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Washington Bikeway: The Devil's in the Details

Image from Treehugger blog: Groningen Center
(For clarity here, I'm not talking about the Washington Secondary Path, but about Washington Street in Providence, which starts at Knight Street and continues into Downcity until it turns into Waterman).

The WBNA has been meeting with us about the development of protected bike lanes on the West Side, and we're making progress. There's serious reasons why Broadway appears to be the choice to go with. But the WBNA also suggested Washington Street. This is in the Bike Master Plan as an option as well, and I wanted to go into this in more detail.
The Netherlands once had traffic jams, when it tried

In general the fault I find in the Bike Master Plan is that it doesn't ease ridership on major streets at all, but takes the existing (relatively) friendly streets and tells bikers to stay to those. Suggesting Washington as a bike route has this flaw on the West Side, because it does nothing to improve access to Broadway--which has door-zone bike lanes--or to Westminster--which has nothing. And that's to say nothing of Cranston Street, which should also be addressed, since it's the main connection to the Cranston Bike Path and in the midst of a low income neighborhood that deserves premier biking options to support its car-light-by-necessity lifestyle.

But Washington isn't a horrible idea, if it's done well. It won't negate the need for biking infrastructure on these other streets, but we should think about how we can make Washington, Carpenter, and other side streets better to bike on. 

On the West Side, this means using bike boulevards:

The West Side is relatively gridded, so we can cut off some street entries for cars without making streets car-free. Washington terminates at Knight, and Knight street would be a great place to do this.

When I go from the West Side eastbound, I usually take Carpenter to Knight, where I have to do a little wiggle onto Washington to continue. Believe it or not, this little half-block wiggle is one of the more stressful areas.

If people had any common sense at all, they would see that Knight is narrow and that it's meant to be slow. Instead, drivers very frequently get impatient for the fifty feet or so where they're behind me, and try to pass hastily on the left. There's not really room to do this anyway, but it's also stressful because I have to make a left onto Washington to continue, so in addition to any cars coming the other way I have to negotiate with, I also have to worry about the jackass behind me that wants to sideswipe me from behind.

Cutting off this little half-block to car traffic would resolve that. The grid allows cars to come to this place from a variety of directions, it just makes Knight Street a through street only for bikes and pedestrians.

There are also some relatively fast cars on Washington--again, you think, why? People should have common sense--so I suggest having a diagonal diverter at Winter Street. Cars coming off of Hoyle Square would have to turn and go east. Cars coming from the W. Fountain would turn and go up Washington.

You might say, why do this? Doesn't this put cars onto the street you're trying to make car-light? I think the pattern in the first week or so before people know what's going on might look like this. But people naturally adjust their driving pattern to the way roads are designed over time--pretty quickly--so through traffic will dissipate. The people who are visiting actual places on this strip will still come in their cars if they choose, but they'll just do what they'd do if there had been a cul-de-sac: they'll come the other way.

Beyond the West Side, into Downtown, Washington is no longer a side street. It's an important route. So I would allow through traffic by cars as far as Kennedy Plaza, with protected bike lanes in the parking lanes (there are several empty garages in this area, so there's plenty of parking). The service roads would get two lanes instead of three, to slow traffic. Again, the issue here is that people are using the service roads as if they themselves are part of the highway. People are also using the highway as if it's a local road (which could be resolved by removing some exit and entrance ramps). So this is an improvement for cars. The people who use the highway to get to Cranston or Pawtucket and beyond will benefit, while it will probably reduce the number of people who decide to use I-95 to go from the West Side to North Main. Those people will use local roads to drive, will take the highway during non-peak times, or will use some other way of getting where they want to go within the city. 

At Kennedy Plaza, Fulton and Washington would be car free. This has been suggested by Jef Nickerson and Barry Schiller, among others. It's not my idea, but it's a great one. It would benefit cars by removing a lot of local trips by car from the road. The national average for trips under two miles is 40% of total car volume, so that's 40% of cars in this area off the road. The people who will continue to drive to this area are the people who we purport to be trying to attract--visitors from out of town, long-distance commuters, etc. Those folks don't need to drive a lot when they get here. Let's use the cars for what they're used for.

A car-free Kennedy Plaza is in keeping with the idea that Groningen, Netherlands used to grow its biking rate to 50% citywide, and 60% of trips in downtown. Groningen is 50% larger in area than Providence and 2/3 its density. In Groningen, you have many shared spaces where cars are allowed to go, but they cut the city into quarters in order to make crossing from one quarter to the other in car directly impossible. You can take the ring road around the center of the city to get from one quarter to another, which means you tend to do it only if you have a real reason to drive. But that has greatly reduced traffic while causing a boom in business, so much so that Clarence Eckerson, Jr. of Streetfilms talks about being able to stand in the street for minutes at a time without seeing a car.

Like I said, this does not negate the need to do some protected bike lanes on Broadway, and perhaps as well on Westminster and Cranston Street. But I would welcome this idea as a compliment to it. And I'm sure the residents would as well. In the Netherlands, the word for this is Autoluwe. It means "almost car-free". Residents advertise their houses as being in Autoluwe areas when they sell them, because people like pleasant places to be. It allows cars to be in the space, but keeps speeding down and encourages non-car travel.

A great idea.


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