|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.