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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.



  1. The core problem isn't expense. It's a resistance to change and an inability to pull together the stakeholders necessary to convince those with opposing views that the changes aren't bad, and are quite possibly desirable. So far as I'm aware, everywhere that has succeeeded at altering the nature of their city, even just a little, the direction came from political forces who could set the agenda and prioritize. There are other ways to succeed, but eventually it comes down to someone in power agreeing to try something. Sheila and others like her can only go so far, and have far too many things they're trying to balance -- and bicycling is just one small piece. I don't believe that Providence can change without a person with more than token authority hired to specifically manage the city's bicycle plan, and maybe even more broadly, its transportation plan.

    I agree that sharrows are not enough to succeed in attracting more people to using bicycles more often, but I have yet to be convinced that there are more than a couple of streets in Providence that are appropriate for a sheltered/protected bike lane. (high speed, high volume traffic, infrequent driveway/intersections). I'd be happier if we could get more bike-lanes to reduce congestion by narrowing and changing the nature of travel lanes. I'd also say, even cheaper, in some ways - intentionally traffic calmed neighborhood greenways (with sharrows?). I would class your armadillo idea as an upgrade on a buffered bike lanes, but only useful on roadways without parking.

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  3. I've never been to Portland, but I'm told they have a lot of driveways. They're really a lot more suburban than us, in terms of layout. I think driveways are a hazard but they can be worked out. I also think if we start to reduce people's need for cars (and if zoning allows) we might find some people develop gardens or granny cottages in their driveways.

  4. Hey Matt, this is how @Copenhagenize (with 17,000 followers on Twitter, specializing in bike infrastructure out of Denmark) says to handle driveways:

    "How do you deal with driveways and sidewalks? The same way for protected bike lanes."