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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.



  1. Great idea. To be honest, the only thing I really have against it is that there is already a bike lane (pretty much the only one in providence) just one street up on broadway. Not to say that we shouldn't put one on Westminster, too. But if we start getting into which streets would be good candidates for bike lanes, there's an almost unending list. Point street; Fountain and Sabin streets in downtown; Waterman and Angell; many of wide southside streets; even north hope.

    It's sometimes disheartening how insular Providence and Rhode Island seem to be about bike infrastructure. Such a compact city like providence is a perfect place to develop a strong biking community and alternative transportation network. It only takes 20 minutes to bike from one side of the city to the other. But it's dangerous, because there's almost no indication that bicycles are 'welcome'. Or pedestrians for that matter. If Providence doesn't hurry up and realize that these things are important to the quality of life for city residents, many people, including myself, will leave for more bike and ped friendly places.

  2. When I first suggested the idea of a bike lane on Westminster, it was within the first week or so of arriving here, and I was surprised when the hippie-dippy person I was talking to said the same thing about there being a bike lane on Broadway already. I guess it's a common rebuttal. . .

    The businesses on Westminster would benefit from having specific bike lanes, I think. And I would add some on Cranston Street, for that matter, too. I think whenever possible, major routes in Providence should have them. This is especially important because in many cases there isn't a solid grid. Westminster would also be a good addition since it would give a closer access point to people on the south side of the neighborhood. Because of the speeding on Westminster, for instance, just crossing that street can be a hassle, so not having to do so to get downtown would be helpful.

  3. Removing the parking would not reduce speeding, since the street isn't going to be visually narrowed in any way for the non-bike lanes, it would like increase speeding, unless other infrastructure changes were also made along the entire length of the street to keep drivers from doing the slow/fast yo-yo.

    As for being too close to Broadway to be useful, I don't see that as an obstacle, they serve different neighborhoods along their length and both routes need to include means of crossing the obstacle of I-95. I believe that Westminster provides a better opportunity to do so since the intersection configuration and turning options are simpler than Broadway/Atwells/LaSalle square.

    As for your comment about the BPAC, I don't recall this particular proposal has ever been made to that body, so its unfair to the members of that committee to claim that they are not receptive to parking removal in a blanket way like you do here.

  4. Hi Matt,

    I'm familiar with parked cars being a traffic calming remedy, and agree, up to a point that that helps in making things better for pedestrians, although not for cyclists. Even when I've seen bump outs or parked cars used to narrow a stretch of road working well, it has rarely served to lower speeds below 20 by itself. If you get cars down to 30 from 40, it really aids pedestrians, and as a pedestrian I like that. But as a cyclist, a narrow road at 30 mph along parked cars is about as useful to me as no traffic calming at all.

    I have brought this, a Cranston Street proposal, a Hope Street proposal, and others using parking lanes to the BPAC several times, both in writing and at meetings, and have had those proposals ignored. I even got into a verbal vack-and-forth with David Everett about the issue at the June meeting. I stand by my statement, although I'll reiterate what I've said elsewhere about the committee not being an entirely homogenous body.

  5. Also Matt, to give a longer timeline,

    Back in March, Eco RI published an opinion piece (http://www.ecori.org/transportation/2013/3/1/boldly-thinking-beyond-the-sharrow.html) we penned criticizing the BPAC for not focusing enough energy on major routes, and for making only token changes to streets. One of the criticisms embedded in that article was that parking was off limits, and should not be. David Everett wrote a response to that article (http://www.ecori.org/green-opinions/2013/3/14/planning-to-make-providence-a-bike-friendly-city.html), also published in Eco RI, which among other things said that parking could be on the table longterm, but did not specify exactly what that meant.

    We wrote a piece directly on the heels on that article praising the change of policy towards parking reconfiguration (http://transportprovidence.blogspot.com/2013/03/eco-ri-bike-providence-explains-its.html). In that article in particular, we tried to clarify our belief that the people of the BPAC are good people, but emphasized the need to put pressure on the BPAC to keep it effective. We assume that at least as much pressure is put in the opposite direction, which is perhaps why the pace of change in Providence around bike issues is so glacial.

    But then following that article, at meetings, David Everett went right back to saying that parking was off the table. This position has also been taken by Bill DiSantis, the engineer for VHB that is doing much of the design work behind the bike plan. Everett has also taken a number of retrograde positions on other ideas that have come through the BPAC, like Eric Weis' proposal for pedestrianization of certain streets in the city. We highlighted those plans, and praised Weis, but said that we felt disappointed that the only paid person on the committee continued to oppose the plans (see article, http://transportprovidence.blogspot.com/2013/06/what-squaauhh-bettuhh-even-than.html). In June, we attended a meeting in which a version of the bike plan was shown, and the plan was pretty much the same as it's been for months. It made no reference to streets like Westminster, Cranston St., Harris Ave., or Broad St., which would be logical major routes to do improvements on. When we asked why this was so, it was explained that those routes couldn't be touched since that would require changing parking.

    So, ambiguous comments on Eco RI notwithstanding, we understand the policy of the the BPAC to be currently stated as being unwilling to remove parking from any streets. It's not to say that we think everyone on the BPAc personally holds that to be the best policy, but that seems to be the policy of the paid staff person, and of the engineer in charge, and we haven't heard any public statements at meetings trying to contradict those positions. We'd welcome a change in that policy. I think we assume that the reason for this position is not that people are necessarily against bikes, but again, it more likely an outgrowth of the political pressures in Providence, and we see no other way to change those dynamics than to bring direct criticism of the city's work on this issue.

  6. I just can't understand why there's this strange intransigence about removing some street parking from (very few) arterial streets. I suppose part of it comes from the provincial viewpoint that auto travel is, and will always be, the only reasonable way to get around in America. This is a viewpoint that is exceedingly common in Rhode Island, apparently even in the BPAC. It makes me cynical from time to time, which is why I'm glad there are less cynical advocates like yourself.

    But I just can't figure out why the RI powers that be seem to miss the larger point that comes from generating bikeable and walkable spaces: they reduce reliance on cars, and in turn, the need for as much parking and road space. Sure, adding a protected bike lane might remove some parking. But it will also (if data are to be believed) lead more people to bike, and fewer people to drive, reducing the number of people trying to find parking spaces. People will drive and park, insofar as it is the easiest, or only choice. As long as we refuse to make other modes of travel even marginally easier, we shouldn't be surprised when parking, traffic, and downtown vitality continue to plague our city. If the BPAC doesn't understand that, what hope can we hold for the state as a whole?

  7. Just like Broadway, each end of this segment of Westminster Street is a Bicycle-No-Go-Zone: Olneyville Square and the I-95 service roads. Until something is done about such no-go zones all over the city, I find it hard to get excited about painted stripes here and there. Also, like Matt says, removing parking on Westminster will make the speeding worse. These streets have room for parking protected cycle tracks.

    Similarly, Cranston Street, the direct route to the west bay bike path, is in most urgent need of improvement for cycling but it will be close to worthless unless it includes something that actually allows novice riders to feel safe at the route 10 underpass.

    The next time the "Good People" on the BPAC are more or less told that parking is sacrosanct. they should get up and walk out saying why are we wasting our time at the Driving and Parking Business as Usual committee. We somehow confused it with the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. When that committee meets we will be there.

  8. Andrew said:

    " I suppose part of it comes from the provincial viewpoint that auto travel is, and will always be, the only reasonable way to get around in America. This is a viewpoint that is exceedingly common in Rhode Island, apparently even in the BPAC."

    I should say, in fairness, that I don't think this is a common view in the BPAC. I think it's a common view expressed in some form by Everett, and I'm not certain he expresses it out of preference so much as political expediency. In other words, I think he doesn't have faith that he can convince others to do differently, whether among businesses or on city council, whatever (his comments are welcome below if he should try to clarify us on that).

    The other members of the BPAC to varying degrees do or don't think that. I feel that they mostly don't think that, but that they follow the lead of the the paid staff person and the engineer in determining priorities. That's a matter of inertia, and people feeling pressure only from one side.

    I also think, to some extent, that the problem is that people see themselves as cyclists, and think that if they can do it, anyone can. Bill DiSantis, the VHB engineer, has expressed something like this on several occasions. DiSantis is a cyclist, and commutes to work, so when he comes up with an engineering plan we're supposed to assume that it's good, and takes into account the needs of cyclists. But in my view, what I've seen of the plan is designed for forty year old men in spandex and a few twenty-something hipsters like me and Rachel (at best). And quite honestly, maybe you can count Rachel and I out of that, since we mostly avoid roads like Westminster at this point.

    (The whole James Rachel tag is from our email getting changed to reflect both our roles in the blog, but I should say that these comments are from James throughout)

  9. "Until something is done about such no-go zones all over the city, I find it hard to get excited about painted stripes here and there. Also, like Matt says, removing parking on Westminster will make the speeding worse. These streets have room for parking protected cycle tracks."

    Yeah, I don't know. I definitely agree with you that paint alone is not the trick. Some degree of buffers, grade change, and other features will be necessary. I also think putting in more signals to create a "green wave" and reduce the distance between crosswalks would help the matter.

    That said, I feel like having some kind of a wide lane here would be good. Spruce and Pine Streets got wide lanes that were only paint in Philadelphia, and although people do sometimes double park in them, they're mostly a very useful thing. On the other hand, speeding in Center City Philadelphia is not the problem that it is in the West End of Providence, so maybe I'm drawing a bad comparison.

    Similarly, Cranston Street, the direct route to the west bay bike path, is in most urgent need of improvement for cycling but it will be close to worthless unless it includes something that actually allows novice riders to feel safe at the route 10 underpass."

    I would agree with this, and if, for instance, the Westminster idea was put on the back burner in order to do Cranston Street first, I would think that was fine. But the comments I've received from the BPAC have been that neither is being considered.

    As far as your comments about "the Good People", like I said, my attitude is that they really *are* good people, and I'd rather keep the degree of ad hominems to a limit in the comments section of the blog. But I think it's like the old A. Phillip Randolph story, where he asks F.D.R. to do X and Y for the Sleeping Car Porters, and F.D.R. calmly listens and then says, "Hmm, I agree, but you'll have to organize and make me do it". I think most of the members of the committee (maybe all) agree in principle with these ideas, but that they don't see them as politically possible. What we should try to accomplish with our criticism is the creation of a space for people to act as though these ideas are not just possible but inevitable. And I also think we need to keep plugging about the number of crap priorities that Rhode Island and Providence *do* put money to, while claiming that there's no money for bike projects to happen in an expedient way.

  10. I did not say they were not good people. I am aware of the importance of working within the system and conventional decorum in a setting like a BPAC meeting. And so on. But seriously, sometime, somewhere someone has to act up and call BS before anything really changes. At the pace the BPAC is setting, I will not live long enough to see more than token isolated fragments of a bikeable walkable city.

    I'll see your FDR/A Philip Randolph and raise you one Martin Luther King:

    "... the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”

  11. Yeah, I agree with you there. I think the stumbling block metaphor is actually a good one for the BPAC. Kind of a moderate group of well intentioned people who say, "slow down".

    I just didn't want anything I was saying about the BPAC to be mischaracterized or misunderstood. The organizations that are represented include Greater City Providence, the RI Bike Coalition, Recycle-a-Bike, the city's Sustainability dept., East Coast Greenway, VHB engineering, and so on, so it's not like the committee is made up of anti-bike people. It's just that they imagine themselves as not being able to get a lot done, so they busy themselves doing token things like putting sharrows on a circuitous route through Washington and Carpenter Streets, instead of getting a real bike route onto Westminster, etc. Your last comment really explains exactly how I feel about this group.

  12. Here's a question, either for Andrew or Matt, or whoever wants to chime in.

    I know that parked cars are supposed to slow down traffic. And it seems they do on some roads. Wickenden might be a good example. But does parking still do much to calm traffic if it's only at an 11% rate of occupancy? A lot of places on the street, the cars were spaced like bus stops, or farther.

    Second, how does speeding contrast with room in determining bike safety? I would obviously want the police to start to enforce the 25 mph speed limit, which is why I wrote the Eco RI article highlighting the speeding problem. On the other hand, when I lived in Kingston I used to commute to my job on the Block Island Ferry by bike, and more than half of the trip involved riding down the highway alongside 45 mph traffic on 108. But 108 felt safe to me, because although I know that in theory any given car could swerve and make a mistake, and such a car would likely kill or maim me, it felt like since they were eight or ten feet away in the other lane that that outcome was unlikely. Whereas, going down Westminster, even if the cars slow down a tad as they pass (which they usually don't, frankly) they're passing *so close*. It feels very likely that they could miscalculate and hit a cyclist there.

    I sort of think, all things being equal, if the street didn't slow down from what it is from the bike lane, having the extra room would still be safer.

    And then third question is, isn't there some data that supports the idea of bike lanes themselves slowing traffic? Just because they draw enough cyclists in to make motorists aware, and so on? I've been told that although there's still speeding on Broadway that it's much less prevalent than it was before the bike lanes, but I have personally only seen Broadway in its current form. Hard to make the comparison.

    But we should definitely do some other traffic calming/enforcement as part of the mix.