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Tying Things Up in a Pretzel


Dear Readers,

We've been away for a while--in part because getting the electricity bill switched from our last landlord's name into our name involved sitting in the dark for three or four days (this made for some especially ironic musings since I work for an electricity company). But we wanted to put something up about the great fun we had on the first PVD Pretzel Ride.

Pandas love pretzels and bikes By RACHEL PLAYE
The Pretzel Ride idea came from Philly, where every Tuesday night there's a critical mass-style ride to Center City Pretzel Company near the Rocky-famed Italian Market. When we met Ian Cappelano of Foremost Bakery, it was the first thing that popped into my mind--we've gotta' bring that here!

A whole bunch of costuming fun ensued at GRIN Gallery (60 Valley Street) where the bike ride began.

After drinking some cider from the GRIN gallery, riders gathering outside on Valley St in Providence
At the intermission of the Pretzel Ride, the participants jumped off their bikes at Prospect Park for a photo.

Team photo!

Ian treated everyone who arrived at Foremost Bakery (25 Eagle Street) to free soft pretzels and Oktoberfest beer. 

One of Foremost Bakery's owners, Ian Cappelano, outside the bakery By RACHEL PLAYE
Participants' bikes outside Foremost Bakery By RACHEL PLAYE
Foremost Bakery team's jack-o-lantern display By RACHEL PLAYE
Inside the Foremost Bakery riders gather for food and drink.  Blue Bicycle's Molly Hagan even showed up!
Delicious delicious pretzels By RACHEL PLAYE

Anyone visiting Eagle Street right now can't help but notice that its connection to Valley Street is currently blocked. This created an unusually welcoming biking situation in what is normally not a very pleasant place to bike. We talked to Cappelano and to another baker, Peter Kobulnicky, both of whom are commuter cyclists, and asked what they thought of having some cement bollards there to permanently block the crossing to cars, and they said they thought the idea was superb (so much for businesses fighting substantial biking improvements out of attachment to cars). Local business-1. Cars-0.

Traffic seems to be functioning fine with the blockage.  Cars have plenty of other options to get across if they choose (and they'd have even more options if Providence ever took our advice to tear out Route 6 & 10 and continue Memorial Boulevard as a multimodal road with normal, at-grade crossings all the way to the zoo). The Olneyville/Valley area has an especially low car ownership rate, so this also seems eminently fair to the people who live there.

Some of you may remember our post about highways that have disappeared from cities--and not disappeared like I-195, to pop up somewhere else--disappeared disappeared. Gone. 

When the West Side Highway fell in NYC, people from the NYDOT had to come out to count where the cars had detoured to, and how those detours would affect traffic. Well, it turned out that the NYDOT couldn't find any extra cars on the remaining north-south streets at all. People had decided to use transit, had changed the time of their trips, carpooled, or otherwise found a way to adapt--almost immediately. 

Eagle Street is built like a Robert Moses creation, but it's certainly no highway. And yet it's sudden blockage seems to have met with the same result--it's causing no problems at all for the people of Providence. It's actually created an unexpected opportunity for fun.

Foremost Bakery enjoys a gorgeous placement along the Woonasquatucket River, and Ian says he's close to getting the official certificate of occupancy for the deck that will allow spontaneous gatherings (that's a legal term, believe it or not) to happen on it. We look forward to the next time we're able to bring a bunch of cyclists up to his bakery. We hope that RIDOT and the City of Providence pitch in their share by making the area more bikeable.


Transport Providence in WBNA 30th Anniversary Gala


This Saturday I have two of my photographs from our A Neighborly Day for a Bike Rack photo story in the WBNA 30th Anniversary Gala's art auction.  I won't tell you which ones are printed and for sale, you'll just have to show up and see.  The event is from 7-midnight and you get your tickets online still. It's cheaper to buy them now than at the door, so you can save that dough for the auction!  There will be art, food, dancing and a film about the west side's history.

You can bike it or take RIPTA's 19/17, 27/28, or 31 bus lines to get to the event.

PVD Pretzel Ride

PVD Pretzel Ride will leave from GRIN Gallery (60 Valley Street) at 2 PM, Sunday, October 27th.

I talk too much. Your turn. What will you wear to the PVD Pretzel Ride?

A Turducken of Savings


With Thanksgivika coming soon, we thought we would celebrate some extravagant chicken-in-a-duck-in-a-turkey style examples of what Rhode Island could have instead of surface parking all over the state, by focusing on a victory. Hey, slap some latkes on that puppy and schlepp it over here. We're ready for some transportation mishegas. 

Let's get the giblets out on the table. . .

In July of this year, the state government ironically began a project to increase the amount of parking in the state’s capital, when it spent $3.1 million in state funds to buy a one acre parcel of land suitable for one hundred surface parking spots. That project was recently defeated according to a tweet from Providence Business News' Patrick Anderson. This presents advocates with a momentary victory, but it is still vital that citizens be made more aware of how expensive a commodity parking actually is, and that the opportunity isn’t lost to talk about what better things could be done with the money.

September 20, 2013 was the first time Providence orchestrated a citywide Park(ing) Day, which allowed for temporary reuse of parking spots for virtually any other public use residents could imagine. Providence proudly hosted thirty-five such parklets—nearly ten times as many per capita as more experienced Park(ing) Day participants like Philadelphia.

Park(ing) Day demonstrates the many aesthetic alternatives our cities could install in place of ample car parking—everything from small parks, to outdoor seating, art installations, and farmers’ markets.

Coming up with alternatives to parking has been an especially important task for Providence, and city whose downtown is already more than fifty percent taken up by surface or garage parking, before accounting for any of the additional on-street spots available. 

We did a twitter survey of Rhode Islanders, and came up with some interesting answers:

*Paul Grimaldi of the Providence Journal, the writer who first broke the parking lot story, suggested that perhaps a budget for street trees might be nice to have instead of parking. By our calculations, $3.1 million is enough to plant 15,000 street trees as part of the match resident match program Providence currently has, in which the city pays $200 and residents supply the other $200 for a planting. That would be a 60% increase in tree cover from the levels measured during the last arborists’ survey under the Cicilline administration.

*440 students could leave the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) with two year degrees and no debt for the parking lot sum. Even at the much pricier Brown University, the state could have funded seventeen students’ four year degrees without any other financial aid sources. 
*In Providence, eighty starting salary teachers could be employed at public schools for the same amount as the state allotted for the parking lot’s base land value. 
*Local business Like No Udder, which participated in Park(ing) Day at Rep. Art Handy’s (D-Cranston) Statehouse parklet, said it could have bought twenty-six fully functional ice cream trucks for the sum. 
*One Providence Journal article from 2005 surfaced detailing the auction of a Newport Mansion, fully furnished, for exactly the same cost as the parking lot. Interestingly, this was before the housing meltdown, which only makes one wonder if our $3.1 million could now fund a gaudy addition to the mansion, or perhaps a live-in maid.
*On the whimsical side, in a state as small as Rhode Island, $3.1 million is enough to buy a double espresso for every single resident, and still leave a modest tip for the barista.
*At 3.8 cents per kilowatt-hour, wind energy from local supplier People’s Power & Light/Mass Energy could light up a standard 100 Watt lightbulb for 815,300 hours—about ninety-three years. Wind energy remains the most expensive but most sustainable form of electricity in the state.

*Other transportation projects come to mind. One resident facetiously suggested we buy one mile of one lane of highway, to give us more places to drive. One thing that can be said decisively is that the $3.1 million becomes less impressive in an urban context: freeway infrastructure is typically twice as expensive in cities, leaving us a single half-mile-to-nowhere lane. 
*An advanced bicycling project—no puny painted bike lane, but a physically separated, two-way cycletrack like those that have been built in Chicago—would set the state back $170,000 a mile. At that price, citizens could afford eighteen miles of facilities, nothing small in a state that is only forty-eight miles north to south at its longest point. That calculation doesn’t even take into account the great savings in future road maintenance costs that the state could count on from such a project.

*Over 4,000 RIPTA riders could ride for free for one full year, for the land price of the one acre proposed square of asphalt.

Of course, these projects require planning, orchestration, budgeting. The most impressive thing about Park(ing) Day is that its temporary reuse of parking spaces allows citizens to spontaneously play with much less ambitious scenarios than these. It’s often been noted by economists that people’s “loss aversion”—their fear of potential loss—is much higher than their “reward seeking”—the urge seek potential reward. We can write about how many things the state could have bought with $3.1 million until the cows come home. Sipping coffee in a temporary parklet shows people the alternative, without spending much money at all.

And we’ve still got next year.

Rural Urbanism: A Trolley Tour of Whitinsville, Massachusetts

There's a great enthusiasm for trolleys, even the bus kind, when you consider that 95% of U.S. commuters drive alone.


All Aboard to Providence!
During one of my many trips to Rachel's hometown of Whitinsville, MA, I got to be a part of a "trolley tour" of the town. Rachel was off shooting a bat mitzvah, so I was left to fend for myself for photos, but I think I got some nice shots. I grew up in a town the size of Providence outside of Philly, so I'm really fascinated by Rachel's experience of growing up in such a small town New England environment. Urbanism isn't just about big cities. It also tells us a lot about what makes traditional small towns so enjoyable to walk around in.

In a largely car-oriented society, recreational experiences are often the closest we get to experiencing the nation's history of transit. The Whitinsville trolley tour, offered by the Northbridge, MA Historical Society, is yet another example of Americans showing their almost subliminal yearning for transit, biking, and walking to become a bigger part of their town life.

One of the highlights of the tour was when the trolley bus pulled into the surface lot of the "China P." Chinese restaurant, where Whitinsville once had a train station. Just at that moment, a train decided to whiz by going south.

A pipe organ in one of the Whitin mansions.
"Trains boarding for Providence just arriving, folks" said tour leader Ken Warchol, a retired public school teacher, in character as town founder Paul Whitin. As the train kept whizzing past unabatingly, Warchol added, "Well, looks like we missed that one, but maybe we can wait and catch the next one." Tour participants, mostly seniors, were absolutely abuzz about the passing train. A middle-aged woman with kids in tow asked Warchol, "Did you plan that? That's so cool!"

Of course, the train in question was not local passenger service. It's been decades since Whitinsville had commuter rail, which at one time served the town to Worcester, Woonsocket, Pawtucket, and Providence.

Just across from the former rail station is the Linwood Mill, one of the former Whitin machine shops, which the developers in the town recently converted into a beautiful apartment complex on the Mumford River. At our feet stood some of the last remnants of the town's trolley tracks, which used to pass from the train to the town center, and past the mill housing.

A fireplace detail
Whitinsville, part of Northbridge, lies north of Woonsocket on the way to Worcester. It isn't exactly Fox News Country, but it swings pretty conservative for a New England town: nearly 55% of voters cast their ballots for Romney in the 2012 election, a ten point lead on Obama (The six states of New England have a 100%-to-the-member Democratic House and Senate delegation, with all six states going for Obama in his two bids). Conservative leanings even show in the few remaining independent votes; Libertarians took three times as many stray votes as Greens. 

The trolley tour subtly if unintentionally carries a flavor of these cultural leanings. The guide, who admittedly is in character the whole time as a 19th Century industrial baron, continually refers back unironically to the family's five generation paternalistic grasp on town life as an unencumbered benefit. After mischievous workers decided in the 1940s that they didn't want to be paid in town script anymore and unionized, the Whitins gradually moved much of their operations south out of New England. But in 1920, at its industrial height, Whitinsville was not only the national but also the global leader in production of textile machinery. Some manufacturing still remains in the village, alongside creative reuse of the many mill buildings.

But the tour reminded participants of how much things have changed since then. 

"We used to believe in thrift" says the ghost of Paul Whitin, through Warchol, "We always encouraged our workers to save their money in the town bank we built." He turned a bit scolding, "We heard about your generation. There just isn't any money in this country anymore." At another point in the tour, referencing Paul Whitin's father-in-law, Independence fighter James Fletcher, Whitin says, "The Americans didn't want to be told to pay so many taxes. They had a Tea Party in Boston." He pauses. "We heard that you had a Tea Party too". 

This cemetery dates from the American Revolution
The Whitins, who in the early 19th Century discouraged alcohol use, perhaps accidentally contributed to their workforce's active walking habits. Warchol says that workers leaving the mills would walk the mile-plus journey down present day Linwood Avenue, then referred to locally as "the road to sin city" in order to drink at the taverns in neighboring Uxbridge. Betsey Whitin, a strong believer in the temperance movement, would have the drunk returnees arrested on their arrival back to the town.

"Betsey didn't like alcohol, and when the town considered becoming 'wet' in the 1840s, she gave a great speech at the Town Hall against it. And the town voted the measure down," said fake Whitin.  He  laughingly added that 1840s elections didn't exactly follow a secret ballot, offering an example from as late as 1900 of the Whitins instructing Democratic-leaning townspeople that William McKinley had better win the election over William Jennings Bryan, or else the mill would have to close. The town registrar, who watched each vote as it was cast, reported at the counting the Northbridge had gone for McKinley.

One of many mills along the Mumford River
There were some advantages to paternalism. During the Panic of 1873, when a deep depression hit the country, the Whitins retained laid off workers as helpers to remove rocks from the stone-strewn New England soil and build a stone wall along Castle Hill Farm. The wall and the farm property still stand. Although townspeople still use the land for soccer fields and community gardens, real estate development, perhaps in a sprawly 1950s style, threatens the future for the farm to stay rural.

John Crawford, a self-proclaimed townie and member of the Northbridge Historical Society, has spent a lot of effort trying to preserve the farm, one of the few remaining agricultural properties in a municipality that at mid-century boasted more than twenty. Crawford said that Uxbridge School District had considered building their new high school on the property, but that plans had fallen through. A real estate company has unfinished plans to build on the property. Crawford is hoping that the soft economy will given town preservationists time to find a non-profit organization in Boston that is interested in buying it at its current $2.5 million price tag. 

Another Historical Society member, Mary Barlow, said that enthusiasm for the return of transit couldn't be stronger right now. She thinks the town would greatly benefit from a restarted Worcester-Providence commuter line. Northbridge is already somewhat within range of the Grafton train station to Boston, but historically Central Mass has had more north-south orientation towards Wormtown and Rhode Island than to the capital of the Bay State.

The Mumford
"I think what happened was that at one point our country became very wealthy all at once," said Mary Barlow, a member of the town historical society, explaining the growth of the car. "As people experience the price of oil, I think we'll see the redevelopment of rail and other options again."

Town enthusiasm for transit might come as a surprise in the present political climate, in which a government shutdown threatens Amtrak and Tea Party enthusiasts in several states have rejected funding for regional rail projects connecting major cities. But Middle American support for transportation reform shouldn't surprise anyone. Our blog has pointed out that there are many soundly conservative arguments for developing more non-car options to go from place to place.

Brushing against one of these financial reasons, preservationist John Crawford mentioned that one of the key challenges of trying to save Castle Hill Farm is the financial strain the town finds itself in. 

"We'd love for the town to be able to buy the property as a land trust, but there are a lot of expenses coming up that are going to hit the town all at once. Highway projects, upkeep on the fire station, additions that are needed to the schools. No real planning is being put into these expenses, and they're going to hit all at once, and the town won't have money for something like Castle Hill Farm."

Northbridge has always been a crossroads. Even before rail, Northbridge was the first stop on trips between Boston and New York on the Central Turnpike, and was equally busy from arrivals on trips from Worcester to Providence. Present day Route 122 was then called the Providence-Worcester Turnpike. The neighboring Northbridge village of Rockdale would house lodgers for the night for five cents.

A small bridge from 1923 is about to be dismantled. Can it
be creatively reused for biking/walking access?
As I walked back to Rachel's parent's house after the tour, I noticed construction on one of the small bridges over the Mumford River. The new bridge will replace the old one, which construction workers said is to be torn down. I couldn't help but wonder whether retaining the old bridge as bike or pedestrian infrastructure might ultimately prove more cost-effective than spending state money to tear it down. Providence is of course retaining one of the historic spans of the Washington Bridge for people on bicycles and foot at some expense, but in New York State the Tappan Zee Bridge is going to remain for biking and walking because the expense of keeping it would be similar to tearing it down. Exactly what the financial situation would be for this tiny bridge remains a matter of speculation, but having better pedestrian and bicycle access would certainly be a plus for this town, which is located along the eventual route of the East Coast Greenway.

All along Church Street, the main thoroughfare of historic Whitinsville, neon green runners and even a few cyclists flowed up and down the way. Who knows what potential could exist for the town if transit development and farm preservation met to help protect this gorgeous historic enclave in the Blackstone Valley.

The Conservative Argument for Transportation Reform in Rhode Island

The next RI governor needs to apply conservative principles to transportation.

Since Rolling Stone covered the pension restructuring policies of Gina Raimondo, there's been a healthy debate between many Rhode Islanders on the merits of her changes to state workers' pensions, and whether/how those changes fit into a conversation about societal priorities. I tend to empathize with pension 'reform' opponents like Matt Taibbi, but there's no doubt that the state has to look realistically at its finances and decide how it's going to stay solvent, and perhaps that conversation includes some changes to state workers' benefits.

What I want to do below is suggest a number of ways the state can save money and be more fiscally responsible in the realm of transportation. We should bracket our feelings about unions, pensions, taxes, Wall Street, etc., and use this discussion of statewide priorities as a time to look at where else our money goes beyond pensioners' pockets. I'm not really a libertarian penny pincher at heart, but what I've found politically-maturing about urbanism has been the way it's shown me that many problems we have aren't about underspending but over- or mis-spending, and that many problems are not about underregulation but over- or mis-regulation. I hope the Taibbi article has opened a space for a broader discussion of the budget that truly approaches all issues in a fiscally conservative way, and not just one that uses the slogan of fiscal conservatism as a bludgeon for class warfare against workers.

Stop Requiring Parking
Most municipalities require parking. This costs developers a lot of money and takes away their market freedom, It also subsidizes cars. These zoning requirements may be local laws, but gubernatorial candidates could and should advocate for statewide measures to override these them, especially since the trend is for cities and towns to remove  or reduce them.
GCPVD map of Downtown Parking Crisis

The state could also do a lot to reduce costs of parking on public property by giving state employees more market choice in their transportation decisions. If parking is going to cost $30,000 a space for expansion at the Statehouse, why have we not considered giving state employees a stipend for transportation, and letting them use that for parking, transit, biking, or walking? We seem to think that state employees' retirements are not sacred, yet their access to a parking spot is? Giving employees a choice wouldn't take anything away from them, but many employees would opt for cheaper modes of transportation, and this would ultimately allow the saved money to go back into the economy as other spending. Happier workers would mean more productive workers, without another state dollar spent.

Parking requirements undermine a lot of other state efforts around environmentalism and economic growth, so it's like chasing good money with bad when we try to correct the problems caused by them. This is decidedly un-conservative.

For more on parking reform, visit the discussion at the Cato Institute.

Start Policing Smart.
The state has a legitimate interest in curbing DUIs, but encouraging transit-oriented development would be the most fiscally sensible way to accomplish that than current efforts at education and haphazard enforcement. When I lived in Philadelphia, drunk drivers were to me an abstract boogie man-- people who I stereotyped as outsiders in society. No doubt some of this was blindness on my part, but I truly did not know anyone personally who drank and then drove in my presence, even though plenty of people I knew went out to drink. By contrast, in Rhode Island I have frequently been to gatherings where Rachel and I were the only people to leave who were not drunk driving. The missing link has to do with walkability and transit. We made the choice to wait a long time for a bus on many occasions, or to walk, but many people just won't make this decision.

Police who want to enforce DUI law have to consider the cost. DUIs are hard to prosecute and take many hours to book. Many police departments in the state choose to avoid DUIs as a focus for road safety because of this. We're talking about overtime pay and cops off the street if the departments do enforce the law, and obvious damage to people and business if they do not. By no means do I mean to say that people who want to be responsible in Rhode Island have no options, but since many of the drunk drivers I've encountered here have defied my image of criminality, and since national statistics reveal a trend of lower DUIs in transit-oriented places, the next governor has to balance reality against moralism. Especially outside universities, the state budget needs to expand bus schedules later. Weekend hours need to be reconsidered. This could really save us money on the other end in policing.

We ought to stop ticketing people for not wearing seat belts. The argument for this comes from a nanny-state belief that it's our job to take care of the healthcare costs of people who get into preventable accidents. I'm a lefty, personally. I believe in a single-payer system. But I also think that it's totally fair for us to exclude payment for medical costs that people take on by stupid decision-making. If a person wants to not wear their seat belt, fine. They should get the medical care they need if they're hurt, but they should be on the hook to pay for it. It's weird to develop an entire policing regimen based on mistaken healthcare spending priorities. Fix the priorities.

The state should stop putting its resources into seat belt enforcement, when it could be stopping more important violations, like speeding. Our blog wrote an extensive piece on speeding on Westminster Street in Providence which was co-published by Eco Rhode Island. I have yet to see meaningful action taken in my neighborhood to curb this public danger. Yet on that same street, in Hoyle Square, the state has put up a sign to blink warningly that we should "Click it or ticket". Conservatives should argue that this is a poor spending priority that wastes time and money.

Tax Land, Not Property.
Property taxes that tax the value of buildings discourage improvements, in exactly the way that a conservative would say that a higher tax on upper income people discourages innovation. The good thing for liberals is that land taxes, which tax the price of land under a building instead of the building itself, tend to lower taxes for rich and poor alike. The only people that tend to have higher taxes are those who are speculating on vacant land. Having a land tax would help us to be more progressive towards our environmental and economic justice concerns, but on conservative terms.

Fund RIPTA Better.
Yes, this is a conservative issue. A successful RIPTA takes cars off the road, and that can mean reductions in road maintenance costs. It also means we can avoid costly expansions of roads, which don't work in the long term to fix traffic anyway. Rhode Island should spend more on public transportation in order to save on its other transportation costs.

Spending more doesn't have to mean spending stupidly. We wrote on this blog about the need to consolidate some RIPTA bus routes in our neighborhood of the West Side, in order to make better service without more costs. In other places, like Kingston, Transport Providence feels that a shorter bus route between, say, URI and Point Judith instead of between Providence and Point Judith, would allow twice the service frequency for that area, connecting walkable town centers like Wakefield, Narragansett Pier, and Peacedale, and URI's campus, without extra labor or capital cost. Understanding the cost of parking could have prevented boondoggles like the expensive parking lot expansion in Wickford Junction and Warwick, and caused the state to plan with MBTA for smarter growth around transit-oriented development hubs or bike path connections to the stations from existing housing and jobs. There's a place for expansion and saving money.

Save the Farm, Without Subsidizing It.
I don't know if I'm prepared to say that we should get rid of the Rhode Island subsidies to protect farmland, but we could start planning towards their eventual elimination by better understanding what makes them necessary in the first place.

Why was it that before 1950, people had such an easy time living in walkable towns and cities, with farmland on the outer edges of those habitations, but we have had such a problem doing it more recently? Well, a lot of that is about government spending. Not all of that spending is strictly at the state level. Much is municipal, as with parking requirements in zoning, which act like a tax on transit-oriented and walkable development, and much is also from federal highway spending (we'll get to that). But when this spending rolls in--for instance, as when 295 was completed, and suddenly the surrounding areas were rezoned for higher, suburban levels of taxation--farms fell into financial trouble. Rhode Island has lost 80% of its farmland since 1945. 

Now, as liberals look at an issue like this, what they see is a place for government to come in and fix something. That's not a totally incorrect way of seeing it. But switch your focus. Conservatives could really champion smarter land use by understanding that spending projects have created a problem that spending projects were then prescribed to fix. If we want to save the farmland in the state, the short term may certainly require subsidies, but ultimately we have to get back to the root of the problem. 

Reject Highway Funds, When Appropriate.
With public pressure, Oregon started rejecting highway funding in the 1970s, and instead repurposing that money towards transit. By the '00s, Portland, Oregon had just finished up using money that could have been spent all at once on a 1970s highway project, and instead developed an enviable light rail system. The highways would have removed 1% of all the housing stock in the city, severed neighborhoods, created blight zones near exist and entrance ramps, increased pollution, and left the state or federal government on the hook to pay for upkeep as the infrastructure fell apart. The streetcars helped to spur redevelopment and growth. We can make fun of Portlandia, but the fact is that people want to live in Portland. They did not want to live there in the '70s. Providence and other cities in our state could benefit from this kind of statewide planning.

The Tea Party has rejected funds for trains at the state level. I think this was foolish, but we can still learn from them. The next governor needs to see that his or her role is to act as a guard dog for Rhode Island's federal taxpayers as well as its state ones. We should be looking to replace a lot of the awful, 1950s-oriented infrastructure we have with cheaper, leaner, more effective transportation infrastructure. This is a fiscally conservative high ground.

We need some highways. But many highway projects were expensive boondoggles that should have never happened. As those highways approach the need to be expensively replaced, we should consider highway removal.

The portions of Route 6 & 10 that are in Providence have no right to exist. They tear apart neighborhoods. They act as local collector roads for short trips, meaning they don't shuttle people quickly across long distances, as highways should. They encourage driving, when other modes could be used. And highways--especially urban highways--are some of the most expensive infrastructure that exists. The bike bridge across the Seekonk River will come to $22 million when it's completed, which conservatives would likely point to and call a huge expensive project. How much highway could be bought for that amount? Less than one mile of a four lane urban highway, if we adopt the standard $6 million per lane-mile cost of many urban highways.

Smarter development around 6 & 10 would still involve access for cars, would also create transit lanes, separated bike paths, and walking space. It would create land that could be redeveloped into adjacent businesses. It would reconnect neighborhoods by removing federal blight like the Dean Street bridge. It would restore conservative, traditionalist development patterns.

Where Does This Take Us?
In highlighting the above conservative grounds for transportation reform, I don't mean to say that we live in a utopian world that doesn't have to sometimes make spending cuts to things like pensions. Yet, to me, what was compelling about the Matt Taibbi article, and what I would like to see addressed in the gubernatorial debate is: To what extent is our discussion about fiscal conservatism excluding possibilities for other priorities in spending cuts? The greatest wisdom that conservatives have to offer is that sometimes less is more. Let's adopt that wisdom in a way that is across the board, rather than cherry picking pensions as the only issue to which it can apply.

Happy Birthday, (Low) Federal Gasoline Tax!

The Bike League writes today to help us understand why the gasoline tax should be raised. The last time that happened was in 1993.

I sent an email some time ago asking State Senator Felag from Tiverton area to explain his position on the state gas tax (which is separate from the above stats on the federal gas tax). I haven't heard back, and I think today I'll have to take this article as a reminder to follow up.

Sen. Felag led the fight to lower the Rhode Island gasoline tax earlier in the year. He argued that gas stations along the Massachusetts border would be unable to compete with that state's lower gasoline tax. You can't squeeze blood from a stone, said Felag, and it would make more sense to lower the tax and get some revenue than to keep it high and have the borderland gas stations go out of business. Fair enough. But I sent a series of questions to Felag asking whether his position was open to change should there ever come a time that Massachusetts talked about raising their gas tax--after all, if the reason that the good senator called for the tax to be lowered was that we needed to be competitive with other states, that should affect his answer. No reply so far. 

Massachusetts has struggled with its transportation policy just as Rhode Island has. At the time of Felag's proposal to lower the gas tax, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation was considering a proposal to tax parking lots to support transit. That plan never went through, but it would be interesting to know what our leaders think of such a plan. 

Perhaps we'll soon hear back!


Think Big. We Do.

URI's slogan may be "Think Big. We Do", but Eco RI wrote a great piece showing that the university doesn't take that slogan seriously as it relates to land use. The university adds more and more surface parking each year.

I had an email conversation back in January with Vice President Robert Weygand of URI, following up with him about parking concerns after the last piece I read from Eco RI on this subject. Overall I found the VP to be admirably responsive, and he seemed to understand some of the issues that affect parking, but there were also some key misunderstandings revealed in our conversation. I wanted to pull the email correspondence out to offer as a follow up on Eco RI's recent piece. It may show why URI's having so much trouble fixing this problem.

Weygand understood that parking prices were low at URI, although not as low as at some places like RIC:
The cost of parking are URI is lower than most of our peer institutions throughout New England although our Rhode Island public colleges (CCRI and RIC) are similar or less in their pricing structure. Pricing parking spaces at a higher level does drive the demand for alternative sources of travel (public transportation).. It also reduces the demand for parking spaces and thereby reducing the capital and operational costs. Fees at URI over the last eight years have been increased by 75% on average. URI does provide an incentive to use public transportation by providing a 50% reduction on RIPTA pass prices.
The Vice President also pointed out that URI's student body is 45% on campus, 45% in South County, and 10% elsewhere in the state. Even many of the 10% segment live within access of the campus by RIPTA.

But there are a few things that he missed. First, the VP tried to put the idea of a fee increase for parking the context of "tuition cost", which shows he has the economics exactly backwards:
All fee increases for parking must be approved by the Board of Education (new). There is much effort to keep level the current costs to students as was evidence by the previous Board of Governors for Higher Education requirement to keep level tuition and fees for the forthcoming year (my emphasis).
Students are not, in fact, being spared any cost when the campus undercharges for parking. The remainder comes from tuition. If the campus chooses to rest on its laurels, being happy that it's not as bad at RIC, students who do not drive to campus will pay for parking through higher tuition costs. Even if, as the VP says, the Board of Governors tries to keep the cost of tuition the same, the cost will appear somewhere else. Perhaps adjunct faculty will be squeezed into an even smaller stipend. Maybe the university will charge more for food in the cafeteria, or offer fewer food options. Maybe book prices will go up in the bookstore. Or the budget will take a hit. Somewhere, the money will be squeezed from some one (The cost per parking spot offered by VP Weygand $334/space/day. The cost charged per permit is $175 per day for students and faculty. Resident costs are somewhat higher. Weygand offers the fact that parking turns over an average of twice a day as a way of explaining the cost difference between the permits and the upkeep of the spots).

I think the VP also very earnestly believes that the campus is trying to encourage transit use, because he offered this as an olive branch of understanding:
When the cost of gasoline rose to $4.15 a gallon we saw an increase in the use of public transportation by students particularly in south county [sic]. But that use diminished quickly once the price of gasoline diminished. Costs of transportation and parking do drive the demand for public transportation. We have examined the cost of subsidizing more public transportation to meet the needs of the majority but have not determined the best way to finance such alternatives in the current budget (my emphasis).
The problem with this is that it's lipstick on a pig to give a small subsidy to RIPTA. The seminal study on parking policy, Donald Shoup's The High Cost of Free Parking, notes that the addition of one extra parking spot through zoning requirements was enough to wipe out rail subsidies almost five times over in San Francisco. That's significant, because San Francisco had the highest rail subsidy in the country at the time of the study. By contrast, the very small subsidy to transit that Rhode Island has cannot compete with any underpricing of parking. Students are a great guinea pig model, because they're among the most transit-oriented segment of the population you can start with. Yet many URI students drive to campus. It's because URI gives to transit (less) with one hand, and takes away from transit (more) with the other.

The other thing that I see missing from this discussion of cost is supply. It's just not desirable for us to live in a world that is totally paved. So while it's clear that the university is undercharging for parking, even in a scenario that assumes an unlimited ability to pave things, it's underpricing parking even further when you think about the loss that is represented in each new lot it paves. At some point, the university has to decide that the amount of parking it has is the amount it can have, total, and just start managing demand through price rather than supply increases. 

What's also lost is the ability to put buildings on those parking spots. If 45% of the students live on campus, why not increase that on-campus segment by adding more apartments? They don't even have to be crappy dorms. Build nice places for people to live, that they'd actually want to pay money for. Put nice landscaping in. If the university already can charge people for their parking spots to get to campus, why not charge them rent to live there instead? 

And there are small changes at key bottlenecks that Kingston needs to address, to make getting to campus without a car easier. Kingston has a great bike path, which I used to use everyday to get to work. But crossing Route 138 near the campus remains dangerous. The intersection of North and South Roads with 138, which could be an easy crossing for cyclists living in South County and coming from the path, is merely a painted crosswalk with 40 mph traffic. Drivers in South County are a great deal nicer than in Providence, but they still have difficulty stopping, and often don't. Even less so at night--and nighttime safety should be an important goal for a college campus. The section of 138 that abuts the campus needs to be made narrower, reduced to 20 mph, and made to feel like a traditional road that has entered a town center. It's gotta' lose the highway feel.