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Part 1: Mark Baumer Reflection: Impounding Vehicles & Immigrant Rights

This is part of a multi-part reflection I've been doing following the death of my friend, Mark Baumer . There's nothing graphic i...

Who Are the People In Your Neighborhood?

They're the people that you meet each day. . .

Donald Appleyard (see video above) showed that the amount of traffic you have on your street influences how you feel about where you live so much so that it influences who you think your neighbors are.

I was thinking about Donald Appleyard when I was dog-sitting our downstairs neighbors' dog the last week or so.

Even though Dexter Park is one of my favorite places on the West Side, I realized when I had the dog that even having a perfectly good excuse to go there all the time was often not enough reason for me to do so.

This is the intersection I have to cross to get to the park:

Look at all that excess space! Do cars need that much room on a 25 mph street?

I want you to note a few things about this street.

1. The lanes are too wide. This results in speeding. Even if the drivers want to stop for me, as I'm sure some do, they have a hard time stopping for this crosswalk because it might involve getting rear-ended. This street needs to be 25 mph, which is what its speed limit is posted as. Instead it's effectively a 40 mph zone.

2. Note the L-shaped crosswalk. The city of Providence, or perhaps, RIDOT, has decided that it's unsafe to paint a crosswalk between all of the corners, perhaps because it would endanger the speedy pathway of a turning car.

And note from the satellite view:

You'll see that there's one, two, three total blocks between this crappy L-shaped non-crosswalk and the next death-trap for pedestrians in front of Fertile Underground. THREE BLOCKS! If this was Philadelphia, there would be a crosswalk at each of those blocks. And, there'd be a stop sign or a light (I'd go with the stop sign since traffic lights are expensive). This spacing allows cars to speed up to 40 mph, and assures that even where there is an inconveniently placed place to cross the street, the cars won't stop for it.

Dexter Park is about 0.2 miles from my apartment, but I would say I'm 50-50 on whether I consider it part of my neighborhood. That's how much aversion I feel towards this horrible intersection. Kind of crazy. That's maybe a thousand feet. Someone with a good arm could maybe throw a ball from my window over the houses and hit somebody's dog in the nose with it.

Now, when I lived in West Philadelphia, I worked with a wonderful man named Warren. Warren had leg-braces due to cerebral palsy, but from the time he moved to the neighborhood he started cleaning streets. He pushed a large cart with recycling bins and trash cans in it to keep his balance, but other than a lookout (that's me!) he did it all himself. Warren's eyesight is starting to go in his sixties, and this has diminished his outings, but last I checked, he still goes out to clean.

I'm not going to say that there were no challenges posed by cars, or by bad non-ADA sidewalks and such, and as Warren got older, his sight and hearing started to fail, so that it became more and more difficult to work outside. Part of being a helper was getting Warren over poorly paved sidewalk, looking out for cars and the like. But the design of the neighborhood helped Warren get around, and made this job feasible. This is the territory he covered:

Warren lived around the middle of this territory, across from the mural the city erected that includes him cleaning the street. Warren is the guy with the orange pants and blue hat, and the other guy with the easy-reacher in front of him is a depiction of Tim Dunn, who also runs Books Through Bars.

If you asked me how I defined my neighborhood, it might include some more territory than Warren would. For instance, on the eastern side of this map, you'll see there's a gap where Warren didn't go beyond 46th Street. That's because there were steep hills, and it was hard for him to navigate. Warren sometimes went as far as Walnut Street, which you'll see towards the northern end, but he generally stopped at Spruce. Why? As Applegate suggests, Spruce was a busy street (not as busy as Walnut, though), and so it was more of a challenge for him to go there. 

Nonetheless, the general borders of where Warren considered his neighborhood--someplace between Malcolm X Park and Clark Park, someplace between Spruce or Walnut to the north and the Chester Avenue R3 stop to the south, is about how most people in this part of West Philadelphia would define their space. 

One of the busiest places where Warren crossed a street with me was near his house, at the intersection of 48th and Baltimore. This was where two arterials met. Here's what it looked like:

There are some problems here. Note that in foreground isn't so bad, but coming back on the other side is, because Florence, 48th, and Baltimore come together to create a hella' long intersection. Cars here go relatively slowly. Between the moderating effect of the trolleys on Baltimore, the bike lanes in either direction, or the healthy pedestrian traffic, there's lots of reasons for people to moderate their speed. But just the same, crossing Florence and 48th in one big gulp was a lot of stress.

But lo and behold, did Philadelphia go and fix this problem!

Damn you, Philadelphia! Your responsive governance frustrates even my best efforts to moderate an argument that you're the most livable city on the East Coast. This crossing is about half the length in once was. Philadelphia values its Warrens.

Something else to note. Even before this, this intersection had no walk signal.

What?!! No walk signal? Aha! They don't respect pedestrians! 

Ah, but there was no walk signal because when the light is green, pedestrians have the right of way. Turning cars gotta' wait. 

It's not to say that there are no intersections with walk signals in Philadelphia. On the much wider Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a street that Jane Jacobs used in Death and Life of American Cities as an example of poor design, we do have walk signals. 

But no buttons! You just wait for the cycle to get to the walk, and you cross.

Warren came to Providence to visit us with his sister Norma when we first moved here. They stayed at the Courtyard Marriott, by Burnside Park. Norma and I took a nice walk to Wickenden Street alone, but the trip was otherwise marred by stress, because Warren could barely leave the hotel. We did get him across Exchange to the park once, and very fitfully we crossed Memorial Boulevard with Norma, me, and Rachel as human shields in every direction to take a look at the mall. But Providence was not a welcoming place for this man who spends so much of his time walking. 

I am very able bodied, and so I routinely walk all over Providence. I find Providence to be a mostly very unpleasant place to be a pedestrian. I know there's a lot of talk about Providence being in the top ten for walking cities, but this only makes me sad, because what it says is that the country as a whole is a hell-hole of sprawl, and this is close to the best we've got. It also says that Providence needs better transit and biking infrastructure, because a lot of times when I walk it's because the transit option would cost me $2 and get me there in the same amount of time, and the biking options (especially in winter) would feel uncomfortable. A lot people in Providence are no doubt walking for these reasons, too.

But if you're someone like Warren, you just stay inside. And how sad is that? Somewhere--I guarantee it--there's someone in a Providence neighborhood just waiting to be honored with a mural for their street-cleaning talent. We've made it impossible for that person to shine.

And we miss out.

If you think that Waterman & Main Streets deserve an automatic walk signal, a four-way pedestrian crossing, narrowed lanes, and bike infrastructure, then you should tweet this article at @RIDOTnews and hashtag it with #40mphMainStreet. If you want protected bike lanes on Westminster, you can tweet with hashtag #40mphWestminster.


A Dutch Alzheimer's Village: A Window on Us

I can't help but feel that this is an extension of Dutch society at large.

Rachel's grandmother is in the end stages of Alzheimer's Disease. Her grandfather, who is ninety but still sharp and physically able to walk around and do things, has really been confined due to the snow, and has not been able to visit her in hospice as easily from the next building over.

This village is a kind of fake place, but even in the general surroundings of cycle-oriented countries, older people are respected in a way that we only feign at. We might provide one long, infrequent bus out to do to-the-door Walmart service, but we don't have the kind of walkable streets that make it possible for elderly people to get out and do things independently (older folks are actually one of the highest-risk groups for injury and death as pedestrians).

In Portland, where the city has begun to make itself more Dutch, people in their eighties or nineties can get trikes from the city to aid mobility, and because everything isn't a speedway of death, they can actually be able to safely get around. One woman said that she really can't walk too well anymore because she worries about falling, but that the trikes give her a sense that she can go visit a friend or run errands. How great is that? That's what I want when I get old.

It's funny, I find myself thinking, "Gee, if one of the patients escaped from this 'fake' village, they might get hit by a car!" Except that in the Netherlands, they're probably at pretty low risk for that even if they're in a "real" village.

The Netherlands has been criticized by Paul Krugman for being stingy with deficit spending, a policy the Keynesian says is economically wrong-headed. Though I wouldn't say deficit spending is always a bad idea, I think that the generous provisions that Northern European countries make for all stages of life are able to be done in a fiscally balanced way because they don't waste so much money on the stroads that we build. Keynesianism is really just the flip-side of trickle-down. It's not really about making people more equal, it's about pumping fake money into the economy to make it expand. We should be addressing the growing wealth and income gap and providing for vulnerable people in our society the way these social democracies do, but without wasting so much funding on wasteful transportation policies built around cars.


This came out on the 25th, and Evelyn Weisholtz, Rachel's grandmother, passed on the 28th. Even though "Huvvy" forgot a lot of things and was confused often due to the progression of her dementia, one of the things that was most striking about her until the very end was the importance of family for her, even new members of the family. I was really amazed at how even on the phone she would ask "How's James?" and would always greet me when I went with Rachel's family to visit her. She'll be missed.

Reclaim the Streets for People

South Main Street, 1930
Update: Eric Weis of the bike & ped commission has contacted me saying that RIDOT does not plan on coming in person to the next meeting. I think we should keep the pressure up and ask them to show up for any community feedback. RIDOT's personnel do say they are working to modify the plans, but I'm a little concerned that if we don't get a hearing this coming meeting, whatever they decide to adopt from the plans will be it--and there's not exactly a track record of impressive work. (Don't kill the messenger, Eric is just passing on the news).

The Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition would like the public to be aware of the letter it has drafted to the Rhode Island DOT and the I-195 Commission asking for reconsideration of the South Main Street design. RI Bike members came to the bike & ped commission meeting for Providence on the 19th and spoke strongly in favor of design features such as protected bike lanes, lane width reductions to promote 25 mph speeds by vehicles, and automatic walk signals (users currently have to press a button, and pedestrians in Providence will be ruefully aware that these buttons do not always work, are sometimes blocked by snow, and even at their best create a situation where pedestrians are second-class citizens). RIDOT for it's part issued a number of ridiculous arguments for why these recommendations could not be achieved on South Main Street, but has also agreed to rework the proposal and present other options at the next bike & ped commission on March 12th. We would appreciate every bit of help in tweeting or facebooking this letter out to people to get the general public more aware of the process. A number of people showed up at the first meeting in support of the bike and pedestrian improvements, and there were no objections from the public, but we'd like to see the room even more packed this time around!

We can be a great city for biking and walking, Providence!

Letter follows:

Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition
February 17, 2014

Eric Weis, Chair
Providence Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission
Doorley Municipal Building
444 Westminster Street, First Floor
Providence, RI 002903

Dear Mr. Weis:

The Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition (RIBike) appreciates this opportunity to bring issues before the Commission related to proposed RIDOT ADA improvement plans from James Street on South Main to Smith Street on North Main. We believe that as proposed, these plans do little to increase access to all users; moreover, the decision to start this work at James Street even as the I-195 Commission has issued specific developer criteria for that stretch of road and riverfront is unfortunate in the extreme. It demonstrates yet again a failure to implement both the city’s and the state’s goals for complete streets and integrated transportation into the actual operations of their agencies.  

RIBike calls attention to specific transportation elements identified by the I-195Commission.

 The first, and more comprehensive discussion of plans for this area occurs in the “Developers’ Toolkit” recently made available on line. The toolkit outlines specific development values to be considered for parcels in the I-195 portfolio, and generally notes that availability of high quality transportation choices is one of its strongest assets: “Safe, convenient choices for driving, walking, transit and cycling offer the access options that businesses and their workforce demand ... (and) ... walkability is supported by human-scale streets, dense development, and historic architecture on all sides...”. For the subdistrict called “College Hill/River” (Parcels 5 and 2 from Wickenden to James Street between South Main and the river), the toolkit prioritizes housing, intermediate-scale office/research, live/work, and encourages retail; it calls for special design consideration to integrate parking below or behind development or through use of public parking structures. It further highlights cycling connections, especially the planned City/WALK route, and states that new development should reinforce bike access. As an identified “secondary active street,” South Main is required to promote the safety and appeal of walking, including accommodating City/WALK by providing extra sidewalk width for more generous walking space and plantings, and providing passage where it provides more direct walking route and is flanked by active spaces. Finally, the scenarios for both parcels note that a low-speed street imparts a more appealing scale to the buildings, strengthens access to the river, and provides access to site parking.

A more general discussion occurs in the Commission’s RFI for development proposals, the deadline for which is May 1, 2014. Page 1 of this RFI states:

The Commission has worked to help shape open public spaces that include more than 350,000 square feet of park land, which will showcase the Providence waterfront and promote non-vehicular circulation. City zoning revisions are in place for the I-195 land (part of the zoning approved in summer 2012 for Downtown Providence) that increases flexibility and density; utilities are in place, including the relocation of the City’s primary electric feed by National Grid; and a Master Permit process was approved in late 2013 for the entire district to meet the combined requirements of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) and the Coastal Resources Management Commission (CRMC). The City, State and urban neighborhoods fully support this project. (Bold italics added.)

There will be two public informational sessions to discuss this RFI and weather permitting, site tours on February 25, 2014 and March 25, 2014.These sessions will be held at 11:00 a.m. at the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation, 315 Iron Horse Way, Providence, Rhode Island, with a site tour immediately thereafter. Advance notice of attendance is required.

RIBike believes the plans proposed by RIDOT for South Main are not only inconsistent with these considerations, they actively discourage a more sensible sequence of planning/construction  and a more comprehensive and imaginative approach to streetscaping --- one that fully supports the non-vehicular circulation stated as a city and state goal. The need to achieve ADA compliance should be part of an overall strategy to reclaim streets for people, not a grudging one-time fix. RIBike strongly encourages representatives of the BPAC to participate in at least one of the planned public sessions to make the case for a complete streets process that addresses key safety and use criteria: slower, neighborhood-speed traffic; design that reduces cyclist, stroller/wheelchair, and pedestrian vulnerability; street crossings consistent with dense streetscape that includes retail and housing; provision for securing bicycles; and re-thinking the current one-way traffic pattern that encourages and enables speeding.
Thank you for your consideration of these concerns. These are not new. RIBike (at the time known as the Providence Bicycle Coalition) addressed the need to focus on moving people and goods, not vehicles, in public comments to RIDOT’s updated transportation plan. The concerns we raised then (attached) are still in place. RIBike welcomes the goals of the city and Commission to incorporate cycling and walking as critical elements of an effective transportation network. We would be more than happy to collaborate with the city, the I-195 Commission, and RIDOT to ensure a better outcome for all transportation interests.

Margherita Pryor, Vice-President
Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition

cc: Michael Lewis, Director, Rhode Island Department of Transportation
     Colin Kane, Chair, I-195 Commission

     David Everett, Providence Planning Department

Education Isn't the Answer

Many of you may have seen this video before, and in fact, I wouldn't be surprised if I've posted it. I've definitely tweeted it and shared it with friends by email.

A number of cycling advocates in Providence continue to make the false argument that education has to proceed infrastructure, and that infrastructure takes a long time or may not even be desirable until such education has happened. The most vocal proponent of this is Bill DiSantis of VHB, but it's not limited to him by any stretch.

It's incorrect.

DiSantis said tonight at the bike & ped meeting that we can't expect the same results as in the Netherlands because in the early '70s when the Dutch were first adding cycletracks, they already had a 15% mode share and had educational programs for children in their schools for cycling.

It's true that in the '70s there were more people biking than there currently are in the most bike-friendly U.S. cities. It's also true that the 15% that DiSantis cites was the nadir of biking in the Netherlands, where more than half of trips had once been made by bike before the war. Why did this nadir happen? The Dutch had gotten wealthy, and tore out a lot of the biking infrastructure that they once had. They even did what we do in the U.S., which is to demolish our nicest buildings for parking lots. They were losing 6% of cyclists per year, and educational programs or not, they had a higher fatality rate than the U.S. by far.

Today, with infrastructure like that of Groningen, Dutch cities are now above 50% mode share again, and they have a much lower fatality and injury rate than in the U.S., so much so that Dutch people make fun of Americans for wearing helmets.

There's no doubt that education is a good thing, but advocates in the U.S. do not call for the kind of education that Dutch schools have. We fail to provide even basic courses in our schools, so it'll be a long time before we have K-12 cycling. I worked really hard in one program I worked in to create a biking class for middle schoolers, and encountered a lot of friction from administrators about the idea of risk to the students. We can talk on and on about objective safety and the fact that there are very few cycling deaths--and that's true--but that will never get a parent or teacher to allow a student to ride in the street when they're not comfortable with the risk (I even had some staff members I worked with who were bike commuters questioning my sanity on this). So throw that educational plan down the toilet without infrastructure.

The most disingenuous thing about the whole education-first argument is that it turns on the common sense assumption that that which is better must cost more. Yet biking infrastructure isn't expensive by the standards of any other transportation project, and reduces costs long-term. We have projects going on at RIDOT where we build huge, wasteful highway interchanges, or put expensive (and annoying) push-buttons for pedestrian crossings in order to save some driver 45 seconds in their commute, but we can't build protected bike lanes that reduce road wear, pollution, health care costs, and a number of other metrics of economic health? The only reason we see these projects as "extra" is because we've set a standard of (car only) level-of-service (i.e., "How many cars can I shove through this intersection?") before we go to other measures of success for a street. 

And educating drivers makes no sense because drivers don't drive badly because of being poorly educated. They drive badly because roads encourage it. The author Tom Vanderbilt uses the example of drivers being asked the length of the white lines on the highway. Most say around two feet. The lines are actually ten to twelve feet long, but at highway speeds they appear drastically shorter. The built environment of a street like South Main Street is built only slightly less to encourage speeding than I-95, and so people--good people, church & synagogue going people, old ladies and moms, dads with cute baby-carriers and so forth--speed on these roads. There's no way to educate people out of the built psychology of the structures around them.

Time to stop fooling around.


Testing Out a Roundabout with Temporary Materials


 noun \by-ˈrä-krə-sē, byə-, byər-ˈä-\
: a large group of people who are involved in running a government but who are not elected
: a system of government or business that has many complicated rules and ways of doing things


Testing out ideas with temporary materials accelerates change and takes the bureaucracy out of cities.

Doing things in a roundabout way doesn't have to be bureaucratic.

Via the Congress of New Urbanism.

Origins of the Charlie Card

When I got here I created my own internal history of how I thought the Charlie Card came to be called such. To me it seemed obvious: Charlie sounds like trolley, especially if you're from Southie "Chahhhlie". So people probably said "trolley card" until eventually it morphed, or something like that.

It turns out there's quite a bit more lore about this than I realized. I spent Valentine's Day living that lore.

As it happens, just as in the song, I occasionally work up in Jamaica Plain, and when I'm not getting stuck in traffic in a carpool and cursing the day I was born, I usually take the train up. 

There's something about a person who's never owned car and never had a drivers' license that just makes them a little---hmm, let's say that I'm not the kind to avoid asking directions usually, but I do feel like the Green Acres yokel when I have to double check to make sure I'm on the right train. I like to catch the commuter rail back from Ruggles instead of South Station too--Why take the Orange Line all the way back when you can walk a bit and enjoy yourself?

I got on the train to Franklin by accident, and had to wait in Franklin center to catch the next train back in. Who doesn't do that? I got to talk to a nice older guy who said he does that by accident about once a year. And the conductors were fairly nice, and didn't make me pay extra.

But I got back to South Station, and I'm looking at the chart with the departure times, and I see "Kingston 7:30". Now I'm thinking, "Damn, did they start the Kingston train stop up, and I don't even know?" I'm kicking myself. What kind of a transit advocate am I? I just know that I've made some stupid off-hand comment somewhere about how they should get that station going, and here they've done it!! I must look idiotic.

Now, one of the reasons I feel kind of stupid asking last minute if I'm on the right train is that in 30th Street Station, the R3 or R7 or what-have-you is always going to be more or less on the same track, and be announced hours ahead of time, so that you can get to the station, orient yourself, go out and sit on the platform, and wait (I don't think you'd want to sit on the platform in Boston--Whew! Diesel trains! This is one place where electrification would be a good idea!). In South Station, everything is TBD until the last minute, and then people make a rush for whatever track is being announced. So I see Kingston go up on the board, Track 12, and I just follow on the heels of all the people who are rushing out, because this time I'm not going to fuck up. I get on the train, I get my dead battery to revive itself for just long enough to text Rachel that I'm on my way home and no further mistakes, the phone dies, and as they're pushing off, of course they're announcing all the stops, "Kingston, Mass train! Next stop Braintree!"

(I have another song, because I know some people from Old Braintree)

Luckily, when I'm not playing accidental Charlie Card Adventure Games, I actually sometimes do this wandering on purpose. Rachel had a conference one day that was way to expensive for me to join, so I bought a Chahhhlie Cahhhd and took it all over. And so in addition to Sacco and Vanzetti, I thankfully knew that the Red Line was there. 

As I'm getting off the Kingston train, the conductor comes around, asks for tickets, and I see that it's the same conductor who already heard my story from Franklin. He just gives me sad eyes, does a double take, tries to figure out twitchy-eyed internally whether I'm really who he thinks I am, and says, "Okay."

Who's sitting in the area near the door but three people talking about their experiences. I thought, "Oh, how warm, people don't always talk on the train. These must be new people." The one guy is talking to another woman, and a third woman is sitting silently next to him. 

Man: What's your favorite thing about living in the big city?

(Oh yeah, they're new.)

Woman: Ugh, I don't like the city. 

Man: Yeah, me neither. I really think they should knock down some buildings and put in some grass. And you can never find  parking spot!

(Oh god, kill me now)

Woman: Yeah, I know! What do you do?

Man: Well, I just go my O-U-I [I think he meant DUI] so I'm taking the train. It wasn't really my fault! 

Woman 2: [Now breaking silence with the sharpest South Shahh accent I've ever heard] Yeah! Wasn't my fault neithahhh! I lost my license fahh driving on a suspended! But it wasn't my fault! I had a tail-light out, and the cop pulls me ovahh fahh speeding and not signaling propahhly! And I says to him that I can't pay the ticket! But he gives it to me anyway! [By the way, everything really does have an exclamation point on the end for this woman] So I didn't pay it, and they suspended my license! I didn't even know until they pulled me ovahh for speeding again! And then [and here, strangely, for the first time, the exclamation point goes away for just a minute, WHICH IS CRAZY because this is where it belongs]. So, I was out driving the next day [!!!!!] and I get pulled ovahh by some statie who says I've got a suspended license and several payments. so now I owe $300 dollars to Quinzzy and $300 to Plymouth, and $300 to Boston propahh, and [exclamation point back!] I gotta' pay $500 and go to a cahhrse on drivin' if I want my license back!"

Man and Woman 1 Combined: Oh, the world ain't fair.

Me: [trying to keep the irony out of my voice] No shit.

It took me over four hours to get home. I have to say, that if I was caught in traffic in a carpool for even a fraction of that time, I'd have been a nutcase by the time I got home, but this was strangely adventurous and fun. And I think I even spotted Chahhlie taking his trolley somewhere.


How Fire Safe is Your City?

After people get past the initial arguments against narrowing streets for purely selfish reasons, the next line of arguments are often couched in notions of community safety. How will we get large fire trucks through in emergencies if we have 9' lanes, the current minimum for residential streets (Providence's lanes can be as wide as 13')? These arguments are often sincerely put forth by citizens and even by fire departments or EMT crews.

Well, David Hembrow at A View from the Cycle Path has an answer. I contacted Hembrow by email to ask him what on Earth it is that Dutch people do to keep their cities safe for ambulances and fire trucks to get through. 

While Hembrow emphasized that he's not an expert in fire safety or ambulance routes by any stretch, he also had this to say:

What I can tell you is that Assen has just one fire station which is now positioned on the western edge of the city (I think there's one fire engine stationed at the opposite side of the city) and one two* hospital which is where all the ambulances come from. 
We had study tour participants from a similarly sized US city last year who were amazed by this. They apparently need a dozen small fire stations to ensure that fire engine call out times are sufficiently low.
Assen is somewhat of a small town compared to Providence. At around 65,000 inhabitants, it's about the same as Newport and Woonsocket combined into one place. And according to Hembrow's other writings, Assen is not not regarded as exceptionally bike friendly is considered normal by Dutch residents. Assen has a lower rate of cycling than Groningen because of demographics ("only" 41% of trips because of an older population without a university in the city). 

More on par with Providence would be Groningen, which has about the same population and is 60% larger by area. That appears to have only one fire station as well, from my investigation on Google Maps.

How many fire stations does Providence have? There are fourteen "engine companies" and eight "ladder companies".  That does not include the EMT crews (six) run by the department, or the emergency service it has for major crises, located in downtown.

There are a number of advantages to Dutch design that make this difference so stark. Not only does a good transportation plan take lots of cars off the road, reducing traffic, but it also leaves flexibility for the fire or ambulance services to use cycling or transit lanes for emergencies when needed. And the Netherlands also has positive feedback in the form of a reduction in the number of emergencies it has to deal with in the first place because car crashes are a very significant portion of emergency response.

But even without these advantages, narrowing a road can increase vehicle "throughput", the term that traffic engineers use to describe vehicle mobility, because the slower-paced road can operate with four-way stop signs instead of signalization. Going one mile at 15 mph with brief pauses at stop signs is much faster than going 30 mph or even 40 mph and having to stop for longer periods of time at a red light. Think about it: when's the last time you were driving a car, you passed a cyclist going much faster than them, and encountered the same cyclist at the light? And sometimes you may even find yourself seeing that same cyclist over and over. It's the old adage that slow and steady wins the race.

If you don't believe it, check out this demonstration using rice and a funnel to explain the concept:
Well, I been done seen 'bout everything. . . 

*David contacted me after publication to correct his statement that there was only one fire station. He spoke to a friend who works with the fire department, and there are two at either side of the town.

David also emphasized that in actuality, Assen has somewhat better infrastructure than Groningen, so the factors involved are both demographics and infrastructure. But Providence, which is smaller in size and has the same population as Groningen, and has several universities, has about a 1% bike commuting rate to less dense and older Assen's of 41%. So, it's clear that infrastructure is a major piece of the puzzle.

And again, Dutch people just consider this normal. Maybe we should too.

Providence: The Groningen of the United States

(Well, someday).

When you fail a test, you don't sidle up to the person who got a C+ to study. You find the kid who got an A and ask him or her to get you to where you're at. So Providence should start looking at what it could be if it really put its mind to it. And Groningen is the best place to start.

There are lots of excuses for why Providence supposedly can't be a good biking city. Too hilly (Tell San Francisco). Not dense enough (Tell Portland, Oregon). Bad winters (Go talk to Minneapolis, or um, all of Scandanavia).

I like Groningen because it's indisputably the capital of biking in the world. It's the place that Dutch people think is crazy for bikes.

Groningen has some interesting comparisons to Providence:

Groningen: 198,000
Providence: 185,000

Land Area:
Groningen: 30.14 square miles
Providence: 18.6 square miles (Groningen is a good 60% larger)

Population Density:
Groningen: 6,580 per square mile
Providence: 9,950 per square mile

Groningen did some pretty cool things to make itself such a biking capital, and now 50% of trips within the city, and 60% in downtown are made by bike. Providence can do that too.

Now, I know what you're thinking. All this change in the Netherlands took a very long time. But our friend at A View From the Cycle Path, David Hembrow, says that's not true. Focusing on nearby Assen, he gives us a tour.

Hembrow says that most of the major changes that Dutch cities implemented were completed by the end of the '70s, meaning it took about ten years to get most of the work done. It should be the same here, especially if we don't want our downtown to become scuba diving in the Narragansett Bay.


Westminster Before & After

Part of the indignity of being a non-driver and paying taxes in Providence to have the streets plowed is seeing the plows pile up the snow on corners of the street. A lot of public infrastructure, like the I-95 walkways, don't get shoveled, or get shoveled in an extremely haphazard way. And so we invited people to do something about it

Because we're at a point where the snow has gotten a chance to fall first as a wet fluff, get shoved into a snow drift by a plow truck, then melt a bit, re-freeze, get rained on, melt, and freeze yet again, just doing something about this one drift turned out to be a big job. The pole there in the photo is a mop stick that I unscrewed and used a bludgeon to just smash as much of this apart as I could, but it was still like moving smallish boulders of ice and snow. My snow shovel actually bent up, and the handle cracked in the process. And I've got some interesting bruises and welts on my hands. But I have to say, in all honesty, that this felt like a really great work out! And as much as I started out the two hours feeling like a strange oddity, once I had started to make some progress, people passing by would actually start to see what was coming and thank me for the soon-to-be path they expected to have on their trip back. And there were a lot of people! For it being a non-work day, fairly early in the day on a Saturday, I think I counted two hundred people passing on foot, about a hundred an hour. 

I had plenty of time to think about what I was doing while I cleared all this away, and part of me felt really dumb. After all, I had passed several privately owned properties that hadn't been shoveled just from the one mile walk from my apartment to here, including several large snow drift mountains that had been left for pedestrians to deal with (We're looking at you, Julian's Pizza). Why focus on this very slow, arduous task of clearing one snow drift when the totality of the street was going to continue to be a mess? 

I've gone through kind of a process here in Providence. When I arrived here, the only places I'd lived had been bike-friendly places (Well, relatively. . .). So I was pretty quickly shocked into wanting to take action about an element of life I had barely thought about before. But when I started talking to public officials about this stuff, I did not feel like they particularly cared about the information I was imparting to them. Sometimes they outright disagreed with what I had to say, but much more often it was a kind of institutional morass. "[Yawn] Okay, yeah, sure, someday. [Yawn] Next order of business.". 

The first feedback I got from public officials was that I had lots of thoughts, but they weren't really compiled in any way. So I'd come up with these (sometimes pretty inane) laundry lists of intersections: You should put a bike lane here. Narrow this street. What's this crossing signal about? How about this sidewalk? I kind of thought that maybe they just didn't know what was wrong, and if I gave them the information, they'd take action. But when I'd send this information, more neatly compiled, the response was to be surprised that I was back at all, and to find a new excuse for how the information I'd provided was too fine-tooth, or not detailed enough, or at the wrong time, etc. And then one day, an official asked me, point blank: Hey, you're not Car Free PVD, are you? And I said no. I actually could see the transition in their eyes. They suddenly at that moment cared even less about what I had to say to them than they did the minute before. It was now apparent that I had no way to actually hold them accountable through some kind of media if they didn't get the stuff done I wanted them to do. 

So in all honesty, although I do enjoy some elements of the writing and so on that go into the blog, a lot of times I feel a bit attached to a computer, which is not a state of affairs I'm particularly comfortable with. And now, I get a bit more respect from officials, who know I have a twitter following or perhaps have had a few articles highlighted on other blogs, but there's still another hurtle. Now the hurtle is (more or less) "So what? You complain on the internet. Anyone can do that." 

Since a lot of people besides myself have continually complained about the state of the I-95 crossings, to very little avail, I decided that maybe just showing that this one pile of snow can be shoveled away might up the ante. On Sunday, if we encounter another pile of snow in this same place because RIDOT has piled it up on the sidewalk, we'll feel deeper ownership over this spot. 

By the way, I have a better option for where to pile the snow, and I hope the city & state officials who are in charge of this stuff will take me up on it.

These slipways have got to go. We're already thankfully starting to ease out of them in Downcity because of the redevelopment of Greater Kennedy Plaza. The fact that cars can turn on a wide, easy radius right off of the service road onto Westminster, Broad, Broadway, etc., means that when a pedestrian is forced off the sidewalk into the street by a bad plow job, not only can they get hit by a car, but the car will be going considerably faster and paying considerably less attention to its surroundings than if it had to stop and make a careful, ninety degree hard right on the farther corner (where the green van is).

We should take advantage of our New England climate and pile up as much snow as possible in these slipways during storms, to help get rid of them until we can put some parklets or concrete in them and make the change permanent.


This Saturday 10-12

Things used to be different: New Haven Blizzard of 1888
A number of voices in Providence have long called for the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations and/or the City of Providence to take responsibility for the snow removal on sidewalks crossing I-95. No action has yet been taken. On Saturday morning, our blog, Transport Providence, invites Providence residents to bring their shovels to clear as much snow as possible from these bridges from 10 AM-12 PM. We will start at the Westminster Street bridge, where I saw a man with a walker struggling to safely use the sidewalks.

We are the solution to our own problems.

Please forward far and wide. RSVPs to transportprovidence@gmail.com are greatly appreciated, as we have no way of predicting how many people would attend such an event.

The forecast is cold, so the snow should still be there.