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Getting Closer to Protected Bike Lanes on the West Side

I'm happy to report that talks are continuing with the WBNA, city officials, and Transport Providence about how to resolve the need for upgraded bike infrastructure on the West Side. We're getting closer, but we're really still not there yet. After we got some feedback in the comments section of the blog, we decided to push a concept with double protected bike lanes on Broadway rather than protected bike lanes all on Westminster or split between Westminster and Broadway. I like this idea much more, but honestly thought it was less politically feasible than the Westminster ideas. In actual fact, the Broadway idea is getting past a lot of barriers that we faced on Westminster, so it may end up being easier to implement.*

I think the WBNA is acting as a sincere negotiating partner at this point, but I still have problems with their proposal, and I hope that people on the West Side will take the time to express their views about protected bike lanes and parking policy, since the major crux is that the WBNA does not yet accept the need to balance parking against other uses of the street.

Broadway: Two Options

Protected bike lanes, each one either side (there's actually 2' less than I thought, since the lanes are already at 11', so these bike lanes would go to 6' each instead of 7').

There are two options for Broadway. One is to have a protected bike lane on each side of the street. The other is to have them together. Either option requires the loss of one parking lane, because you need 5 feet from each of the existing painted bike lanes plus some width for the buffers. I'm told that RIPTA buses are 10.5 feet, and the existing travel lanes are 11 feet, so there's no room to take from anywhere but one of the parking lanes.

Either Broadway option has some advantages:

*Broadway would be better than Westminster because it proceeds more easily from Olneyville to the West Side and from the West Side to Downtown than Westminster does, as many cyclists have pointed out in the comments of our piece on the Westminster proposal.

*Broadway is not a state road, and therefore changes can be made to it with only city approval. (That's a huge advantage).

Broadway One-Side Two-Way Advantages

One-side, two-way bikeway on Broadway (there's the same spacial error in this one: each bike lane would be 6', not 7'.)
*Having both bike lanes on one side together makes the bikeway more than wide enough for emergency services like ambulances or fire trucks to get through, and that improves safety on the street over any other design--a fire truck has to sit in traffic now, but that will never again be true! Bikes can just get up on the sidewalk when needed to!

*Double bike lanes also make for easier passing. 12' is a little less space than the standard Dutch treatment, but it's close, and that means that disabled people and the elderly can use the smooth surface of the road for assisted movement devices. When you're talking about win-win situations, this can't be emphasized enough. RIPTA passengers would also now have a direct berth to get off and on the bus from.

*12' is more than enough space for ordinary snow plows, meaning no investment needed in special smaller snow plows. Big win from a city services point of view.

*I also prefer the one-side, two-way approach because it turns two 2' buffers into one 4' buffer, and that gives us the option of putting street trees in for beauty and shade (if we don't have the budget to do this now, we can wait until we do, but the city does have a street tree program where it matches investments by neighbors--as we've pointed out in our Thanksgivika article about the tear-up of the Statehouse lawn for a parking lot.

Okay, So There Is That Small Matter. . . 

Overcoming ADA issues, fire safety, state-city jurisdictional disputes, and snow plowing all in one leap is huge, especially if it adds trees to a neighborhood with fewer than the city average, but it does still leave that issue about parking. Unfortunately this is the issue that the WBNA still considers a worry. In order to try to skirt the loss of a parking lane, they've proposed a different model, which I call the Broadway Double Door-Zone Bike Lanes. These would not be an improvement, though I think they're offered as a sincere step forward in the negotiations.  My hope is that we've gone through denial, anger, and sadness about the loss of a parking lane, and now we're just onto bargaining before we finally accept the need to repurpose some space on our streets.

Broadway Double Door-Zone Bike Lanes (WBNA)
Why Doesn't This Work?

As I say, I think this is a small step forward for us all, because we now are on the same page about the need for protected infrastructure and agreed about what street should get it. Attempting to hold onto parking here won't work for a number of reasons, though.

The issue with the existing painted bike lanes is dooring. Dooring is a major cause of bike accidents, and happens with cars swing their doors open into the bike lane. There have been attempts to educate people about this problem, and to get drivers and cyclists to watch out for it, but in the Netherlands, they resolve the problem by simply not building infrastructure this way. The WBNA proposal just switches around which side of the car people will be doored on.

The 5' bike lanes also won't work for the people getting out of the cars. It sucks to be the bicyclist being tossed over someone's car door, but I daresay being the passenger who opens up that door also feels unsafe.

It's important to design protected bike lanes according to standards that we know work. Critics of protected bike lanes showed that the earliest versions of that infrastructure sometimes increased crashes with cars at intersections, because drivers turned unwittingly across them without looking. Updates to infrastructure have made protected bike lanes extremely safe and have resulted in countries like the Netherlands having far fewer crashes and almost no bicycling deaths nationwide--a safety record that has improved much faster than the U.S. one for all users.

While I think the WBNA proposal is made sincerely, it won't work. There are engineering reasons for it that are well laid out and well tested. 

There's No Parking Crisis (Except This One)

You may recall the reason I focused on Westminster at first was that I found its parking lanes to consistently be nearly empty at peak times of day, saw and experienced myself the relative comfort of biking in them to trying to "take the lane" on a fast road, and thought the city could adopt better infrastructure there more easily than Broadway, where there was higher parking occupancy. But even on Broadway, parking is rarely completely full. Doing actual counts over time is something that's pending for me, but I have made an effort to eye the situation as I've taken walks over the past several weeks, and my preliminary guess is that parking on Broadway is 50-60% occupied. At the low end of this, removing a parking lane would not remove any (actually used) parking at all. At the upper end, only 10% of the total current available parking would be removed.

Westminster, with its 10% parking rate, has plenty of parking for anyone who spills over, as does every single side street.

And if that's not enough, let's see what Google has to offer us in terms of a survey of parking lots that exist beside or behind buildings:

One of the things you can't help but note (although maybe you'll have to make this image bigger to see it) is that at whatever randomly appointed daytime period when Google took its satellite image, none of the lots were more than half full either. They're all fairly empty in fact--just a couple cars at a time usually.

The WBNA makes a rather strange claim, which is that they are concerned that people will knock down buildings to create more parking lots in order satisfy the need for parking that will be taken away for a protected bike lane pair. I know that Providence had a recent history of banning parking on the street in order to make speedways, and there are legitimate urbanist grounds to value on-street parking as a buffer between pedestrians and cars, or to create an illusion of a narrow street to slow drivers. But taking parking away from a street in order to provide a more effective way for people not to drive is not the same thing. If there's an example of a community as healthy as the West Side tearing down perfectly good buildings for parking while at the same time putting in advanced Dutch biking infrastructure, I'd certainly like to see it. I've never heard of such a thing--but I have heard of places, even in the suburbs, that have introduced more density and car alternatives and reduced the demand for parking while growing business.

Several Broadway businesses took part in Park(ing) Day, including The Grange, Cluck!, and Analog Underground. The Grange is now in fact moving towards having a permanent parklet. I certainly think that if someone does an independent count of parking occupancy, especially if that's coupled with the existing lots and Westminster spillover parking, that there will be more than enough spaces to convince West Siders to go along with this improvement.

Donald Shoup showed the success of proper parking reform over a decade ago in Pasadena, California. If Southern California, a place known for its obsession with cars, can figure out a way to manage its parking supply, then we certainly should be able to figure it out. Businesses are taxed too high, and parking reform would help to put money back into their pockets, while also reducing pollution and giving drivers and non-drivers more convenience.

Protected bike lanes have improved every place that's gotten them. It's time for the West Side to join those other places.


*A second alternative exists to use Washington Street, and I'll address that briefly as well. While on the West Side, using Washington would more or less involve shuttling people to bike on side streets, the way I suggested that this idea could get some teeth and be more meaningful would be to take significant street space from the downtown side of Washington to create protected infrastructure, culminating in the block of Washington and Fulton in front of Kennedy Plaza being car-free. This idea follows the example of Groningen, which cut itself into four quarters, which allowed drivers to go anywhere, but never directly between any of the quarters. This greatly reduced driving. I like this idea and may write something separately about it soon, but in a lot of ways I think it faces the exact same obstacles politically as the Broadway proposal--maybe even steeper ones. Like the Broadway proposal, the things that drivers might reflexively oppose would actually make driving more convenient and better, but again, it's a matter of explaining that to people.


  1. Great work! I really hope this ends up going forward, and I think it would be well-used. It seems to me that the two-way cycle track is sort of necessary, and the track must be on the opposite side of the street from the (remaining) parking lane. Otherwise, bikes will be sheltered from view behind parked cars, and turning drivers will hook bikes all the time. (Perhaps the only advantage of door zone bike lanes is the forced visibility of bikes to cars on the road).

    Although any bike infrastructure improvement would be more than welcome, I'd also like to see this implemented with some additional considerations for bikes on the road. For instance, making all broadway intersections no turn on red to prevent people from inching out and blocking the cycle track, signs that say "Yield to Bikes when turning" because I have a feeling cars turning left will remember to yield only to oncoming car traffic, and perhaps an on-street bike corral or two.

    And there's seriously a ton of parking on most west side streets. But I'm not sure we could EVER have enough parking to pacify worries about its dearth.

  2. I can definitely echo the sentiment that Broadway's Street parking is rarely at more than 50-60% capacity. Anything that can be done to help the cause?

  3. The best thing people can do is go out talking to people and businesses on the West Side about this. If you buy coffee at The Grange, tell them you love that they're getting a parklet and that you'd love even more to see protected bike lanes. If you're buying stuff at Cluck! (you should) then thank her for removing some of the ugly asphalt and having put a bunch of trees in, and strike up a conversation with her about her time with her family in Denmark (we should be writing something up about that soon). If you're at Analog Underground, buy a record and ask them if they have any great pictures of the AMAZING (seriously, best in the city) parklet they did last September, and tell them you'd love to stuff your records in a messenger bag and float effortlessly down a Dutch-style Broadway. And so on. . . I think a lot of people on the West Side are already here on this issue, or at least within the range of being convinced. The WBNA, for its part, keeps telling me (through one of its representatives) about the time the staff person spent in the Netherlands and Belgium, and how great it was. This is supposed to sooth me, I guess. But I think what's missing is just the understanding that we're not uniquely car-oriented in the U.S. Other countries tried our crap and realized it was a disaster, including the Netherlands, and then decided to turn around. Just do what you can to get the word out, and I think people will see this as a priority and start pushing for it.