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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...

Projo Piece by James Baar Shouldn't Have Run

The Projo ran an opinion piece by James Baar which, to say the least, is wrong about what needs to happen in downtown Providence. A lot could be said about this, but I'll be brief. The thing that irritated me most about this piece running was that one of its central claims--Providence supposedly not having enough parking--is just stated as a priori fact without any supporting evidence. I think it's perfectly fine for the Projo to run pieces with a wide variety of views, including those that I think are idiotic, but it should have some kind of journalistic standard of factual accuracy to uphold its opinion section. This of course has been the Projo's problem in covering climate change as well. I guess it won't be funny when the many parking lots and garages surrounding the Projo are under water.

Here's some of the "unavailable parking" in downtown Providence, this Monday at midday through 2 PM:

The Biltmore garage had 116 spots available at 2 PM on a Monday.
Just below that.

The effect was such that when the first couple cars sprung up, it felt like going below the tree line in the Alps. Life! 
The lot behind the Biltmore garage wasn't full either.
Illegal parking on the sidewalk behind City Hall. There were 116 parking spots available in the Biltmore garage alone at this time.
This lot is actually a garage, and the lower level had vacancies too. (Weybosset & Empire)
I also visited the Central garage, and found empty spots (that was the first one, so I hadn't started counting, but I would estimate about 25), the garage at Weybosset & Richmond (20--with much of the street parking on Richmond empty), and the Arcade garage (more than 60 spots available).  Of course, that doesn't begin to cover the many lots and garages we didn't visit. I wouldn't be surprised if there were spots there too.

All in all, there were more spots open on Monday during a peak parking period than would be added by the Garrahy garage.

Gee, I wonder why the market can't afford to build a new garage without help?

UConn found that for every spot that a city adds to its downtown for parked cars, it loses $1,200 in net tax revenue. And there's that curious problem of giving the population asthma too to deal with.

The editor of the Projo, Ed Achorn, should feel free, as I say, to publish reports claiming that there's not enough parking in Providence. But those claims should have to be backed up. When I write an opinion piece for The Phoenix--I have one coming out soon--I have to fact check every claim I make, and show sources, and then that in turn goes back and forth with Phil Eil asking me question after question about how I phrase something, or whether there's another explanation for what I'm talking about besides the one I offer. I just can't see that having happened for this piece. You would expect The Projo to be much less loosey-goosey with what it prints, but in my experience it's the opposite.

Some of the other claims by the Baar piece are ridiculous, but at least fall into the realm of stupid opinion. The expectation that we would build a garage underground below Kennedy Plaza (underground spots are at least $100,000 per space, two to three times the cost of even expensive garage parking) goes hand in hand with the equally ridiculous claim that we would somehow find a way to repave our potholed streets while a) increasing car traffic (which destroys streets), and b) reducing fees on cars for curb parking (which itself is a large portion of the street and costs money to pave). The complaint that downtown Providence should have more interesting and diverse businesses is one that anyone can relate to, but certainly the tax burden expected for this would be astronomical, and certainly unfair on top of that. And astronomical is the fair term--since the average parking spot in the U.S. costs $15,000, and the spots being proposed for all these garages are considerably more expensive.

I expect the only time--if even then--that these garages are ever at capacity is Waterfire. And while I love Waterfire, I think anyone can look around at the streets and agree that bringing more capacity for cars would be a bad idea. The executive director of Waterfire, who ought to have more clout than Baar or his oft-quoted ex-mayor Paolino, has asked several times for the city to make dedicated bike lanes and provide transit service for his events, but as yet I haven't seen anyone lift a finger to make it happen--even though providing both of those things in spades would be cheaper than all this parking mishegas that's being bandied about in the op-ed section of the Projo.


Responding to the I-195 Commission & RIDOT

Yours truly is one of the 368 against. #Derp
If you haven't caught the Projo article highlighting our call for real bike infrastructure in Providence, check it out. Kate Bramson's article was a decent representation of the information around the issue, but I wanted to broaden from there and respond to some specifics that the I-195 Commission and RIDOT say in the piece.

Some Things About the Poll

Thing One

I do like that this poll narrows the question to protected bike lane infrastructure. Even if, as of Sunday around noon, we're trailing a bit in the polls, it's an important step forward that this asks about advanced bike infrastructure to see what the baseline pulse of the community is around this issue. Mind you, the Projo readership trends older and more conservative than the state as a whole, and that not all participants necessarily live in Providence. For my part, I actually accidentally voted "no" on my fancy phone, and then cursed very loudly as I saw the vote register, so there's that too.

Thing Two

Thing One and Thing Two prefer walking to biking (whatever, that's fine).
The question is flawed in one major sense. It asks whether Providence should "invest" in protected bike lanes. This already breaks support and opposition into red and blue camps that are based around spending from the government. Suburban voters--or perhaps even some Providence ones--will think about the troubled straits the city finds itself in financially and perhaps vote "no" in order to save us money. In reality, protected bike lanes are extremely cheap even at their most expensive, and in this case, would be virtually cost neutral--for the most part the change would be where the lines are painted on the street not whether they're painted, and the only additional infrastructure might be some plastic flex posts or bollards to denote where parking cannot happen. So the question(s) could include one that says, "Should Providence have protected bike lanes if they are cost neutral?", "Should Providence have protected bike lanes if they save on road maintenance?" and maybe also "Should Providence have protected bike lanes if it removes a substantial portion of the 40% of trips that are under 2 miles--90% of which are taken in cars--and which add greatly to traffic congestion (and the need for wider roads)?". I imagine Nate Silver coming in and saying that this is a biased way to ask the question, because it contains the positives about the thing you're asking about in the question itself, but my point is only that the counterfactual way of asking the question isn't neutral either.

The comments section is really enjoyable to read on this article, which is a rarity on most websites and especially on the Providence Journal website. The first comment that went up on Saturday morning was by a gentleman who said that we can't afford bike lanes, that they're not a priority, and that Providence is too cold for biking during most of the year. Some great people came right back and responded to those points, with information about the low cost or cost-neutrality of better bike infrastructure, and examples of many cities that are biking havens throughout harsher winters than ours. By the end of the discussion, the guy backtracked. I think this shows very clearly that the ambivalence that some in the public still have about this issue is based on a lack of facts. We need to keep up the aggressive campaign to make Providence a biking city, because these people are easily won over once they know the real information.

If you haven't voted yet at the Projo, get on there and vote! It'd be cool to see us back in the lead again.

Some Responses to I-195 and RIDOT

More upsetting than the comments section is the disingenuous way that the two agencies with control over this area of the city--I-195 Commission and RIDOT--shuffle around in order to not take responsibility. They use a number of bait-and-switch methods to skirt the issue, and I'd like to address those.

Sharrows Suck (for Cars).
DOT is not completely ignoring bicyclists, though, [DOT spokesperson Rose] Amoros said. Some roads associated with the 195 project will have bike lanes marked on the pavement and others will have “sharrows,” pavement marks that let drivers know that cyclists will share the automobile travel lanes.
Say it with me: when DOT puts sharrows on a street, it is completely ignoring people on bikes. Sharrows do not encourage cycling and do not make it safer--and most importantly, they do not make it more comfortable. No sharrows! 

The concept of sharrows is completely flawed as a compromise solution, and let me put this in perspective in a way that drivers can relate to. What RIDOT is trying to tell you as a driver is that they're not going to take your road space away--you just have to share it. This is supposedly better than a bike lane for drivers? How? RIDOT wants you to slow down to biking pace--15 mph--and drive behind a cyclist that's sharing the lane. If you don't want to slow down that much, you're supposed to change lanes. So, taking the next logical step of assuming most drivers don't want to go 15 mph on arterials, that means a lot of lane-changing is going to happen--if you as the driver decide to follow the law. Your lane is being taken away either way.

But, since many drivers don't understand (or care) what the law is, what ends up actually happening is drivers feel perfectly entitled to do the 25 mph the speed limit (or more often, the 30 or 35 that they actually drive). So in reality, what happens is the cyclist feels uncomfortable. A lot of potential cyclists don't bother going out. The ones that do rider uncomfortably (and unsafely) next to the parked car doors, and the rest perhaps try their best to book it at 25 mph, and still get some aggressive driver behind them that doesn't care for the rules and wants to honk and carry on. 

So to review: sharrows effectively give nothing useful to bicyclists, but they do (sort of) take some space from cars, which means drivers and bicyclists are equally annoyed by bad options. They do nothing to encourage mass cycling, so the road continues to lose that space only for the handful of daring people willing to brave such conditions. So lots more cars in the other lane. And lots of traffic.

(Sharrows suck for cars).

No Widening Called For

“The latter [reconnected streets in I-195 "Link"], unfortunately, cannot be widened nor fit a separate bike lane.” 

I'm starting to think this Rose Amoros should go back to traffic engineering school. But that's about par for the course at RIDOT.

David Hembrow of The View from the Cyclepath explains that street width is a pretty empty excuse for not having bike infrastructure:

One of the most popular excuses for why cycling infrastructure on the Dutch model is not built in other countries is that of space. Many people honestly believe that their city, be it London, Los Angeles, Sydney, Cambridge or wherever, has streets which are narrower than usual and can't provide cyclists with the necessary space.  
An anonymous reader recently sent me a group of "photos" taken from Google Maps Streetview which illustrate similar streets in the UK and in the Netherlands. The streets are so similar they could almost be before and after photos, and in fact if they were all from the Netherlands that is what they would be.
Here are some photos:

British (or, easily imagined, American).
Dutch (same width).

Now, the sidewalks here are quite wide, even in the British version, but if you look at the road space, it's very similar to the streets that are being reconnected. In the British, an anemic painted bike lane is on one side (we're not getting that much, remember--we're just getting sharrows). In the Dutch, an actual bike right-of-way has been put where a row of parked cars might have been. Which is nicer?

I know that we're pretty attached to our many parking spaces in Providence (well, supposedly, maybe not. . . ) and so the proposal for the I-195 district doesn't take away parking. It takes away a travel lane from a two-lane one-way. Like this:

Or we could keep double one-ways, which cause speeding. I'm sure developers will love that in a downtown, near university buildings, around a bus hub (with $43 Million of parking, of course!).

How Many Parking Spots Equal a Protected Bike Lane?

I've been doing a little fact-checking around the cost of bike lanes for some upcoming articles, and there are a range of prices for them based on different kinds of treatments, from ornate garden medians as in Indianapolis, all the way down to just paint.

For our I-195 bike lanes, as with the S. Main Street ones, and the proposal for West Side protected lanes, the major changes would be to paint on the street--and since the streets in I-195 need to be repainted no matter what, that would put that part of the project into the cost neutral column.

But in order to really dissuade people from double-parking in the bike lane, and to give an added sense of permanence to the infrastructure, it would be nice to have some plastic flex posts or armadillos. How much would this cost us, as contrasted to a $43 Million parking garage?

Plastic flex posts cost between $15,000-$30,000 per mile to install, while a parking spot at Garrahy will cost $30,000 per space. Seems like an easy enough comparison.

About 1% of Providence currently bikes to work everyday, no matter what, without any other modes (this, of course excludes recreational cyclists, "sometimes" commuters, and commuters who primarily use some other form of transportation, like RIPTA, and then connect to a bike). 1% is actually pretty typical for an American city without bike infrastructure, and is consistent with calculations from the Netherlands and Portland, Oregon, which suggest that about 1% of the population is comfortable to bike without any special accommodations (above two-thirds are comfortable with Dutch-like protected bike lanes). 

But let's assume that we get very low growth. Of the 700 bicyclists in Providence, how many more would have to use this mile of protected bike lanes to equal a parking spot? 

0.5 to 1. (Either the protected bike lane costs half a parking spot, or at most it costs one full parking spot).

So if you want a parking spot available, should you spend $30,000 to build on spot, or should you build a protected bike lane, which will certainly convince more than one-half of one person to bike? 

Is it realistic to expect large gains in biking based on infrastructure? Yes. Even cities with lesser infrastructure have seen astronomic gains in biking, doubling and doubling again their rate, as in Philadelphia. On the first protected bike lane that Chicago installed, over 50% of traffic is biking at rush hour, and nearly 50% overall--within the first year. So we can expect far more people to take up biking on this street than would park in that garage, at tiny, tiny fraction of the cost. 

And if you're a driver, you get to park in those empty spaces!

Parking Isn't Full Anyway

Midday on a weekday
I did a little survey of the Garrahy parking on Friday during the business day. There are several lots around the complex, and none of them were full. All were at least half-empty. And the on-street parking--which the city meters, presumably to try to repay the (cough, actually expensive, cough) paving costs of the street--were empty too.

If we need a parking subsidy to help build another ugly garage, then why are these lots and on-street spots empty?


Jane's Walk (Bike)

Jane's Walk (Bike)

Join Jane's Walk (Bike) at College Street & S. Main Street to bike around the downtown, Jewelry District, and West Side and explore what can be done with our streets to promote biking.

May 2nd, 11 AM

Bring a bike, of course! It's not a walk. :-)

I will make every possible effort to make the bike ride slow-paced an comfortable for as many people as is realistic to make comfortable in a city with so little biking infrastructure. All ages welcome.

For more, see Jane's Walk PVD.


We Ain't in Kansas No More, Toto!

If you'd like to see the PDF of this, please email me, or tweet @transportpvd.

As you all may know, I've been doing work on the East Providence bike plan, and today I had the opportunity to talk with planners about changes to East Providence's road system that are in the works. These plans are currently at 10%, so there's a long way to go before they're implemented. And thank goodness.

There are some good things here (sort of), so first:

Putting some kind of a traffic circle where the Veterans' Memorial Parkway is makes sense as a traffic calming device, and to reconnect Mauran Avenue.

The plan removes a slipway that currently allows cars to swerve wildly off of Warren Avenue onto I-195. Also good.

The additional ramps into I-195 are all below grade (they say "in the pit", which is what it is) so there is no widening of I-195 into the parallel streets.

I like the closures of the Potter Street and Purchase Street Bridges to cars. This was planned in order to deal with conflicts in traffic that are entirely car-related, but can also act to create space for bikes and pedestrians if we apply the closures that way.

Okay, now the bad:

The traffic circle is way to big and requires taking properties, and with the curves on this thing being what they are, it's not likely to calm traffic more than a tiny bit. Traffic circles can be good or bad, just like any other thing. This one borders on the bad--I'd say it's only a slight improvement over what's there, but that's an extremely low bar, and we should be going for better than that.

Are you a good roundabout, or a bad roundabout?
Next, there's a lot of focus on increasing the connections cars can make between various highways, and between various parts of the neighborhood and highways. I think this is a mistake.

There's a general principle that holds true that the more you're able to offer people options to network through a variety of routes, the more resilient a street grid will be. You could take the idea of adding all these connections between different stroads and highways as a version of this. But I find that in Rhode Island more than Philadelphia, people use highways as a way to cut past red lights and take local trips. You almost can't ask to go from one neighborhood to another without someone telling you what exit to take, as if the best way to get from the West Side to the East Side is to take I-95 northbound and get off. To my eye, the highway network here needs to lose exits and entrances. Yes, this would mean that people using the highways would have fewer options as to where to get on, but that doesn't mean the same thing as it does in a local road network, because the different "options" to get on one ramp or another don't take you to different streets, they just dump you on one collector. So you're all stuck in the same traffic jam, but the traffic jam is worse because half the people on the road are just trying to avoid a red light as part of their two mile journey to the grocery store.

Secondly, the various ramps and such here cost tens of millions of dollars. Now, I know someone will say that these bring jobs or development, but so do local roads. For the same amount of money, East Providence could probably repave and redesign quite a large percentage, if not all, of its local road network. This project does not necessarily add anything in terms of car mobility in the long run, but it wastes money and treads water when what East Providence should run and not walk as fast as it can to someone that's willing to get rid of some of its ugly transportation waste.

The way that East Providence is set up intrigues me. If I were designing it from scratch, I'd never have built all these extra roads--Massasoit, Waterfront Drive, Veterans' Memorial Parkway, I-195--nor would have have stroadified Broadway, Pawtucket Ave., etc. But because these larger ring roads exist, we can borrow from the knowledge the Dutch have imparted to us.

The Dutch often use ring roads to take major trips around the inhabited parts of a town or city, and make everything within that ring very calm. We have an opportunity here to do much the same, using the ring roads as throughways for necessary freight, long distance (more than five miles) travel, etc. But in order to make that work, I suggest taking the off-ramps from I-195 out to this section of town. We should keep the ones that go directly into the Veterans' Memorial, because going from a highway to a road makes sense, but we should have a better roundabout to calm cars until they get past Watchemoket. But we should take out the ramp for Taunton Ave, and the one for Warren Ave. Cars coming into East Providence from I-195 should have to go all the way to Broadway, and come back.

It's clear why this is good for bikes, pedestrians, transit. Why is this something people should support if they never touch these modes of transportation (that is, they only drive)?

*If you live in East Providence, this will open up a lot of developable land, in an area that the city recognizes once was its thriving downtown (Watchemoket ain't so thriving anymore).

*This calms streets and creates ways to build business. Ask yourself: Would the people of Newport, Warren, Jamestown, or other nice communities allow their downtowns to be infiltrated by so much highway-oriented blight? No, of course not. These communities have highways to get people from A to B over long distances, perhaps, but they calm their centers. And that's why people like them. (You could also ask: Did the people of the East Side allow a highway to come through from I-195 to connect to the "Red" Bridge/Henderson Bridge? No. . . It's fine to resent their privilege at having stopped these projects, but try to seize some of it for yourself!

*As a driver, if you're getting on the highway, you should want the highway to be as free of cars as is practical. So you want people who are taking trips of five miles or more, but not local trips. And you want as many trips to be taken by transit as possible, even if you never ever in your life step on a bus. Having these ramps in the downtown of Watchemoket ensures that short trips will be taken on the highway. You'll be stuck in traffic.

*On the reverse side, even if you want to take a short trip, having all these ramps is going to make it so that you don't feel safe, in a social sense or in a traffic sense, to do anything but drive. You will definitely drive, because what should be a thriving center will be a maze of hideous, loud, noxious, and polluting ramps.

*As a businessperson, you want people to be able to get to your town, but you want to get as much benefit from that as possible while reducing the negative aspects. Businesses on Taunton Avenue and Warren Avenue should want only cars that are coming to visit them on their streets, not all the people trying to shove their way out of the city. Think of Olneyville Square. It's constantly in a harangue of traffic, but how many of those people do you think actually stop and spend some money? Not enough to make it worth what people go through there.

*These costs do not have enough benefit in cold, hard cash to make them worth it. Our DOT and the DOTs of most states are going broke, while places that invest in transit, biking, and walking, and maintain modest streets for cars, and highways that are only for longer trips, do not go broke. Chuck Marohn calls this the Ponzi Scheme of Suburban Development. East Providence should understand this. It was an older town, with a center, and the highway came in promising Jetson-like modernity, but it instead tore out the heart of where people used to get their enjoyment. The highways are a feature that exists, and East Providence can use them for what they're good for for as long as it has them, but it should not add capacity to them, because they're far and away the most expensive thing we can invest in for transportation, with by far the lowest economic return.

*And think of it this way: East Providence has a bunch of positives. It has some really nice buildings, both commercially and as housing. It has some enviable density, with New England triple deckers that could draw a lot of very hip people into its sphere. It has the bike path. It has this beautiful river. It has such a short commute to Providence that I walk to work, even over the Henderson Bridge--from the West Side of Providence!

What do I propose:

There's a good reason for long consideration to go into major transportation projects, because they're often expensive and hard to reverse. I oppose these ramps, with the exception of the one onto Waterfront Avenue. I'm agnostic on that one, because I think perhaps it might be useful to have Waterfront Avenue act as a ring road in order to calm the center of town. I could also see arguments against it, especially since I hear that Waterfront Avenue is being used heavily by bikers as a northerly route, and because I think the expense may not be justified. I hope E.P. residents will get involved and talk more about these large projects.

There's no reason for us to take forever to do cheap things that are easily reversed. East Providence needs to start putting in protected bike lanes, or making its streets extremely calm (under 20 mph), depending upon context in various parts of town. There's no reason to delay that or have that be part of a decades-long planning process. 

East Providence needs to remove slipways. There's no reason to delay that. Put parklets in them. I bet you can get the Korean Grocery Store or St. Mary's Church to pony up some money to plant flower beds in that Warren Avenue slipway, no problem, because I bet that though they drive they also don't like people speeding down their street.

There's nothing stopping us from experimenting with closing the bridges. We can do that with temporary infrastructure too. The costs would be in thousands of dollars rather than in tens of millions. 

East Providence is a place that at present I would not live in if you paid me, but if it dealt with its serious transportation flaws, it could be a place I'd enjoy being a part of. Let's make tactical urbanism a part of that process.

Start paying attention to the man behind the curtain, because you've got all the brains, heart, and courage necessary to fix this problem, E.P.


Broadway Double Protected Bike Lanes?

Time and again, people have really made a strong point that the service roads create an obstacle to properly implementing protected bike lanes on Westminster. So we could try doing Broadway instead.

This is what it would look like:

Protected bike lanes can also be put side by side, like this, and I like that too because it's possible to put tree cover in:

Westminster has very low parking occupancy (just above 10%) and for much of its length is near Broadway. So Westminster's problem of not having enough parked cars against the sidewalk to calm traffic could be improved by this plan.

Also, as a neighbor on a side-street like Tobey, I have to say I like the fact that people will walk past my house to get to their car. The streets are too empty at night, and having some pedestrians will make them safer. One of the few times I get this community feeling is when people get out of a Columbus Theater show and walk up and down the street to get their cars (or bikes, or just walk home. . .). Having this circulation past things on foot is also one of the things that converts people in their cars from one-stop shoppers (or even through-drivers to somewhere else) into people who will stop at a restaurant, take a look in a shop, etc.

This is also a great plan because like the previous one, it adds parking to the service roads, and that will help calm traffic, encourage people to visit from the growing downtown (and visa-versa), and replace the lost parking spots. 


No More Sharrows

The Phoenix had an eco forum, at the end of which I asked the city's director of sustainability, Sheila Dormody, to account for why Providence has done little more than sharrow some streets and call it day for the bike plan. Dormody responded to say that sharrows are a step forward--not where we should be, but a step forward.

I kind of forgot how much sympathetic laughter was going on as I asked my questions (there was some for Dormody as well). Providence definitely has a support base for a real bike plan.

A young woman stepped in to say that she used to bike in Providence, but doesn't anymore, and would rather walk four miles from her house to an event than bike. That's sad, considering that Providence has exactly the geographic prerequisites not only to be a bike-friendly city, but also could be poised to make biking a major form of transportation.

Why do I say sharrows don't help? Frequent readers of this blog may know why already, but (hopefully) I'm picking up a few new people now and again to add to my reader(s), so:

  • Sharrows represent shared space, and shared space is only appropriate is low-volume, slow-pace areas. The only two streets that come to mind like this in Providence are Thayer Street and (downtown) Westminster. You could maybe stretch this category to include the portion of Hope Street near Rochambeau, but that's a real stretch unless further traffic calming efforts are made.
  • In the Netherlands and other cycling countries, areas with speeds above 30 km/hr (18 mph) are considered too fast for shared space of any kind, and require not only painted bike lanes, but separated facilities that have some kind of median or divider.
  • Sharrows are also fine if they're used for wayfinding. When I lived in Philadelphia, a block or two of very calm (Dutch calm) streets were painted with sharrows between the South Street Bridge and the Spruce & Pine buffered bike lanes, so as to bridge the gap for people who weren't familiar with the area. The sharrows were not expected to improve safety on an otherwise unsuitable street. And this, of course, is an example from Philadelphia, which any good urbanist could find critiques of (the first critique I can make is that the Spruce & Pine bike lanes weren't protected, but were merely "buffered" by painted lines--yet at least no one in Philadelphia stopped them because of the street supposedly being too narrow. Spruce and Pine are each about as wide as Downtown Westminster, maybe a tad wider, and there's room for a parking lane on one side, a 10' car lane, and another 9' bike lane).
There's nothing wrong with taking small steps forward, but it is wrong to tell people that you're taking steps forward when you're treading water. It's also wrong to say that the reason we have to take half-measures is because bike infrastructure is too expensive, when the reality is that the city has been too tepid to envision any changes that take away travel or parking space from cars. Bike infrastructure is far and away the cheapest of any other transportation improvements that can be made, and if included in an existing project, can sometimes be completely cost neutral. As part of the very repaving project that Dormody mentions, the city could have repositioned parking spots or added rubber armadillos and/or plastic bollards to streets in order to create separated space.

The real issue is that Providence politicians--who are in charge of Sheila Dormody after all--are (as yet) too tepid to envision the city that Providence can and must someday be. We all know that Sheila Dormody wants a bikeable city. Maybe the next mayor should actually let her build one.


Broadway & Westminster

Councilman Bryan Principe set up a meeting some months ago between Transport Providence and a variety of city services, city council members, and community organizations to discuss the idea of protected bike lanes on the West Side. Principe deserves praise from the neighborhood for his efforts on this issue. I've been especially impressed to see Mr. Principe talking excitedly to other councilpersons about the examples from Streetfilms of successful biking in the Netherlands, New York City, and other places. You may recall Councilman Principe as the guy who goes around the West Side and helps people shovel out their sidewalks while RIDOT leaves the sidewalks in its care completely unshoveled.

The conversation between different community members and city services had a long way to go, and at the time I decided not to report on it because I wanted to see where the process would go on its own. There hasn't been any additional motion forward since February, so I'd like to start the discussion up again. 

There was some concern over the idea of changing parking arrangements on the W. Side by some participants, but thankfully there seemed to be some agreement that a compromise could be met eventually around protected bike lanes that would rearrange some parking but not all of it.

Our original proposal for Westminster Street was that it would lose both of its parking lanes due to extremely low parking occupancy. This proposal was met with strong opposition by the WBNA, although some of its members supported the idea and signed our petition, and one of its business members, Fertile Underground, was actually actively involved in the earliest planning and discussion around the idea. From what I've gathered, the plans for protected bike lanes are dead in the water unless we get the WBNA to go along, so if you're a member (like I am) then you should talk to them about how important this is.

Our new proposal is the creation of dual protected bike lanes on Broadway and Westminster which would remove only one parking lane from Westminster and keep parking completely the same on Broadway. Additionally, the proposal would add parking to the I-95 service roads in order to calm traffic there, re-making the three-lane one-ways into two-lane one-ways. 

Broadway would squeeze its existing bike lane space into a wider one-way bike lane, protected from traffic.

Westminster would lose one lane of parking for a protected bike lane. It's current parking occupancy hovers around 10% on the street, and many businesses have unfilled parking lots.
Service Road 7 would gain parking, which is especially helpful since one of the few areas of Westminster that gets higher parking occupancy is near I-95. This would also calm traffic. Note, I've put a grass median in place to imagine a separation from the gained width left over from changing a 12 or 13' travel lane into an 8' parking lane, but if funding is not available this could be done with temporary materials such as plastic bollards or paint.
Broadway and Westminster are already on the list to get repaving work done for the summer, according to a conversation I had with the city's parking department. The repaving makes temporary changes to parking difficult, said the city, but it also makes putting in changes to painted lines on the street extra easy. We should take this opportunity to re-think our streets.

If you bike on the West Side, please help push these plans forward!


Updated Waterman & Angell plan

Green=bikeway or pedestrian mall, Red=stop signs/blinking red lights, Yellow=uncontrolled pedestrian crossings w/ bumpouts or islands. Interactive map with labels here
I came up with a plan to slow traffic along Waterman and Angell streets using more stop signs, and converting traffic signals into blinking red lights. I like that plan still because it helps traffic flow at a slow and steady speed, making it safer to be a pedestrian or bicyclist. It's a plan highly recommended by both Chuck Marohn and Jeff Speck, neither of whom I agree with 100% of the time, but both of which I think have many good ideas. 

But our friend David Hembrow in the Netherlands said NOT GOOD ENOUGH! David has been kind enough to be tough and push us for better, so he came down hard on my original East Side plan, saying that I should put protected bike lanes the whole way up Waterman and Angell Streets. In response I came up with a different plan. The new map is here.

On the original map, I wasn't sure if we could really swing changing Gano to a blinking red*. So I went out and visited the site today. Here's some video.


The first thing I can say is thank goodness this runner didn't think I was a creep and smack me. She went about her business waiting for traffic to pass and then crossed her merry way (a few other runners came along as well, but the video was too big to export from my cell phone without shortening it).

You'll note there are a lot of cars. But then in between there are gaps without any. This is from the other traffic signals, not from the one at this intersection necessarily. The cars stack at the red light a few blocks away, and then when the green releases them to go they put pedal to the metal and go as fast as they can. So making the signals along this whole corridor into blinking reds would mean that drivers would have to take caution and move slowly through the intersection, but it would also mean there'd be a steady flow, and this stacking would not occur. You wouldn't have total ebbs and flows. Also, reducing the lanes to one on Angell and one on Waterman, with the protected bike lanes will also have an effect of making many more people choose biking. And remember, these two lane streets bottleneck at Brown, just where so many of these people are going and coming from, so the two lanes don't really offer as much mobility as they might seem to offer at first glance.

Protected bike lanes going up Waterman's hill would actually add (legal) parking, even though some spots would be lost through the Brown campus. I want to use the left side of the street, not the right, in order to keep continuity with the rest of the bikeway. But nonetheless, using parked cars to protected a left-side bike lane would give them something they sometimes pilfer but don't legitimately have at the moment:

These cars were doing 30-35 mph.


The original color system I used was green=let's do it immediately, yellow=very soon, red=not sure if this would work. I abandoned that color system. Green now means a bikeway or parklet, yellow refers to uncontrolled (no stop sign or signal) pedestrian crossings, and red refers to pedestrian crossings that are either blinking red or stop signs. 


The Humble Stop Sign

Interactive map with labels here

The more I ride around certain parts of Providence, the more I feel that shared space would work in many of them. Maybe that sounds like a shocking thing coming from me, who is always pushing protected bike lanes. I'm not giving up on the idea that protected bike lanes are the best thing for major thoroughfares like Hope Street, Westminster, Broadway, S. Main, etc. But there are certain streets where I think getting protected bike lanes might be more work than it's worth.

The key to shared space, for me is getting areas to 15 mph, which is a speed that is safe and practical for bicyclists, poses virtually no hazard to pedestrians, and makes it possible to have all uses on roads without protected bike lanes. 

It's clear what non-drivers get from this, but what do drivers get in return? Getting streets to 15 mph may be more achievable if we can reduce signalization, because signalized streets have relatively high peak speeds (podcast) while performing at poor average speeds. I picked out a corridor near Brown to show an example because Thayer Street is clearly ground zero for places that could benefit from this kind of treatment in the Capital City.

A newly installed traffic signal can cost six-figures, and the electricity consumed by the traffic signal can run more than $1,000 a year. Turning the signal off will force drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists to make eye contact with each other and move slowly through the intersection in a way that works for everyone. As a middle ground I would suggest moving to blinking red lights for many signals, and adding stop signs to create shorter blocks.

I've made a map of my ideas. Green is things I think can be done immediately with little to no funding. Yellow requires some planning or funding to be done, or more process due to being a larger project. Red are the things I think should be looked at, but which I'm not certain would work (I'd love to get feedback on these ideas).

Some people don't think that stop signs are a good idea, because they're enthralled with the example of Drachte, Netherlands, which did away with all of its signals. Personally, I wouldn't mind us taking things as far as this at some point, but I feel like stop signs are a really low-cost investment that's easily reversible. People also rightly point out that we have way too many signs on our streets such that some of them are ignored outright--visual noise that no one can process. I think stop signs are the one sign that people really do pay attention to, and are a counterpoint to that. I find that not having stop signs at intersections makes people here treat those junctions as if they can speed right through them, and the long blocks that result give them plenty of time to reach dangerous speeds. This is definitely moving towards a less signalized system overall.

Drivers already go effectively quite slow along much of the green shared-space corridor I'm suggesting, and will actually be gaining from not having signalization. But cyclists and pedestrians will also gain, because they'll be able to to cross with priority. And drivers, less impatient, will not jump to the highest speed possible when they see green, but will instead flow at a slower but steadier pace. The protected bike lanes on either side, which are in yellow, give drivers the ability to get up to 25 mph, but also give cyclists separate dedicated space in return. The overall experience is such that the slow area only takes up a very small part of the journey, but has no elongated stops.


86ing 6 & 10

The Viaduct could reduce its footprint if 6 & 10 were removed.

John Norquist said the I-195 project is a good example of the opportunities that a city can avail itself of when a freeway disappears, but noted that removal of urban highways is always better than relocation.

'The highway is a rural piece of technology,' he said. 'Look at Boston. It’s got several beltways around it. The Big Dig, which everyone hates, was actually as much a waste of money as people say it was, because it just took all this land and ran I-93 under it for no reason. There’s a hierarchy of roads: interstates for long-distance travel, boulevards to connect parts of a city or town, and smaller streets. I-93 has no business carrying through-traffic right under an urban core when there are plenty of belt roadways for taking it around it.

'It’s hard, because the general public doesn’t always understand road design. When I helped remove the Park East Freeway in Milwaukee, the right-wing talk shows had a field day coming up with excuses for why it had to stay. Traffic would go through the roof, they said. Businesses would die. The neighborhood was really too dangerous because of gang activity to drive directly through. They came up with every racist, vile thing they could say. Of course, the reason the neighborhood was blighted was because of the freeway.'

The rest of the article, with interviews of  the Norquist, NYC DOT's Sam Schwartz, East Coast Greenway's Eric Weis, Birchwood Design Group's Art Eddy, and Olneyville Housing Corporation's Frank Shea, is at EcoRI News.


2014-H 7560: New Housing Bubble, Rhode Island Style?

Can anyone think of any recent economic problems that resulted from inducing people to build large amounts of housing that wasn't needed? Bueller? Bueller?

(Oh good, me neither).

Rep. Jacquard introduces bill to spur home building
            STATE HOUSE – Rep. Robert B. Jacquard (D-Dist. 17, Cranston) has introduced legislation that he believes can help spur home construction in Rhode Island, which he knows is “an important aspect of improving our state’s stagnant economy.”
            The bill, 2014-H 7560, offers some fee-cutting and tax-saving incentives to promote home construction. According to records kept by the Rhode Island Builders’ Association, sales of homes recorded a slight increase in 2013 compared to the year before. While those sales figures were up compared to the significantly lower numbers for the eight years previous, they have still not rebounded to the numbers of the boom sales years of 2005 and earlier.
            “Building homes, purchasing homes is a vital driver of a good economy,” said Representative Jacquard. “It creates jobs, and generates taxes. It means greater purchases of goods and other services. It means the fulfillment of the American Dream, and the greater stability of a community.”
            According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, the construction of new housing is an “integral component of the economy.” From 1980 to 2007, the center’s “Housing Impact on the Economy” report said, residential construction contributed on average 4.5 percent to the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). During the boom years of 2004 to 206, it peaked at 6.3 percent of GDP. When the bubble began to burst in 2007, that plummeted to about 2.2 percent.
            The report also indicated that “new home construction is a major generator of American jobs,” with each new single-family home construction supporting 3.5 jobs and each new multi-family home building supporting 1.2 jobs.
            “Rhode Island government has been concentrating lately on enacting or revising laws to make the state a better place to run a business, and that’s a good thing,” said Representative Jacquard. “I think we should also offer encouragement to the home construction industry, because of the vial part it plays in the state’s economic health. I propose we do it with a few short-term monetary incentives that, while they will be a small drain on the state’s tax and fee intake, will mean a great deal more in the long term in regard to helping boost our economy.”
            The Jacquard bill proposes three amendments to the State Building Code:
            ** The permit fees assessed by each municipality would be reduced by 50 percent for a period of two years from the enactment of the legislation;
            ** There would be a 3.5 percent reduction in the sales tax imposed on lumber and building materials used in the construction of buildings or for making other improvements on land, for a two-year period following enactment;
            ** There would be a moratorium on the assessment and collection of impact fees currently established or proposed by cities and towns for new construction. The moratorium would be in place for a three-year period, beginning upon enactment.
            According to the National Association of Home Builders, the estimated one-year local impacts of building 100 single-family homes is $21.1 million in local income, $2.2 million in taxes and other revenue for local government and 324 local jobs. The local one-year impacts for construction of 100 rental apartments is $7.9 million in income, $827,000 in taxes and other revenue and 122 jobs. Even residential remodeling has a positive impact, with every $10 million spent on remodeling accounting for $6.9 million in income, $577,000 in taxes and other revenue and 78 jobs.
            “Houses build a life for a family, they build a community and they build the economy,” said Representative Jacquard. “I think we should enact laws to encourage this industry.”
            The Jacquard bill is before the House Committee on Finance. It is co-sponsored by Rep. William San Bento Jr. (D-Dist. 58, Pawtucket).

Temporarily lowering taxes on home building sounds suspiciously to me like trying to create a small-scale housing bubble. There are lots of policies we could change that would help to spur building in a better way. The biggest thing on my plate would be removing parking minimums statewide, so that developers can choose whether and how much parking to provide at a location, instead of being required to have it and having to tuck the price of it into housing. Parking minimums are essentially a tax on development to provide public parking. Another major fix would be making some drastic changes to spending policies on road infrastructure so that we don't induce sprawl away from town centers and cities, and can instead develop some infill. We've been reporting on the $46 Million boondoggle that RIDOT plans to add to Viaduct project--that money could definitely be better spent.

I'm very suspicious of anything that promises jobs as its raison d'etre. I like the rule of thumb that Rust Wire author and Streetsblog editor Angie Schmitt uses, which is that it would almost be impossible to imagine throwing around money through tax cuts or spending that wouldn't generate some kind of economic activity. The bigger question is, what kind? Why should a particular industry--in this case, home building--be favored over others? If there's a compelling public reason, then so be it. But "jobs" is not it.

I called Rep. Jacquard's office for comment, and no one I spoke to was authorized to speak on 2014-H7560. I certainly would welcome his comment, or the comment of supporters of this bill in the comments section, by Twitter at @transportpvd, or by email at transportprovidence@gmail.com.