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Oh Moses Are We In Trouble!

There was nothing hugely surprising in the bike plan.

The original plan was scheduled to come out in June. It's was pushed back several times, though, to the point that a few days ago, after the "official release" of the plan, when I called up to ask where it was online to view it, it still was AWOL.

There's nothing particularly criticism-worthy of the postponements in themselves. In the grand scheme of things, taking a few extra months to produce a truly quality design is admirable, especially if it springs from a motivation to increase the amount of public input time. I'm often annoyed by some small typo or missed detail in the work I put out, usually just a few minutes after hitting the "publish" button, so I can relate to the need to perfect things.
What I find disappointing in light of the time this plan took is that it doesn't feel like it has changed much at all. The first presentation I saw on the plan over a year ago covered the same basic recommendations that exist in the current proposal. The biking public has not been heard.

Just Stay to the Small Streets, Kid.

Rhode Island Public Radio did a short piece in which Sheila Dormody, the city's Sustainability Office Director, is quoted explaining the merits of the plan:
“Putting bicyclists on the busiest streets is a little intimidating for many bicyclists, so with this plan we’re looking at how we can more comfortably navigate the city,” said Dormondy [sic].
While it's obviously true that the heaviest trafficked roads in the city are not comfortable for even daring cyclists, the problem is not the diagnosis but the proposed treatment. The bike plan mostly opts to invite people to bike on the streets that are already bikeable. I'd like to invite you to imagine this logic if it were applied to improving public schools in Providence (Ahem):
"Our [underfunded, failing public schools are] a little intimidating for many [parents] so with this plan we're looking at how we can [steer parents to the suburbs and to private schools]" said A. Politico, running for city council.

So let's not remove parking from W. Westminster Street, where it's hardly used and could better support businesses as protected bike lanes. Let's not address routes on Waterman, Angell, Hope, Cranston, Broad, Elmwood, or Harris. Let's get people to ride their bikes on Elmgrove! The data from the smart phones shows that they already do this! So this must be the way!

Forty Years in the Desert
The plan, and its accompanying presentations (many of which I have sat through) have presented making biking easier in Providence as if it's rocket science. I'm tempted to quote from extensively from Donald Shoup's explanation (see page 10) of how traffic engineering likes to present the blood-letting and lead-poisoning of its craft as a delicate and highly trained pseudo science. The plan divvies out percentages to different aspects of what makes a route good. Safety gets 20%. Directness gets 15%. And so on. . . To quote from the margins of the "Ease of Implementation" part of the chart, which explains the mathematical points assigned to potential routes:

Signing and Striping = 10 points
Minor Reconstruction = 5 points
Full Reconstruction/Parking
Removal = 0 points 
Why does parking removal get zero points, as a direct equivalent to "full reconstruction"? Parking removal can easily be achieved on some streets in Providence where cycling is in high demand, but parking is not. W. Westminster had an 11% parking occupancy when I checked it during one peak period. We could put bike lanes there with paint this year (the lines are already there, they just need bike stencils), and next year start planning and implementation to make them more permanent with "full reconstruction" if they prove popular. We can opt to take them away if they're really such a shonda.

Making the city bikeable is not expensive, especially in light of how much money is wasted on lesser things. There are serious proposals to fund the construction of yet more parking in our already parking dominated downtown on the I-195 land. At $30,000-$50,000 a space, one mile of two-way, completely physically separated cycletracks could be bought for the equivalent of three to six parking spaces.

We keep being told by moderates that this should take us forty years to develop, because it took forty years in Amsterdam. Since when do we reinvent the wheel each time we do something just because it took a long time for it to be originally developed? When I get sick, I don't go into my bedroom and fool around with various molds until I figure out, by accident, that there's something called penicilin. I go to the pharmacy and get the fourth or fifth generation improvement of that idea, with little more than a slip of paper from my doctor. Advocates are acting too tepidly when they present the problem of creating biking safe spaces as if it's some monumental problem that will take decades to fix. We don't have decades. If Providence wants people like me to stay here and raise children (I'm 28! It's coming sometime soon!) then it ought to act like creating safe places for my children is a high priority. I will move to some other city where I enjoy living more if things keep going this way.

And in case it seems like I'm harping on parking as the only example of expense mislaid, let me point out a transit example. Building an infill train station for Olneyville or Pawtucket will cost about $1.5 Million--enough to build almost ten miles of two-way cycletracks. With Olneyville as close to the existing PVD T/Amtrak station as it is, I have to wonder why we wouldn't build five two-mile approaches to the train station, greatly improving its functionality to those coming and going without slowing the trains with an additional stop. Bike infrastructure, unlike an additional station, would help people get around between things once they get into the city, instead of leaving them to fend for themselves when they get here. I don't pose this example to say that we shouldn't build urban infill stations. I only do so to say that bicycling is treated as an afterthought to transportation planning, and in many cases it offers more bang for the buck than any other option.

Shared Space
Cycletracks are not all that's needed. Shared space is a completely appropriate way for a city to approach the needs of cyclists, and as the report states, no matter what, cyclists will have to encounter traffic somewhere. But the way the city is presently approaching shared space through the bike plan is not helpful. A sharrow on what Bill DiSantis calls a "calm residential street" like Doyle is not helpful, because while Doyle is not as trafficked or as fast as, say, North Main, it's 25 mph official speed limit is far too fast for any but the most elite cyclists to keep up with cars (and that's the official speed limit. I would contend that drivers go 30-35 mph regularly).

As I pointed out in my last piece, Bill DiSantis has not shown a recognition of the fact that 25 mph does not count as "calm" for the purposes of shared space. It isn't to say that 25 mph (or even faster) can't be a tenable speed for many roads. It's only to say that inviting people to "take the lane" when they cannot keep pace with cars is a failed approach--one that was clearly designed by a cyclist who falls into the 1% of people who are "fearless riders".

Engineering Isn't the Only E
The plan presents the "five Es" of bicycle design (Education, Engineering, Encouragement, Enforcement, and Evaluation) and takes the approach that Engineering, while the sexiest and most interesting of the Es, should have to share the spotlight more with the others on the list. While a reasonable argument obviously stands for the inclusion of all the Es, I find the report's use of the non-engineering components of design to implemented in a way to distract from the real need for engineering.

For instance, the plan does approach the subject of cycletracks. While the wording of the plan is not quite as critical of cycletracks as DiSantis' in-person presentations have been, it more or less keeps the same story of cycletracks being an expensive half-blessing that cause as many accidents as they prevent. While it's no doubt true that cycletracks that are poorly designed result in injuries from drivers who don't yield at turns to bikes, well designed cycletracks have been a key to making Dutch injury rates ten times lower than Boston rates, all while boasting a third of trips nationally and two-thirds of trips in city by bike.

Bill DiSantis keeps implying that adding real infrastructure will result in bike deaths from "right hooks". But it takes 30 seconds on the internet to find an explanation of how to build a safe, well-designed cycletrack that doesn't have these problems. I suggest that VHB study up!

Even where the plan stretches out towards idealistic sounding recommendations, there is danger lurking. Take this gem:
While many advocates look to European countries for inspiration regarding bicycle 
infrastructure design, they overlook the importance of the European bicycling  
education programs. In Denmark, bicycling education in schools begins at the 
kindergarten level and culminates with a national standard written exam and road 
test for students entering high school. 
There is no question that a vigorous bicycling education program can produce 
tangible increases in the level of bicycling activity. 
I'd be impressed by this quote if I thought it was a genuine recommendation with teeth to develop Danish all-ages bike education to change over our whole society. Unfortunately, I was at a BPAC meeting and asked for some easy to implement bike lanes in my neighborhood, and had Bill DiSantis use this exact part of his argument to try to refute the need for that infrastructure. "It'll take years to remove parking!" he said, and then launched into how important education was. Well, I'll hold my breath waiting for the U.S. education system to add consistent history and art classes, much less cycling, and readers, you can help me out by calling an ambulance when I pass out. Offering education as a true compliment to infrastructure is a great idea, but using it as a rhetorical distraction is not acceptable.

Providence should invest itself in biking like its future depends on it, because it does. The Bottom Line just interviewed the chair of the I-195 Commission, and the program reminded listeners that much of the twenty developable acres of the former freeway lies only a few feet above the water table (Apparently this is the reason we can't put parking garages on Wickenden Street. What a shame...). What happens when sea levels rise just a foot? The program excitedly predicted that the building space that could be added to the city in that twenty acres could add another 1/3 to the city, and become one the most important centers for our whole state and region. That ain't no spotted owl we're talking about saving. That's money.

Providence needs to stop being the A+ student that slouches and earns a C-, and then has the nerve to tell its parents that it tried its best.


Tweet your ideas for what's missing from Providence's bike plan to @transportpvd and our friends at @ourpvd with the hashtag #pvdbeyondsharrows, so that we can get started on organizing for a better plan.


  1. Here's the reason parking removal scores a 0 when evaluating the feasibility of projects, public comment/opinion like this:
    Too see this in action locally, go take a look at Alfred Stone Road. The reason there is only a bike lane on one side of that street is because neighbors very vociferously complained about it. A two-way cycle lane wasn't installed, for probably very good reasons, on the cemetery side. And even what was put down was NOT what the neighbors wanted, despite it essentially implementing what already existed (and eliminating parking on one side of the street)

  2. It's not unclear to me that people often oppose parking removal.

    My frustration is that I think the BPAC should set its bar high, and let the politicians or other forces that come after it water its plan down if they are so inclined. We've kind of hashed this out to a certain extent, and I want to reassert that I do respect the bind that you and others on the BPAC find yourselves in. And the point you made on GCPVD's comments thread is a valid one of not having full authority over the project. But as with lots of progressive causes, I'm just frustrated that the champions start out from a compromise position. Compromise comes after you put out a strong position, and someone bargains you down.

    Given that Providence doesn't have a grid in all parts of it, and given that the streets are (semi-) narrow, I feel like parking removal is a necessary component of a successful plan. If we lived in Salt Lake City, we could say "Eh, who cares? There's eight lanes of traffic, we'll take one and it'll be fine". Here we have to allot bikes from the parking areas, because those are the parts of the street that are left on a two-lane street like Westminster or Hope.