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What Newburyport, MA Should Teach Providence

By JAMES KENNEDY (writing) & RACHEL PLAYE (photos)

I had the unique pleasure of driving up to Newburyport, Massachusetts with Rachel in Frank Carini & Jo Detz's Eco RI truck on assignment for one of Frank's pieces Rachel is photographing for. It was the first time in the nearly three years that we've been together that I've actually seen Rachel drive. I felt a bit guilty, even, because it was a long trip--longer still, perhaps because we had to avoid the Boston Red Sox parade by taking 495 around Beantown--and my licenselessness meant that all I could do was sit as a contented passenger, fiddle with the limited radio choices, and somewhat help to navigate. 

I honestly had never even heard of the place before, but Newburyport showed us some amazing things about town design.

To begin with, followers of our twitter may remember an extensive debate that happened about the issue of whether 15 & 20 mph speed limits are necessary for shared spaces between bikes and cars in Providence. I argued at the Bike & Ped Advisory Commission meeting earlier in the month that the bike plan should define shared spaces (both those with or without painted "sharrows") as 15 mph zones, because anything faster would not, by definition, be comfortable shared space.

I know of very few cyclists who ride consistently above 15 mph, and those who can are of an especially athletic type--essentially the people who fall into the 1% of "fearless" cyclists who are okay with most conditions. I think the bike plan should seek to include the two-thirds of the population who could bike consistently if the roads felt comfortable for non-athletic folks--older & disabled people, parents with small children, people who haven't exercised for a long time but want to start, business people in suits, etc.

This moderate proposal was met, in my eyes, with a relatively heavy amount of skepticism. Bill DiSantis, who is the traffic engineer designing the Providence Bike Plan, and who I think it's fair to say falls into the "fearless" category of bikers, said that 25 mph per hour was "impractical" and "too slow" and that cars "go over 25 even after they take their foot off the gas". When I tweeted my dismay at this reception, DiSantis actually created a twitter account just so that he could argue that I was wrong (He currently follows @TransportPVD and the Bicycle Technical Committee for the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. That's it. I'd say we're the more interesting of the two. Three of his four total tweets have been devoted to trying to nose-dive my plan to lower speeds in a very specific kind of "shared" space).

Despite Bill's all-caps disagreement with me, my views were met with nearly universal support from other commenters in the area (the main dissent being from fringe right commenter "righttoworkRI" who doesn't actually live here anymore, but resides in Virginia). I'm not going to post them individually, but all of the comments called in some fashion for greater attention to engineering in order to make the city more bikeable.

Is 15 mph too slow to physically drive? Well, in Newburyport, all the traffic we encountered was at least below 20 mph. I didn't have my speed-gun with me, but cars in the downtown seemed to keep more to 10 mph. Cars yielded to pedestrians at these speeds, even when they wandered haphazardly into traffic against the signals. The city did have what Jef Nickerson coined "beg buttons" for the pedestrian signals, but the lights changed immediately when those buttons were pressed, and there were still regular pedestrian crossing cycles even without hitting the buttons.

One thing that was interesting was that in the heart of downtown, on the major streets, one was hard pressed to find any trees at all. There were quite a few on pedestrian malls and back streets, but in the main drags there were almost none. Yet, the continuous wall of buildings and the very narrow streets created a complete sense of beauty. It took me a good hour to even notice the absence of greenery, because I didn't feel like I was in an asphalt kingdom.

Within the town center, I didn't really see any bike lanes. Shared space was the norm. The reason that shared space worked, even for people with children, and for the gaggle of touristy folks who probably don't ride their bikes every single day, was because of these low speeds. To be clear, I'm not saying that the solution to Providence being bikeable is to make all streets 15 mph. Nor am I saying that to get some streets to 15 mph, we should just slap down signs and hope for the best. Speeds in Newburyport were safe and comfortable for most users because of street design and enforcement. In Providence, I think most non-residential streets should be left to 25 mph not 15 mph. I would just argue that that means that those streets also have to have physically separated facilities.

Newburyport had lots of interconnected pedestrian malls and little alleyways, all of which worked much better than Cathedral Square, which is the vestigial remains of Providence's attempt at pedestrianizing Westminster Street. David Everett of the Bike & Ped Commission, you may recall, went on rather a long rant about how pedestrianized spaces can't work in Providence ("They only work in small college towns and tourist destinations" and are "a 70s thing"). I wrote why I disagreed with this assessment some months ago. 

Providence's attempt at pedestrianization on Westminster Street didn't work because the pedestrian mall didn't lead from an important Point A to an important Point B through consistently walkable space. The 70s experiment completely failed in Providence, there's no doubt, and its remains are unimpressive too. While I actually frequently take my lunch in Cathedral Square and consider it a nice space for the canape of trees it has, I have to admit that under present conditions I can't imagine it being a successful pedestrian mall. But why is that? Well, one side of the pedestrian mall is/was I-95, and the other side, in the 70s, was Memorial Boulevard. In addition to the factors that would make that not work today, one has to take into account the general nationwide decline that city centers were in in 1970, the Mafioso mentality of the people who ran the city at that time, the fact that downtown was even more covered in ugly surface parking than it is today, and the even more dilapidated state of RIPTA as compared even with today's rather meager transit system. Who would drive to downtown, cross a bunch of ugliness, only to walk back and forth between just a few blocks of isolated shops, with an interstate highway and a local highway-like road on either side? It's not over-pedestrianization that is/has not been working for Providence, it's over-indulgence towards cars.

By contrast, the pedestrian malls in Newburyport connect to each other and to other attractions one would actually want to walk to quite well. Most of them have dense businesses with outdoor seating in them. The mall starts at the Merrimack River and continues weavingly through downtown. I thought for a moment of devilishly asking some passers-by if they'd like the malls to be turned into parking to make driving to the town's attractions easier and recording the responses, but the spaces worked so well that I couldn't even muster the courage to do so. I was afraid I might be run out of town.

If I was to choose low-hanging fruit for pedestrianization in Providence, I think Thayer Street would currently be more ideal than Westminster. Although I dream of a day when Memorial Boulevard can be tamed and I-95 can get attractive, accessible crossings for pedestrians that don't feel like afterthoughts mostly intended for cars, at the moment those don't exist. Thayer Street has a direct connection to transit through the tunnel, is full of carless people from the Brown campus at all time, and has attractive businesses densely congregated in a way that would make the mall work. Removing cars from Thayer would also work better on account of the fact that the East Side is a relatively grid-like design. People who want to get anywhere quickly don't drive down Thayer already.

Removing cars from Thayer from Angell to its connection with Hope Street connects pedestrians from one place that people want to be to another. RIPTA buses could be diverted down Hope Street and Angell to the transit tunnel. The block between Angell and Waterman could be transit only, with the part of Thayer below Waterman reverting back to pedestrianization all the way to the end.

Newburyport isn't perfect. If I awoke as its mayor tomorrow, I might remove a row of parking from each street on one side to create two-way bike lanes, because while the shared spaces that the town already has work well enough, separated space might work even better for a greater number of people. 

Newburyport also feels a bit opulent and otherworldly, like  place you snuck into an someone is going to come kick you back out of. But what I've never understood the argument that places we vacation in should be lovely, but places we live (unless we're rich) should not. It doesn't actually cost as much to create a space that has all of these urbanist design features as it costs to create huge interstate hells, but because the remaining places that haven't been destroyed by 20th Century design flaws are so well-liked they end up being in high demand, and thus expensive. So there's no material reason why Providence can't set out on a course to be this way, without being true to the goal of being a place for "normal" people to live.

Despite its shortcomings, what the town does show us is where certain pieces of infrastructure, like pedestrian malls and shared bike/car spaces work--and where they don't.

Keep your eyes peeled for the bike plan's release on Tuesday. It's termed the "final" bike plan, but it's a "living document" according the the phone call I had with David Everett today, so that means people should holler and raise their voices if they're not happy with what they see. This is a major project of the Taveras administration, and if Angel Taveras wants to be taken seriously as a candidate for governor, he'll have to show that his administration is willing to hustle to improve any flaws it might have.



  1. Since that original proposal at the BPAC, We did decide that mixed business districts like thayer,. westminster, should be treated as 15mph zones. I think for Thayer there is an ongoing project to redesign/envision how that street functions, but i haven't seen or heard anything more than that about the project.

    1. Yes, Eric Weis was especially a champion of the 15 mph zones, but David Everett was very against. The sharrows being used on Doyle, etc. are not on 15 mph streets, and that was the subject of the debate. 25 mph in my opinion is a reasonable speed for a street but too fast for shared space.

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