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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.



  1. Not that I would encourage anyone to play chicken/frogger, right of way rules already require that drivers yield to pedestrians at an intersection, whether there is magic zebra paint or not.

    This is pretty common across states and municipalities in the US, so probably orginates in teh Uniform Vehicle Code.


  2. Great post. I really just don't understand WHY Providence won't get rid of the beg buttons. Every single day that I walk in this city I'm left flabbergasted by the fact that they won't even make this simple and inexpensive improvement to increase walkability. At least EVERY intersection in downtown should just turn to a walk signal when the light is green. There is NO excuse for not doing this. The fact that I've lived here for almost two years, have heard people complaining about this the whole time I've lived here, and still have seen absolutely no changes is beyond embarrassing for Providence. It's actually detrimental. Because as you've seen. If people can't walk around, they're probably less likely to visit as tourists. Less likely to move here over other more walkable places. And less likely to stay given the opportunity to leave.

    The wonderful walkability of Philadelphia comes somewhat from Philadelphia's structural advantages over Providence: high population density, incredible street grid, and relatively skinny streets. But it has also done many things to further invest in walkability: timed signals, few uncontrolled intersections, and a broad bicycle infrastructure. But Philadelphia also excels despite the fact that very few of the intersections have walk signals (as you mentioned). The green light means pedestrians and cars go. This works because there are just more total people walking in Philly, and cars have grown accustomed to having to deal with them. And this can be an important lesson for cities trying to improve walkability (as Providence ostensible is). The more people you get out there, the easier it is to make a place walkable with limited infrastructure (safety in numbers). But you need a basic amount of infrastructure to get to that point.

    I'm not sure how much longer I'll be in Providence. But I'm cautiously optimistic about the future here. I just hope the city can overcome the extreme obstinacy and provincialism of Rhode Island, and make some real changes the improve the experience of pedestrians, even if (ZOMG!) they make things a little less convenient for transient auto-commuters. Keep up the good work.

  3. I have to be honest, Andrew, I go through booms and busts of wanting to stay and fight for a better Providence and wanting to scram and get out of here. Providence has a lot going for it. It has beautiful architecture, nice people, interesting institutions, businesses, restaurants. But as a non-driver here, I feel constantly affronted by what feels like the lack of care to my needs. But I see a lot of people getting more and more active here to fight for livable streets, and I think there's a lot of hope that things will change.

    Matt, yeah, it's crazy that we have these catch-22s on the legal status of people in streets. You know, we have streets that are designated 25 mph, and have been probably for years or decades, and yet they are fast streets that are 40 mph. But when you talk to the traffic engineers and ask that they enforce the law--IT IS THE LAW, RIGHT?--they say that they can't because it would slow the cars down. We have the right as pedestrians to be in the street to cross, but when you ask for the state to put decent crosswalks in to make that possible they say it's not safe. Well, why is it not safe? It's not safe because they designed the street that way.

  4. "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."

    City, not RIDOT. What's laughable is that the opposite side of Parade Street would be safer - a driver turning right out of Parade Street is going to be looking at oncoming traffic to the left, not at the crosswalk on the right.

    1. I think in this case it probably is RIDOT, because Westminster is a state road.

  5. "Not that I would encourage anyone to play chicken/frogger, right of way rules already require that drivers yield to pedestrians at an intersection, whether there is magic zebra paint or not."

    That only applies at a four-way intersection, not a T-intersection. Also, "yield to pedestrians" means pedestrians have to wait for a safe gap in traffic to cross, not play chicken or Frogger - http://webserver.rilin.state.ri.us/Statutes/TITLE31/31-18/31-18-3.HTM