Featured Post

Part 1: Mark Baumer Reflection: Impounding Vehicles & Immigrant Rights

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...

When in Providence, Do as the Romans Do.

Rome is a car culture, but a Roman doctor came to Philadelphia, became a bike commuter, and brought what he learned back in spades to his home city. He upped our ante, and now Americans should do the same.
Over the weekend, Andy Cutler posted a great piece to Twitter about the current mayor of Rome. An interesting foible to this story is that the mayor lived for decades in Philadelphia, and it was there that he decided life could be left without a car. Philly's got a lot of problems--I think if I still lived there, I'd complain--but compared to us they're miles ahead on biking infrastructure and transit. Rome, by contrast, is an unusually car-oriented culture. There are 980 cars per 1,000 people in the Eternal City--that's a much higher rate of car ownership than Providence, or even the state of Rhode Island as a whole. Yet the Roman mayor has started to shut down streets that previously carried extremely heavy traffi--like the fascist holdover of the Via dei Fori Imperial--and make them pedestrian plazas. The article highlighted the similarity between New England cities like Providence, Pawtucket, and New Bedford to Rome--they started on the same technological plane of pedestrians and horses than Rome did. It called for these cities to learn from what the Romans are doing, and make their cities shine again too.

We discuss a lot of the things we can do to improve our fuel economy in transportation all the time in this country, but so many of the things we discuss cost a lot of money. We're a Jetson-y culture, the U.S. Most of what would actually work to improve our cities does not require Jetsons technology, or lots of money. It just takes political will to think differently. 

Shutting down a street--or really, "opening" that street to pedestrians, bikes, or transit--saves us money. It costs a minimal amount upfront in either police enforcement or bollards to block the cars, and then after that the nearly cost-neutral change continually accrues savings and growth--the city has been doing admirable things with Cyclovias under Mayor Taveras, but my criticism, borrowed from the folks at Streets.MN has been that these Cyclovias don't so much model a different way of getting around as much as they just look like hyped up block parties--you know, cute, but not real tactical urbanism. We should start to open some sections of street to non-car traffic in a way that's includes transit and bikes as viable travel options instead of directing people to do circles in their appointed fish bowl. 

The Via de Fori Imperiali was a fascist
pipe dream of Benito Mussolini.
Open streets have a lot of advantages: People start shopping more in places they consider pleasant--businesses improve. People starting exercising more, and pollution is reduced--health improves. The street doesn't get pummeled by heavy vehicles everyday--the cost of roads improves. The wide boulevards that once were crammed with vehicles can now carry exponentially more people in either buses or on bikes, without any real infrastructural investment--travel times improve. 

So the question is whether we can be bold enough to do these things, not whether we can afford them, or whether they work. We need to be wise about where we choose to implement these policies--the Westminster pedestrian mall is remembered by some as a failure from the '70s, because after all it was surround on three sides by interstates or stroads, and on the fourth side by the parking expanse that now is the Capital Center district. But lots of places come out of the woodwork as potential successes for this policy. In Rome they took a major car street built by Mussolini in order to "modernize" the city in the 20th Century mold and shut it to cars--akin to closely all of North Main, or Memorial Boulevard. It's been a success. 

Our last article looked at Olney Street, and what's to be done about the dangerous behavior on it, and one of our comments noted that Olney is essentially an on-ramp onto the de facto highway of N. Main.  I would combine this insight with my and many other people's concerns that the R-Line is not bold enough--it doesn't have bus lanes--and with the concern that bikes are being given no access to Main Street as part of the R Line plan. 

I would suggest this, and I've tweeted it already to Angel Taveras and to Sheila Dormody, and will follow up by email today:

On weekends, starting in Spring and following through Fall, we should close the hill from the Charles Street fork past Benefit and up to where N. Main intersections with Olney Street--every weekend, rain or shine, but only in the warmer months to start.

That hill will have two bus lanes, and two bike lanes. We can organize the order of the bus and bike lanes in a variety of ways, but the need to be separate from one another. Delivery trucks should also be allowed to use the bus lanes, but not private cars--this will be an improvement for deliveries. Enforcement of the bike lanes should be easy--put something temporary in the way on part of the lane. Perhaps a flower pot. Perhaps just some cones. The bus lanes may require some enforcement to work until they are widely understood by drivers, and if we decide to go with them long-term we may want to invest in bollards that can be controlled by drivers so that buses or emergency vehicles can open or close the lanes (did we mention? This is an improvement for emergency vehicles).

Cars will have full access to the part of Main Street below and above the closed section, and signs and announcements will make it known that the closures are happening each weekend. Cars will be discouraged by the closure from driving for short distances, though. People who come from out of town on the highway to visit will have, if anything, improved access to wherever they need to go because this will cut down on traffic. And the R Line, improved by its short distance right-of-way, will carry those short trips as part of its ridership. 

I suspect that bicyclists will like access to the lower grade of the N. Main Hill, but I think they will especially find the connection between Benefit and Olney less stressful. They almost touch each other, but there's a complex section of badly designed stroad on N. Main that people have to negotiate in order to get through. If we ever get the S. Main protected bike lane that we and bike advocates across the country have encouraged the state* to introduce, then it should be pushed up to this hill--the city should take an active role in using its bully pulpit to criticize RIDOT if it does not do so. Let's not forget--cities are cut to ribbons by interstate highways because mayors insisted that the federal and state governments let them have them there. Mayors have no right to throw their hands up over state roads when they can take an active role in pushing state DOTs to do the right thing.

Over time, as we demonstrate how popular this is, we can expand. Maybe at first we can include some winter months. Or we can add a Friday. Soon people will ask for more, and eventually it will be understood that the hill is for buses and bikes only. Drivers will like it because when they do use a car it will improve traffic, and because many of them will bike or use the bus in other times to take advantage of the new policy.

When in Providence, do as the Romans do.


No comments:

Post a Comment