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Mayoral Debates: Part Two

If you missed part one of our mayoral debate between Brett Smiley and Jorge Elorza on parking, you should check it out. Parking is one of the most important land use issues in cities, and affects biking, walking, and transit very heavily. 

Today we focus on bike infrastructure. Basic verdict: neither Brett Smiley or Jorge Elorza have well enough developed campaign plans for bicycling. (Michael Solomon will be sharing his candidate statement to our questionnaire soon. He did not make the deadline for submission, but we'll be publishing whatever he sends when it comes. Candidates Dan Harrop and Lorne Adrain did not participate in the questionnaire.)

We're lucky in the city of Providence that there is a basic consensus around the importance of bikes, but that baseline support means it's even more important for us to push for details. In Elorza's case, more details are needed. In Smiley's case, many details have been laid out--some are good, some are bad, and some are just plain confusing. Both campaigns need to get their hustle on to show that they're worthy of the biking vote.

Elorza

(Regular typeface is the candidate response. Green italics represent our response.) 

• Expand the bicycle network through improving bicycle parking and routes and • Create protected bike lanes.• Aggressively pursue making streets in all neighborhoods more walkable and providing education about bicycle safety and bike sharing programs bike-friendly, particularly by prioritizing the creation of more ‘Complete Streets’.
• Ensure that the 195 land is redeveloped in accordance with the city’s priorities for more pedestrian and bike friendly streets.
Elorza's positions need more detail, but voters should be aware that Elorza was an early signer to our petition for protected bike lanes on Westminster Street, and his positions on parking in section one of the debate give us some hope that he's willing to balance the interests of bike lanes against parking lanes. Nonetheless, we'd like to see proposals for which streets are on the table---this is a detail that neither campaign provided. A really imaginative way for a campaign to win our gaze would be to trouble-shoot which groups might oppose protected bike lanes to protect parking, etc, and come up with creative solutions to how to meet those community groups' needs.

We're intrigued by the reference to I-195, because it goes along with Elorza's previous commitment to oppose funding for the Garrahy garage, and suggests that Elorza wants to hold the commission accountable. As a "dog whistle" it's great, but like many of Elorza's proposals, it does need some more detail, and we look forward to hearing more.

Expanding bike parking sounds fine, but how? With public funding? Through zoning? How much bike parking? Where? How will that fit into questions around car parking (although we should say, Elorza did commit to ending parking minimums and imposing some unspecified parking maximums). The same for creating routes. Which ones? Where? Etc. 

Verdict: Elorza gets a C+. What brings this from failing to passing is mostly from residual credit he's earned on parking--parking is a major component of implementing protected bike lanes, and we have faith that Elorza has the right views in that realm, but otherwise, this bike plan is extremely threadbare to the point of having very little detail at all.

Smiley

What are the good and bad points of the current Providence bike plan? How can your administration build on what exists, and how can it improve the plan in the coming years? 

The bike plan is a good framework for our city and was compiled with input from many different stakeholders. Now we need to focus on implementation. For this plan to be successful, we also need general upgrades to city management, including better snow removal, community policing, and improved bus operations. 

We think the bike plan is almost entirely irredeemable crap, but we can't quarrel too much with this response, since it's par for the course for a political leader to try to speak kindly of existing plans. Snow removal improvements are a good idea. For community policing, who is being policed? Kind of a passive voice answer. . . What needs to be improved about the bus operations? Also pretty vague.

A constituent says that adding bike lanes is too expensive. How do you respond? 

From both an economic and environmental perspective, the benefits of encouraging biking drastically outweigh any costs associated with it. While signage in the short terms and management and operational costs in the long term do require resources, making it easier for people to bike around Providence contributes dramatically to the livability of the city. I envision a Providence in which no household needs more than a single car, and encouraging bike lanes is an important step towards getting there. 

This was a good answer, but here's what Smiley had to say when confronted with an actual protected bike lane proposal, where a constituent group, the WBNA, opposed the protected bike lane:
I am a staunch supporter of efforts to make Providence an easier place to walk, run, and bike, and I know firsthand how hard it is to be a pedestrian here. I’m an avid runner and I lived for years in Providence without a car...
...We also need to always balance the needs of pedestrians, bikers and drivers with those of residents and neighborhood businesses. In this case, it is not clear that Westminster Street is the best location.
The residential and commercial transformation that has happened on Westminster Street over the last 15 years has been incredible. Yet despite clear growth, the success of many businesses is still fragile, and we need to be doing everything to support the small businesses that are the backbone of our economy. Removing one – or likely even two – lanes of parking to accommodate a protected bike lane has the potential to seriously harm the businesses along Westminster Street.... 
A bit of a flip-flop? The loss of parking lanes to provide for efficient biking or transit absolutely has to be on the table in Providence, because many of our streets are not wide enough to provide for these things without balancing one goal against another. In general, we don't encounter anyone in Providence who opposes bike infrastructure until when it gets to talking about how parking would be affected, so support for a vague protected bike lane without consideration of how to fight parking NIMBYism is an empty promise.

A neighborhood has an arterial that is 40 feet wide. Give us a taste of what your administration would propose for that 40 feet. Give an idea of how much should be used  for parking, mixed-use lanes, transit lanes, bike lanes, and protected bike lanes. 

All of these uses are valuable, and how to balance them is entirely dependent on the specific neighborhood – residential or commercial, high density or low density, etc. 

Hedging a bit? Definitely nothing objectionable here, but nothing inspiring either. Even in broad strokes, a good candidate should be able to lay out a plan for what percentage of street area in general should put put to different uses--even if they can't commit to which streets yet. This is an opportunity to be imaginative.

 What does your administration plan to do about protected bike lanes throughout the city? 

My vision for Providence includes a protected bike lane that connects Olneyville to Downtown. I 
look forward to working with Transport Providence, the City Planning Department, environmental groups, public transit advocates, WBNA, and most importantly, the Providence Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission to find the appropriate roads for protected bike lanes that will connect these neighborhoods. There is already a well-traveled bike lane on Broadway, though additional improvements should be made to fully connect these two neighborhoods. 

It should be said that discussions with the WBNA about protected bike lanes are going much better than they ever had, but in general I think a community group should not have veto power over protected bike lanes. The idea that neighbors should be voting on what uses the street gets appeals to us in general, but that input needs to be a some kind of framework with separation of powers. We don't allow neighbors to veto sidewalks for instance. The "complete streets" law we have at the state level is pretty toothless since it only asks for options to be "considered" and allows streets to be exempted for a variety of reasons.

So this also feels like hedging.

What's the plan for the bike share program? 

There is a proposal that has been vetted with several groups already. The challenge, as you might expect, is how to fund the program. I am confident that we can find a way to implement bike share in Providence, following the example of other cities that have successfully instituted similar programs. In fact, in an environmental plan I have already released, I committed to finding the funding necessary to implement this program. 

What do you think the role of temporary infrastructure can be in helping neighborhoods imagine transportation change? Give us some examples from other cities or from Providence. 

Instituting a temporary proof or test of a concept before full implementation makes sense. One recent example is the closure of the “free” left-hand turn from Empire onto Fountain Street. Guided by plastic jersey barriers and cones, vehicles are now required to drive up to the traffic signal at the intersection. This allows both drivers and officials to test the concept and leads to an informed reconfiguration of this and related intersections, such as Empire and Sabin Street. 

This is a good starter answer, and we're happy to say that complaining from our blog and from GCPVD got that intersection to have a jersey barrier rather than just cones. We'd like to hear more about what can be done to implement protected bike lanes on an ad hoc basis throughout the year, in order to speed to process of implementing real bike infrastructure in Providence.

Pedestrian bump outs have been a major boon to walkers, but prevent the implementation of bike lanes. How might your administration approach meeting the needs of both groups? 

Pedestrian bump outs greatly improve pedestrian safety by making drivers more aware of their presence and prompting drivers to slow down when approaching the intersection. Bump outs also encourage pedestrians to cross in designated areas, and bump outs are critical to the disabled, especially those in wheelchairs. It will be important to review the specifics of the bike plan and the number of instances in which the construction of lanes is impeded by bump outs. We must only then look to see where the city’s bike plan and bump outs are in conflict, and then either draw alternatives to the bike plan or decide to eliminate plans for a bump out based on the overwhelming need of that area.

This is hedging, because even the good part of this answer--where the candidate indicates that he knows the value of bump-outs to pedestrians--is contained in the question. This offers nothing of value as to how biking infrastructure will be fit into creating narrower crosswalks for pedestrians.

On some streets, like Hope, there is very little parking and high speed traffic, so riding a bike in the parking lane as a de facto bike lane can help, except where a stray car gets in the way. But the pedestrian bump-outs can force cyclists back into traffic. This is also a major problem on Manton Avenue in Olneyville, and a number of other streets in the city. Cities with good bike infrastructure like New York approach this problem by creating a protected bike lane with a pedestrian island. The island acts as a bump-out, but allows bicyclists to pass through it. The bike lane can sometimes be raised in order to created a slow intersection.

Routes 6 & 10 are probably with us for some time, but they currently create a lot of problems. They cut a number of neighborhoods off from one another. They also get extremely congested. Drivers use them for short trips in the city instead of as highways. What can your administration do to fix these problems, both in the short-term in low-cost ways, in looking to the future when more thoroughgoing changes can be made to these routes? 

In the short term, modest modifications such as lane striping can be made to allow bikes and pedestrians a safer, more accessible passage on Routes 6 and 10. The bike plan may make it possible to implement some of these short-term solutions. In the long-term, RIDOT has identified the ramps between Federal Hill and Olneyville as well as the bridges carrying Route 6 and 10 traffic as structures in need of repair. This project is quite extensive, and will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to complete. Their redesign should follow the new RIDOT mandates.

This answer is extremely confusing. Is the candidate saying we should put painted bike lanes on Routes 6 & 10? I'm also disappointed to see that there's no thought into removal of the routes, although the Elorza campaign offered nothing about this. Check out our plan to remove Routes 6 & 10 for more information. "RIDOT mandates" are probably the last thing the city needs.

Verdict: C-. Mostly what brings this from a failing position to a passing one is that Smiley was the only candidate who answered our questions point-for-point, but that's a pretty depressing way to win a debate--and the candidate still doesn't win! The 6 & 10 response was confusing, and we hope for more evolution on this issue from both candidates.

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Again, the prose of Smiley chief-of-staff Josh Block is beautiful, but much of it is used to explain away bad positions, or to equivocate on issues. We're glad to hear that protected bike lanes are on the table, but while Elorza spends few words explaining where his would go, Smiley's campaign spends many words saying about the same. And we can't help but carry over some parking points from yesterday--if you can't deal with parking, you won't affect biking in Providence.

Neither candidate is strong enough yet. 

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