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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?



  1. This past Friday was probably not a great survey day for parking occupancy at Garrahy. School vacation weeks are as disruptive to normal traffic and parking patterns as thanksgiving, christmas and new years. Try that any other week and you'll likely find that every lot and street near that complex is full the for most of the day.

  2. I think you might be right that more spots in lots would be taken, but I generally find that there are tons of open street spaces in the Jewelry District almost always, and also spots available in pay lots. People are so lazy about how far they're willing to walk, though. I would suggest raising the street parking rates in the blocks people always want to be in so that people can be either lazy or cheap but not both. ;)

  3. Nothing advocates better than an advocate...

    I plan on trying the experiment again. We'll see.

    In any case I think the relative cost of bike infrastructure (or buses, or streetcars--Jef Nickerson reposted good information about this from Walking Bostonian) trumps any argument for more parking. You want parking, then manage supply better. If we only get 100 new bikers from a mile of protected bike lanes (which I think would be extremely conservative--cities across the country are growing their biking rates by exponential figures with even lesser treatments) then that means we'd get 100 new (unused) spots for the cost of 1/2 to 1 full spot.

    I definitely hope people come to the Jane's Walk (Bike) May 2nd to ride around and see the splendor that is the many garages of the Jewelry District. It's no wonder that UConn finds that a city loses $1,200 per space added to downtown. Do we want to be like Worcester and New Haven, or Berkeley and Cambridge?

  4. Thanks, Jen!

    I don't even know if it's laziness. It's hot in the summer and wind-swept in winter, covered in broken glass, surrounded by buildings without windows, roads that are either desolate or full of fast cars, etc. Only the motivated activist for non-car use would walk or bike here happily. We should recognize that success is built off of what ordinary (clue--we're not) people do. People will walk if there's something worth walking through.