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Olney Street: Unsafe Because of VHB Bike Plan

I came the closest I've ever felt to being killed on a bike today, and the blame lays at the feet of the city and the VHB planning firm for putting bad infrastructure on Olney Street. The Providence Police Dept. deserves a healthy helping of blame too.

I was going down the hill with the sharrows, and I heard a loud motor behind me, and a police car passed me on my left going what I would estimate to be 45 mph. The police car gave me about 1 foot of space in passing, when the appropriate thing to do would have been to go my speed in the sharrows and respect that I had the right-of-way, and even the most liberal interpretation of the law would only allow the car to pass at a minimum of three feet.

But then as the police car passed, things got worse, because--egged on by the example of the police-a private motorist decided to kick on his motor and revv behind me. I was just approaching a gap in the parked cars, so I decided to get out of his way and pull to the right, but he had already decided to pull to the right in order to pass me (any driver knows passing on the right is illegal). So I looked over my shoulder and saw him almost hit me, but he swerved back in time to go around on my left. As he passed he yelled "Get the fuck out of the road, you fucking idiot! Get on the sidewalk!"

Thank you Providence Police Dept. for leading the way by example.

Sharrows belong only on streets where the speed limit is 15 mph--by the street's design, and by police enforcement. We failed in the first test because of VHB and the Taveras administration, which have failed in their responsibility to provide safe places to bike. I'm sorry, I appreciate that Mayor Taveras has been far more open to biking than other past mayors, but his administration needs to answer for its poor bike plan. We failed in the second because police in this city apparently feel they can drive as fast as they want in non-emergency situations without lights or sirens. Just yesterday at my new apartment on Doyle Ave. I watched a police car come up the street just as fast without sirens or lights. It ran the light at the top of the street.

The bike plan says it wants to "debunk" the notion that cycling has dangers. Debunking the dangers of cars to bicyclists is like "debunking" the danger of guns--it's a "cars don't kill people, people kill people" attitude. But the actual facts are apparent. While bicycling is more likely to be beneficial to one's health than harmful due to the effects of exercise and the relative rarity of serious crashes overall, the safety ranking of pedestrians, bicyclists, and car drivers are exactly opposite of what VHB cites. Pedestrians are at the greatest risk, bicyclists second-most, and drivers least. Contrary to the "vehicular" school of bike advocacy--act like a vehicle, and you'll be treated as one--the League of American Bicyclists--which originally popularized vehicular cycling through their 1970s president, John Forrester--found that 40% of crashes Correction: As pointed out by RI Bike Coalition president Matt Moritz, the statistic is 40% of fatalities, not 40% of all crashes.* happen when cyclists are hit from behind. Being hit from behind is the leading cause of accidents. But biking and walking aren't what's dangerous--cars are what's dangerous. Any approach to fixing this problem that doesn't rein in that problem will fail.

Despite the U.S.' singularly depressing problem with gun deaths, there's no good reason not to go on living your life. People who walk or take transit should realize this most of all. I've had more than a few strangers give me unsolicited advice to stay out of this or that neighborhood because the people are dangerous and will harm me, but in very few cases has their advice borne out. We recognize that guns are a problem, but we live our lives. Yet, you hear people in the biking community say that we shouldn't talk about the dangers of biking. It makes it "weird", it makes us "stand out". There is a problem with dangerous driving, and there is a problem with bad engineering, and the public needs to know that and demand action. That's not the same thing as crawling into a hole and not walking or biking until the change comes. My experience is that many drivers are courteous, and that biking as a whole feels safe to me, and statistics support that conclusion in some ways. But instances like this should make us stop and think--do we really want to stand idle and allow crappy planning to rule our lives?


*Nonetheless, as I said in the comments, 40% of fatalities being hit from behind underlines the same point as 40% of crashes in total being from behind--it perhaps emphasizes and strengthens my point. If 8% of crashes are cars hitting bikes from behind, but 40% of fatalities are represented by that number, some simple math tells us that that type of crash is five times as likely to be fatal as the baseline for other types of crashes. It's important to note that a more detailed reading of the report puts these types of crashes as more common in non-urban settings--perhaps what weekend warriors on rural roads should worry most about--and that makes sense given that those roads are faster and may have blinder curves, leading to truly "accidental" crashes. But just anecdotally, I can say that the scariest near-crashes (so far) that I've had have all involved from-behind situations in urban settings, because in all those anecdotal cases I've been using the vehicular advice to "take the lane" and had a driver not appreciate my right to do that. Drivers have many times--many, many, many times--revved at me, laid on the horn, cursed, and even sped up and stopped short over and over as if trying to run me off the road when I've followed the vehicular school of "taking the lane". What I find most naive about the educational role that so many bike advocates push for is that telling motorists that we have the right to be on the street seems unlikely to me to affect the behavior of people who are willing to risk vehicular homicide in order to get their way on the road. It's like teaching a shark to be a vegetarian. Only institutional change--different roads, very strong enforcement policies on drivers, etc.--will change this.

I've tried to balance the statement that biking is a healthful activity with the reality that it is far more dangerous than it should be--the best summary I can make is that for biking advocates to adopt the statement that "biking is safe, period" as their mantra is to signal to politicians that there isn't much left to do. How can we blame them if they respond accordingly?


  1. Yup! The sharrows are insufficient. Olney St. isn't the craziest place they put sharrows, but it's definitely up there. On the East Side, Gano St. probably wins that award.

    Because of the lower grade and lack of alternatives, Olney St. is a vital bike artery, one that deserves better infrastructure. Part of what makes Olney's problems so annoying is that the street is quite wide, with modest traffic, and it could easily accommodate bike lanes. In the critical stretch between Hope and North Main, the street parking is not heavily used and could probably be eliminated without really inconveniencing drivers.

  2. Olney Street is an extremely dangerous street for anyone who is not in a vehicle. Because of Providence's ill-conceived mid-century urban planning decisions, motorists treat North Main like a four lane highway and they use Olney Street as an on-ramp. Olney Street is needlessly wide throughout, but especially below Camp St. Despite its width, the street has no markings on it other than the oft-ignored sharrows and vehicles create their own driving lanes, often while speeding. The crosswalks where the street meets North Main are some of the most absurdly large in the entire city and that's saying a lot.

    I used to live off of Camp Street in Mt. Hope and I really liked the residential portions of the neighborhood, but as a pedestrian and RIPTA rider, I eventually had no choice but to move to a more walkable neighborhood. The only business district in the neighborhood is a car-oriented plaza with no sidewalks or crosswalks to guide pedestrians to the chain stores located inside. Crossing Olney and North Main on foot often left me feeling very vulnerable, unsafe, and unwelcome as someone who doesn't drive a car in the city of Providence. My first two years in the city were spent dealing with these things on a daily basis. Every day on my commute, all I could think about was how and when I could escape and move to Boston, New York, or any other city that would value and support all of its residents, regardless of their primary mode of transit. That was 2 years ago and I have since lived in neighborhoods that are far less car-oriented. I love Providence and I love being a pedestrian. I'd rather stay here and work toward a smarter, better Providence than cut my losses and give up. We need local leaders to step outside of their comfort zone: walk to work, bike to work, take the bus to work. The reality is that most neighborhoods in Providence have subsidized & prioritized car ownership at the expense of other modes of transport and these policies are chasing away the progressive young people Providence is so desperately trying to retain.

  3. It says something that New York or Boston are considered viable alternatives. Despite those cities' earned reputations as places where a lot of walking happens, I find many parts of them ridiculously unwalkable--Boston especially. I'm sitting in Davis Square today, and it's looped with these ridiculous double oneway slipways and has four foot sidewalks in places for higher speed car lanes to be accomodated. Boston is beautiful, but I'm sorry to say I don't enjoy walking its arterials.

    That said, the beautiful thing about Boston, New York, Providence, etc., is that they have the bones to make themselves great for walking and biking at little cost. Rachel and I biked to the train station this morning and it was even quicker than our West Side route had been--5 minutes!-- but the route we used was only tenable because it was 6 AM on a Saturday morning.

    I wanted to add a thought about why I blame Taveras. I don't blame him for the plan being bad--and I credit him for starting the ball rolling. But his admin. has done nothing to reply to the plan's criticism. That's where the blame truly falls to them. Sheila Dormody should have been knocking down the door to get a meeting set up to fix the plan after the Phoenix forum, but instead it's been a stonewall of silence (I've emailed before--she could contact me if she wanted).

    The sharrows say that we the non-drivers who subsidize road repavement and save the city money don't matter. And this is most upsetting because the riders who bike by necessity are overwhelmingly poor--the people the administration should be representing as the presumptive gubernatorial nomination for the Dems. I feel as though the mayor has left an unfinished job in order to pursue greater power.

  4. You have mis-repesented the figure that the LAB report about fatalities for 2012 recently reported. 40% of FATALITIES are hit from behind, not 40% of crashes. The last/best known figure I have seen is that 8% of all Bike Crashes are hit from behind. If you are going to go on a thumping tirade, please at least refer to the figures correctly. I teach the LAB curriculum, it has it weaknesses, and is NOT designed to increase bike ridership, rather to teach skills necessary to survive on an auto-dominated roadway. There is currently a fair bit of consternation among the more vocal LCI's about the League's shift towards a preference for protected/separated infrastructure.

    @sam: inconveniencing drivers? By eliminating the "pass on the right" when someone turns left on Camp or into University Heights Apartments? (which I've never seen ticketed).

    I personally don't ride the lower section of Olney very often, just the section from Hope to Brown st, because these connect to Halsey, which leads to Benefit, thereby eliminating the most annoying roads to ride on between the upper east side and downtown.

    I agree with you that sharrows are weak-sauce and are becoming the goto solution in Providence. HOWEVER, I fail to see how the City, it's officers and VHB are reponsible for your near thing this morning. Absent the recently painted sharrows, would you have been on that street? Or would you have chosen another route?
    I see the issue as not being an infrastructure one in your anecdote, but a Human one with the officer and driver you encountered.
    A Police Driver was operating their vehicle 1) unsafely 2) illegally [safe passing law] 3) possibly illegally [speed], though many officers claim need to respond fast/silent to some dispatches.
    Another Driver was operating their vehicle 1) illegally [passing on the right] 2) illegally [speed]

    Any chance you got a plate number, or other identification from either vehicle? I'm sure that Public Safety Commissioner Pare would be responsive to any issues with officers under his command behaving and operating their vehicles unsafely in the discharge of their duties.

    Here's a statement I've made in public in the past. "Sharrows are an admission of failure that we cannot design a roadway that suits the needs of all of the people who need to use it" I said this in context of the 2.2 miles of sharrows that are planned to run from Classical High to Roger Williams Park on Elmwood Ave, on a street that has 2 side parking, 12 foot travel lanes and a 15 foot center turn lane. The only triumph here is its down from 4-lanes.

    NO ONE in administration is willing to go near the parking question, which always seems to be the gating factor on getting a bike lane at the minimum or a buffered bike lane (my preference). Many cities manage to survive without on-street parking in their business districts or major thoroughfares, but we can't even have the conversation here. Providence has a laughable parking program, other cities have much more stringent parking regulations about parking on neighborhood streets at all hours, yet we only care about those 3 hours between 2 and 5 AM.

  5. I wouldn't characterize anything I said as a tirade, but when I'm closer to a real computer I'll make the correction as to crashes vs. deaths. Nonetheless--I don't think that change would underminey point. The LAB said in its own statement on the matter that it was surprised by the finding. I think my statement that the finding is another chink in the armor of the vehicular school is true, and stands. But thank you for pointing that error.

    I appreciate your comments against sharrows.

    I disagree with you regarding the administration's culpability, and again it comes down to my NRA metaphor. Not only do cars kill people, but dangerous roads do (especially). The behavior of the police and the driver in the regular vehicle are the most flagrant violations, but those exist on a plane created by infrastructure choices. The educational model regards change as a matter of influencing individuals. In reality, this individual was acting like an asshole--but he was an empowered asshole die to institutions--just as a bad landlord is empowered by bad tenant laws, rather than just growing out of individual personalities.

  6. Apologies for autocorrections--due to

  7. Oh, and I misquoted that 8%, mea culpa for taking you to task and screwing up my own uncited data reference (Moritz (not me) et.al. 1999). 8% of crashes involving an automobile are hit from behind type. Only 17% of crashes are estimated to involve a car at all. The issue is that what seems to be one of the least likely crashes, is often the most severe (fatal).

    It's natural to fear the hit from behind, we can't see it, we can't defend against it well, and as evidenced by the study, it is the most commonly occurring most dangerous type of collision. The natural defense is riding erratically (in and out of parking lane/gutter) and in regions of the street with poor visibility to other road users, which is not good practice as taught by we LCIs. The preferred, and what is taught is to be predictable and conspicuous by being in the travel lane. There is a distinction between taking the lane and being prominently position in the right third of the lane with lots of situational factors. But this will never solve human factors of inattention, entitlement, stupidity and the like as individuals interact on the roadway.

    To your point about dangerous roads - you realize of course that every time a road gets designed and implemented, there's an engineer or team of engineers who sign off on the design and who are legally liable for that roadway's design and the choices of it? Wrongful death suits do occur against engineers and government for these, but to our great detriment, can't be brought without a casualty. The engineers are incented towards caution based on established best practice and studies of implementations in other, hopefully similar, environments when designing roadway treatments within the confines of the political, physical and economic boundaries of each project they work on, and the same is true of the bureaucracies of city government.

    I get your point that the roadway's design does not dissuade dangerous behaviors. Road Diets, chicanes, visual lane and road narrowing all need to be deployed a lot more often to set the tone for drivers on our streets, but I still don't see that as being a point upon which you can indict VHB/Sheila/Taveras for its current configuration, and especially in the context of your encounter.

    To me that more drives home that as a society we treat cars like toys, not the dangerous weapons they can be when used inattentively and that Law Enforcement and Driver education are critical to changing that culture. The culture of entitlement to arrive quickly, damn the consequences to those around me, desperately needs to change. The specific, common examples of this are too numerous to list here.

    If it hadn't been suggested to install sharrows on what has been identified as key cycling route for the city, Olney would likely have not paint beyond a center line. Is that your preference? That as a city, instead of slapping down a bike stencil where we can't win a more useful treatment, nothing be done? A common phrase I see in LCI discussions "Perfect is the enemy of good" though I hesitate to call sharrows good and far from perfect. (it depends - neighborhood greenways - good, busy roadway (e.g.: elmwood and Olney; not good)

  8. http://velotraffic.com/2012/07/moritz-1998-study-of-bike-facility-safety/

  9. I honestly just don't get it. I really don't. Olney is the widest street I've ever seen. Almost literally. That we could not get bike lanes on this street is not only embarrassing, it makes one worry whether any new bike lanes will ever come to Providence. I've lived in Providence for two years, and I arrived after the Broadway bike lane was built. In the two years I've lived here, how many new bike lanes have been built? None. Perhaps we could count the residential bike lane on Pleasant Valley Parkway, but we probably shouldn't.

    I recently rode bikes with a biking novice in Washington DC, where bike lanes are everywhere. Upon returning to Providence she remarked "Wow, I never noticed until now that Providence really has no bike infrastructure." And it's essentially true.

    If we can build bike lanes that will not disrupt the automobile use of streets in any way, that is a level we'll never be able to reach.

  10. @Matt,

    I think in broad strokes I agree with you. And I'm certainly not trying to dissuade individual people from biking out of safety concerns any more than I'm packing my bags and leaving the country to avoid being mowed down in tomorrow's expected mass shooting(s). People have to live their lives with the expectation that these things won't happen to them. And truthfully, as with the gun violence example, both things are true at once--gun violence is overwhelmingly likely *not* to happen to us, but is still much too likely to happen as compared to how often it should happen. The fact is, pedestrians and bicyclists represent a tiny, tiny percentage of deaths in this country--and yet the represent a disproportionate share of them in relation to their numbers on the streets because of poorly designed streets.

    I just feel like we're used to getting nothing so we demand nothing. At Bike to Work Day, I kept my smile on and didn't complain, but I think next Bike to Work Day we should complain. We shouldn't be getting up each year to suck up to this or that candidate for whatever token thing they did, but should instead (politely, perhaps, and without my snarky flare) be presenting them publicly with escalating demands each year. It seems to me that Mayor Taveras is getting an awfully long ride out of a very few solid achievements. And again, like I said, I've met him a lot, he's a nice guy, I think he's honest and forthright and so on, and Sheila Dormody is the same. In fact, I like to hope (fingers crossed) that the two of them are even smart enough to understand that they need people to snark loudly on them in order to have the power to change anything. But nice people or not, we should be extremely upset with their performance. We have very little to thank them for. And we're all going to be neck-high in sea water (with dead fish in it) before anything real happens if things proceed at this pace.