fact that so much of our computer gadgets don't come from our own factories.  I would really suggest a movie on Netflix called The Manufactured Landscape, which just boggles the mind with both the horror and sheer beauty of the large scale manufacturing, recycling, reprocessing, and disposal of the materials we use to create the things we need (or want).  We should really ask questions like these when we're floating new ideas about inventions like driverless cars. 

The other caveat I would add is that I think a lot of solutions to our problems come from changes we need to make to our culture, rather than to technology alone--i.e., we often already have the answers to our problems, and have to implement them.  We already know how to run good BRT lines, high-speed rail, trolleys/streetcars, build good bike infrastructure, etc., and these solutions tend to be cheaper and easier than inventing whole new paradigms.  But something about our way of thinking says that it's always better to strive to reinvent the wheel.  I think this is something we should try to get away from.