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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...

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.



  1. Drachten is a small town. Only 45000 people live there, vs. four times so many in Providence. Drachten has been the subject of much hype, but the hype does not match the reality.

    Drachten has many traffic light junctions. They appear on the main roads for cars (e.g. here) and also in near the town centre (this is one of those - in this case actually a really terrible junction design).

    in reality, there are fewer shared spaces than there are traffic lights, and notwithstanding the ludicrously optimistic claims of shared space advocates, if you look at the actual accident figures for the town you find that in reality those few shared spaces are the sites of many crashes and injuries.

    Please don't campaign for shared space. It's not the best solution in Drachten and it's not the best solution for Providence either. In Shared Spaces, 'might is right'. This road design puts all the power in the hands of those with the most powerful engines.

  2. I think I completely agree that this isn't the best solution for Providence, but I'm looking to strike a deal with people. There's a lot here from a U.S. perspective: turning several blocks of street into a pedestrian mall, taking away a lane from two arterials for protected bike lanes, giving pedestrians greater control of intersections by using stop-sign configuration instead of signals. I want people who never bike (of which there are unfortunately too many here) to understand that having the stop sign configuration may help their overall travel time while keeping speeds low. Overall, I'm not usually the voice of practicality here, so that's a bit of a departure from what people might expect. But my hope is that getting these improvements would very quickly get people to question the idea of shared space and move to protected bike lanes for the whole street. And having the blinking-red is something we can experiment with without putting in or taking out infrastructure, so that if we decide we don't like it, or if protected bike lanes come to need better signaling in the future, then we can do something else.

  3. You're not striking a deal, you're capitulating before the process of negotiation has even begun.

    Don't put any effort into asking for something you don't actually want. The time for negotiation is after the negotiation has begun, not before you've even started. You have to set the highest possible standards in advance of negotiation. If you set your sights so low then you will never achieve what you really want because to everyone else the less desirable outcome will already be what asked for.

    Think about how all modern reforms came about. Did Rosa Parks ask merely to sit a little bit closer to the front of the bus ? If she had, what progress would that have made ?

    Aim high !

  4. Oh boy, you're starting to sound like me (or am I starting to sound like the people I criticize?)

    Not that I disagree with the overall thrust of what you're saying, but the surprising fact is that Rosa Parks' first demands were better accommodations on the buses for African-Americans, and to not be asked to get up from the "Colored" section of the bus for whites. (I know that's crazy, but listen to the interview from when it happened: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NoOd5ltjj8g&noredirect=1

    (I used to make Martin Luther King Day CDs each year to give out to friends. I've kind of fallen off the habit, but this was an interview I used once).

    I agree though! Let's aim high! I'm going to count the parking spots on the street next time I'm out there and come out with a proposal for protected bike lanes throughout the whole street.

    As to the blinking red part of the proposal, though, does that part still make sense? It seems like a slow and steady pace might work well with protected bike lanes, even though I know for more complex streets special signals can be used.

  5. Here's a fuller version of the Rosa Parks interview. The other one was truncated. http://www.democracynow.org/2005/10/25/rosa_parks_1913_2005_we_air

  6. Interesting comment about Rosa Parks. Perhaps not the best example for me to choose. However, her was of course not the only part of the protest. King's speeches didn't aim low.

    Back to the subject of stop signs - they're virtually non-existant in the UK but seen more frequently in the Netherlands. However, these signs are not used anything like so often in NL as they are in the USA. For that reason, I don't think a lack of stop signs is your problem. It's certainly not the approach taken by the Dutch, and of course the Dutch have achieved more for cycling than anywhere else. Therefore it's probably not the best approach to take.

    As for the blinking red thing: Do you know of any successful implementation of this ? Any place where blinking red lights have led to a higher cycling modal share ? If so, how high a modal share did it result in ? If not, then why are you so interested in implementation of something with no proven record of success ?

    When there is a very good, very extensive, very well tested example of how to achieve a high cycling modal share, why do anything other than propose doing those things which already have a proven record of success ?

    I don't even see the point in picking up anything that can be found in other countries which from externally appears to work, but adopting the very best examples of what the Dutch have done as that is what has been most successful. Why aim lower than that ?

  7. I don't want stop signs in lieu of protected bike lanes. I want them both. In some cases I think having stop signs on streets with protected bike lanes would help too, because it would bring about lower speeds, and that would help reduce conflicts at intersections.

    The reason I think stop signs or blinking reds would help is on many streets in New England, the frequency with which someone in a car has to stop and look around is very low. I'm used to Philadelphia, where I grew up, and there, even in many of the older suburbs, there's a four-way stop sign at every corner. We have three-way stop signs if the street is a T intersection, but I don't think I've ever encountered a two-way stop sign, which in my humble opinion is just New England's way of having a glorified highway yield sign on a street. It's not that people never blow through stop signs in Philly, but in my experience people doing that is more of an exception than here. Here, we have these crosswalks that are just paint, and because you're not periodically stopping, you're able to get going very fast (at least 30 mph). It's not so fast that people in cars feel like they're going fast, but it's fast enough that they're not likely to be in touch with visual cues like that there is someone waiting to cross. In a place where there are short blocks and constant stop signs, you don't even have the distance with which to reach those speeds. So the good drivers stop in those situations, because it's not an exception to the rule that they have to be looking out for, but is the thing they're always supposed to do.

    We have some blinking reds in Providence, and elsewhere in Rhode Island. I'm not sure how they came about. In some cases I imagine they were added to give extra attention to a stop sign (it was probably an expensive fix to a problem that might have gotten parklet bump-outs or some much nicer and cheaper traffic calming technique). But in this case I'm proposing backing down from a green-yellow-red to just blinking red in order to de-escalate the intersection (so not adding anything, just changing how we use it). Camp & Doyle is an intersection that has a blinking red. I find it much easier to cross there than I do the next major street over, which is Camp & Olney. Olney has no stop sign, but just a painted crosswalk. And since there's no hierarchy that puts bikes ahead of cars in the U.S. (pedestrians are nominally ahead, though, if not in practice) that means that cyclists just have to wait for a gap in traffic and try to cross. I feel certain that just adding a series of stop signs up Olney so that cars are going slowly and have to stop periodically and give right-of-way to cross traffic would help with that. As for Olney itself, it's a pretty busy street unlike Camp Street, and I think that it should get a protected bike lane (it's got wimpy, useless sharrows right now introduced by the traffic engineer we have doing our bike plan, who is a "vehicular" cyclist and flat-earther on bike infrastructure).

    As I've said, I think Providence could be the Groningen of the U.S. It just needs to apply itself. And protected bike lanes are front-and-center for what I think needs to happen, but I also think having a general slowing of traffic overall would help as an analogue to that.

  8. Hey James, I've been meaning to comment on this for a bit but work has been crazy and I hate typing on my phone, which is where I read blogs. Clearly today I am back to the sort of statistics that involve a lot of down time! :)

    I am not a big fan of more stop signs (especially without an Idado stop law, since I feel like drivers on a major street like Angell would definitely judge me for coasting through on bike even if it's safer), but your proposed street plan really made me think about options for these streets that could involve a combo of bike lanes and sharrows. The part of Angell I despise is that between the Henderson and Governor St. (where the two lanes merge down to 1). People speed insanely and don't seem to be at all deterred by the relatively high pedestrian and bike presence. I've spent a lot of time thinking about how a bike lane could fit since the street becomes so narrow (and heavily used for parking) around Brown. The two shades in your figure are meant to indicate stages, but I think they could also indicate areas for lanes vs. sharrows. I think a lane could so easily be extended all the way from the Henderson to Governor (I personally would replace one of the travel lanes even though the parking is barely utilized between Gano and Governor, just because I think drivers really need to be slowed -- they're just going to get stuck at Brown anyway, so no need for more volume farther East). The lane could merge to sharrows through Brown (traffic moves, and should move, very slowly there), and the lane could reemerge when two travel lanes do (I think the travel lanes could be narrowed? Haven't measured). Not sure what I think on right vs. left for the lane, or whether Angell and/or Waterman could actually handle two-way protected bike lanes in their eastern stretches...

    I wish I could take photos of some of the biking behavior I've seen on Angell to show how hazardous many cyclists feel it is now. I've seen several elderly cyclists using a technique where they travel in the (barely used) parking lane, but then go up on the sidewalk to go around parked cars rather than risk venturing into the traffic lane. It's not good!

    1. I think that's a great idea.

      I think when I revised the plan, I just updated the same map, so there's no indication of this, but that's pretty close to what I originally called for. I think the part of the Brown-area Waterman/Angell could get narrowed a bit more (maybe we can put some potted planted in the shoulder where the yellow line is to create visual "friction" for the cars, and slow them further, because people still go pretty fast from Governor to Brooke). I think so long as the shared space is at 15 mph, it's good. I just really hate shared space that's not calmed to bike speed.

      I feel as though the parking is very well used on Waterman and Angell, but the new apartment building on Thayer is getting below-ground parking (Ugh! I think it was required. . . ) so someone should do a study to see how much of it ends up being used by the people in the building, and see if the building wants to rent the excess to people at Brown. If we can get enough spots squeezed into garages (and really, there aren't that many in those few blocks, are there?) we should work towards Stage 2 being a protected lane through the whole corridor. Certainly if there's anywhere that would get healthy use of bicycling infrastructure it would be around Brown.

      No one can compel the landlord of 257 Thayer to reduce rents with money from parking if it's not used by tenants, but a smart landlord would try to separate the two so that people who live without cars at the building get an incentive. The landlord can figure out what the going rate from professors et. al. is for parking and come to a balance that makes sense for their budget.

    2. Also, what Barry Schiller suggested was using a "green wave" at 20 mph to regulate the lights. I'm not sure, but I think the signals may be spaced so that more need to be added for this. Or perhaps the message can be gotten across to drivers through signs that say "Drive at 20 mph and get green the whole way". I was concerned when I wrote this that adding a signal or two would make the project expensive, and was trying to think about how we can get something meaningful now, but if we can pull that off either with or without some funding source for signals, I think a green wave would be better than the stop signs.