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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...

Car-free Ikea!

Can we get one of these in the I-195 Land? Maybe with some apartments above it?

The I-195 Commission has asked for "tweaks" to a Carpionato Group proposal for a large development with underground parking. Didn't we pony up over $40 Million in state funds in order to get this parking situation under control? I didn't think it was just to add to supply.

It needs more than tweaks! No new parking!

Of course, we've been burned before. . . 


Going Down!

Older buildings, like The Superman Building in Providence, once sported only
a few group elevators, and stairs for the intrepid.
I heard Sam "Gridlock" Schwartz say once that having everyone drive to work alone makes about as much sense as giving everyone their own personal elevator.

I got thinking about this the other day, and I would like to extend the metaphor.

Imagine a world where the dominant way to get places is in a private elevator. What would such a world be like?

At first, there would appear to be a shortage of elevators--many buildings having been built without them even in mind--so cities would require a ratio of one elevator for every person. First generation buildings under this policy would be built with huge central columns of elevator shafts, thousands deep, while the newest buildings would have one and half or even two elevators per person, in case someone might come to visit. Reformers would harken to the days when only one elevator was required for every two people, but wouldn't get very far implementing their plans.

Housing at the top of buildings would be sought after for the clean air it offered away from the street, and because of government-backed loans to add additions to the tops of buildings. Ground floors would be excluded from such loans. 

Environmentally-inclined persons might invite a coworker to take their elevator with them to the ground floor, where they worked, but this would be rare. 

The poor, unable to afford their own elevators, would take crowded group elevators. The funding for these would be sparse, and sometimes an elevator would be too full and would pass people by entirely. In some cities, group elevators would not exist.

Committeemen on finance panels in state governments would ensure that elevator shafts were built to where their great-aunts lived, though these relatives might be the only person on their floors. The routes would take Wonkavatoresque dips and turns to get to the great aunts' apartments.

At first, a financing system would be devised to pay for the expansive elevator programs, but over time the legacy costs would grow, and as elevators needed replacing their riders would begin to complain that they were being overtaxed for their maintenance, and that too many slackers were taking the group elevators. Elevators would break down, ensuing in embarrassingly predictable sit coms that delayed people's normal lives but reminded them of the importance of connections to strangers in a way they hadn't thought about for years. 

Whole cities would be abandoned and new ones built to escape the costs. The new cities would have so many elevators that some would complain that it was hard to walk from office to office on the same floor, but engineers designing the cities would point to overcrowded hallways as evidence that they were needed.

Architects would question the ban on ground floors. Doesn't a region based on higher floors need ground floors? What about the old days when buildings were at a human scale? Talking heads would call these architects elitists. Regional planners in the most forward-thinking cities would suggest that maybe a better solution to elevator shortages would be to build shorter buildings that required fewer trips to the top and bottom, but would only allow pilot projects to be built in very circumscribed areas. 

The cost of lower floors, artificially banned, would skyrocket. A movement of wealthy individuals would take over all ground-floor space, and soon fourth and fifth floor walk-ups would cost an arm and a leg.

Active-risers would decide that stairs were the thing, but their numbers would be few and far between. Affluent stair-climbers, especially, would have access to stairs taking them to their refurbished offices on the ground levels of buildings. Less affluent members of society would have to jump from building to building to get to work. Safety statistics would downplay the workers who fell in the process. Media accounts of active-rising would focus on the spandexed few who lived close to work, and occasionally to some wild-eyed athletes who climbed fifty stories once a week, but would not visibly demonstrate an awareness of these less fortunate active commuters.

Activists would chant against the construction of new buildings with ground floors attached to stairs and group elevators. The right would claim these new buildings were a war on solo elevatoring, while the left would claim the new buildings were going to price more people out of their floors. 

As the world faced energy crises, a lack of affordable housing, rising taxes and cuts to services, existential challenges to the environment, and a decaying stock of elevatorless buildings, dealing with the roots of the problem would grind to a halt.


Blackstone Boulevard Plan Requires Reform on Butler

I've been meeting with decision-makers about the Blackstone Boulevard proposal put forward by Hugo Bruggeman. The pushback I've gotten has been that in the morning and evening rush hours, there is a backup of vehicles on the southern end of Blackstone Boulevard near its connection to Butler.

To reemphasize, the interesting part of the Blackstone Boulevard slow zone proposal is that it does not remove any capacity for cars. It takes a two-lane road and moves the order of lanes around, so that north- and south-bound traffic face each other on the same side of the street. The other side of the boulevard becomes a 15 mph "slow zone" or woonerf, not unlike what already exists on Commonwealth Avenue in Newton, Mass. In a sense, the slow zone proposal adds car capacity, since now drivers would be allowed everywhere. It just gives priority to cyclists and pedestrians on one side of the street by slowing traffic and preventing through-traffic on that side. Nonetheless, some people view this proposal as somehow harmful to drivers, and claims about congestion are key to this argument.

I've encountered Blackstone as a zone for speeding far more than congestion, and I think a degree of backup on streets is a normal part of living in a city, but nonetheless I think that congestion can be addressed on Blackstone Boulevard. It just takes looking at what causes it.

Butler, which is essentially an extension of Blackstone Boulevard, is a two-lane road for its entire length, except at its intersections with Waterman and Angell Streets, each of which gets a turning lane. Both of these intersections get traffic lights. These are the only traffic lights joined by one other traffic light at Pitman Street on the Butler/Blackstone length. This is where the congestion happens.

The way to fix congestion at these intersections is to make them blinking red lights, and to take away the turning lane. A turning lane typically doubles the capacity of the street to take vehicles, but also allows those vehicles to act in less safe ways towards pedestrians. These two intersections of Butler with Angell and Waterman are some of the ugliest places to cross a street as a pedestrian on the East Side. Removing the signals, or making them blinking red lights will restore capacity for vehicles by allowing drivers to stop, look around them, and continue, rather than being stacked at a traffic light.

Author Jeff Speck cites a study of Philadelphia streets where traffic lights were removed in place of stop signs, and the result was a two-thirds reduction in pedestrian injuries (Persaud et. al.: “Crash Reductions related to Traffic Signal Removal in Philadelphia” (1997)). The logic behind this change is clear if one thinks about it. Cyclists know it firsthand: a fast-moving car can pass at two to three times the speed of a bike and be caught at the same light as the cyclist. This can sometimes happen several times. The speed of the vehicles between lights matters much less than the wait time they have at lights. A kind of tortoise and the hare, writ large.

I haven't yet been able to get ahold of the Philadelphia study to read it myself, but this is consistent with what Speck talks about in his study of large, Midwestern "stroads" he's redesigned. In those cases, he's often taken four lane or wider roads and reduced them to two lanes, added traffic calming, and removed signals. The travel times have greatly improved for drivers, while the walking experience has improved for everyone else. Slow and steady wins the race.

The Butler project really matters because I'm told by a source within City Council that the city is already looking at retiming the signals here to improve traffic flow. These changes could affect the way the street works for pedestrians, making it even worse than it is, and may not necessarily help drivers in the way is intended. Instead of retiming signals, the city would do better to experiment with turning the signals to blinking red, obstructing the turning lanes, and allowing drivers to flow through the intersection. This will reduce crashes, and help drive times.


Part 2: Providence Sustainability Plan: Transportation

If you missed the recommendations on land use, please read them in Part 1.

Just as in the last recommendations, we're focusing on things we would change. There are many good things in the plan, so the focus on what's wrong with it isn't meant to tank the whole thing, but to point out what could be improved. 

Kennedy Plaza
The RIPTA Riders' Alliance, which I am not a part of, launched a well-attended protest of the construction at Kennedy Plaza, and critiques have also been put forward in The Projo and elsewhere. I don't agree with some of the critiques, but I think the amount of contention around this issue should bring the city to put some greater effort to making the changes at KP a positive rather than a negative for transit users.

One of the criticisms I very much disagree with is the point of view that the berths should stay at Kennedy Plaza. RIPTA really needs to eliminate many of its redundant routes and create more frequent ones, along with new ones that interact with those on a grid. That means in the long run that there really should only be two buses going through Kennedy Plaza: the R-Line, and whatever east-west version of the R-Line pops up (see a good explanation of this on Jarrett Walker's Human Transit Blog, where he explains the importance of frequency and transfers, which are aided by focusing on a grid of simplified routes instead of a hub-and-spoke system). Additionally, it may make sense to have some of the longer distance buses like the 54, 60, and 66 come to Kennedy Plaza. But most of the other buses really shouldn't exist at all. RIPTA and the city should work to resolve the issue of bus berth capacity by working to simplify and add frequency to their system.

The city should also resolve the RIPTA Riders' concerns about people being able to Washington Street and Burnside Park safely by doing a tip-top shoveling and salting job in the park during snow storms, and by making Washington Street car-free from Dorrance to Exchange Street. The city should also invite more active uses along Kennedy Plaza, which it has already started to do. This will truly make the square easier to use for everyone. The best part about closing a street to car traffic is that it doesn't cost anything to try out, and can be easily reversed if it doesn't work.

A Modern Streetcar
Places that care about transit do not build streetcars without rights-of-way, and many cities simply build Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). In some cities around the world, streetcars are being built that mix cars and transit for a few blocks, but keep them separate for the vast majority of their journey. The current streetcar plan doesn't do this at all, so it's hard to see it as a "modern" streetcar.

Another important feature of good transit is frequency, and the proposed 12-minute peak time for the streetcar does not provide that, allowing walking to compete with transit (the 20-minute off-peak frequency is even worse). If it will cost the city less money to provide a high frequency bus with a right-of-way, it should pursue that instead.

The debate about whether streetcars are really the answer to our transit problems is best articulated by transit expert Jarrett Walker, and the city should read up.

A Bump in the Road for Complete Streets
The complete streets section doesn't include much in the way of protected bike infrastructure, but does talk about bump-outs. Bump-outs are obviously a good feature, but the city should have a rubric of some kind to consider where they're appropriate, and where features like pedestrian islands next to protected bike lanes would be better. My own personal ambition for Hope Street, for instance, would be to see the bump-outs there torn out. On a lot of streets it makes more sense to have these protected bike lanes next to some kind of pedestrian island, which in its own right can act as a refuge for pedestrians, and help to establish the same traffic calming goals as bump-outs. 

The R-Line
The R-Line is a meagre step forward, but it could be more exciting if it became real BRT. The city announced in its report that it expects a 12% improvement in travel times because of improvements to the R-Line. Compare that to real BRT with rights-of-way in Buenos Aires, where the commute times for all users dropped to under twenty minutes from a starting point of almost an hour. We can do better than 12% (by the way, it took Buenos Aires six months to produce this result).

*The buses should be able not only to extend to green lights, as they can (a great improvement!), but also to instigate green lights.
*The buses should have rights-of-way, and they should be against the medians whenever possible, since this creates fewer interferences with other users.
*The buses should get station payment: if users pay to get into a little building or hut, then when the bus comes up they can just jump on without delay. RIPTA should consider implementing station payment at its busiest stops first, and gradually bringing it to the whole R-Line.
*The R-Line also needs better land use regulations, and certain of these zoning regulations should have no variance process at all. Parking maximums, for instance, should be absolute and unbending. The parking maximums for the overlay around the R-Line cover a really large area but with very weak regulation. Stronger regulation in smaller parcels nearest the stops would be better, gradually becoming more lax farther from stops.
*Parts of the R-Line route should exclude cars entirely, for instance from Washington Street to the train station, and from Charles Street to Olney. I've suggested that in the first case, the street be made into two bus lanes and one very wide bidirectional protected bike lane, with room for additional trees. In the second case, Charles and Randall Streets should be used as detours for cars going north--this adds only 1/10th of a mile journey, and allows for the tree lines part of N. Main nearest Benefit Street to begin a transformation into an active public space.
*In addition, walkability needs to be considered a top priority along the R-Line. Please remove all the slipways, introduce some of those bump-outs the report talks about, etc.

The city identifies a goal of buying more fuel-efficient vehicles. Let me suggest instead that the city scrap this goal, take care of the vehicles it has, and instead focus on reducing its fleet of vehicles. It should replace as many cars with bicycles as possible. Let's set a goal of 50% of police on foot or bike by the end of the next administration. This will save on fuel, maintenance, and other costs related to the vehicles, allow police to have a better interaction with neighborhoods, and make policing of car-related offenses a more natural priority for police. Obviously some vehicles are needed, and those should be prioritized for situations where they're necessary.

The city also recommends working to accommodate electric vehicles. The plan is vague about exactly what support is needed. I would strike this from the plan if it involves laying out any taxpayer money at all (if it's simply a matter of reforming bureaucratic barriers, then fine). Electric vehicles are all the rage, but they do not reduce greenhouse emissions an iota unless they're run completely off of green energy, and they leave completely unresolved all the other issues--land use, crashes, age/disability access, etc.--associated with cars. It's really not a very high priority to support them.

Changing as many intersections to stop signs as possible would be a good goal to set out for the city, and is not mentioned. Stop signs cost a few hundred dollars and have no operational costs. Traffic signals cost six figures and four figures yearly to operate. Two-lane corridors in Providence such as Broadway and Hope Street would be good places to do this. Stop signs reduce injuries for all users to a truly impressive degree by increasing attentiveness and reducing speeding, but they also counterintuitively improve congestion, since most of that is caused by deadlock at intersections. Hope Street is one place that should have no traffic signals. The city should study this for all two-lane arterials.

Bike Providence
Naturally, the city's job is to articulate what it does as a success, but the bike plan was not a success, and needs serious improvement. The Providence Phoenix ran an excellent article articulating many of the problems with the plan. The city needs to implement protected bike lanes on all arterial streets, and should abandon using sharrows unless they're accompanied by traffic calming that brings speeds to 15-20 mph.

It's Six or Half a Billion to Me.
The 6/10 Connector is a state project, but the city could have a serious voice in calling for RIDOT to consider removal of Routes 6 & 10 within the city, to be replaced by a multimodal boulevard with transit lanes, park space, a bike path, and places to develop housing and commercial space. The city should put this on its radar and get started. The "Connector", which connects the two routes, is going to cost $500 Million to replace, and each of the many substandard bridges along the route will cost quite a pretty penny alongside that.


Providence's Sustainability Report

These are some of my land use recommendations to improve the Providence Sustainability Report.

A word that's missing. Density is mentioned twice in the whole report, but in neither case does it relate to future land use policy. The report refers to the benefit our city has from its historic density making it walkable, and talks about how density and nearness to Boston and New York are advantages in its food system. Although coded language about housing diversity opens the door to talking about more density in our city, it's really not broached directly. This may have been a political choice to keep people who don't like urban development from kvetching. I'm going to kvetch from the other direction. Density needs to be a goal. A lot of what the city can do best to encourage density is get out of the way.

One of these things is not like the other. The report makes a lot of strides towards improving parking policy, but also has some problems:
Did you spot it? Removing parking requirements, good. More payment options, good. Municipal parking? Puke face. The city has too much parking. The last thing we need is to develop more, which we appear poised to do with the new, expensive, Garrahy Garage. 

You have seen a map of the downtown, right?

Also, the city needs to remove all parking minimums, and the new zoning process is only removing some. It also needs to have effective parking maximums around major transit lines, but the parking maximums off of the R-Line, for instance, are really weak.

The city should not try to artificially preserve farmland in the city. The rubric question asks:

We shouldn't have any land zoned specifically for agriculture in the city. Note that I'm not saying we shouldn't have any farms in the city, I'm saying that we shouldn't have any zoned category for particular plots to be agriculture now and forever. The best practice for the city in terms of sustainability is to allow development on urban farms if the owners of the farmland want to allow it, and the development is urban in nature. So, if the choice is between a parking lot with a strip mall or an urban farm, the choice is pretty clear. But, then again, if the choice is between a parking lot with a strip mall and anything.... you get the drift.... I have three chickens in my backyard, and Rachel and I pay our $25 a year to the neighborhood association to have a community garden plot, and we value both, but there's no reason the city has to stand in the way of, say, an apartment building in order to preference that.

This requirement feels to me like someone who is enthusiastic about urban farming as a use of vacant land got too enthusiastic.

Which brings us to:
The city should not require any acreage to be used for green space. The rubric prompt states it this way:

I couldn't help but think of a famous passage from The Death and Life of American Cities:

In New York's East Harlem there is a housing project with a conspicuous rectangular lawn which became an object of hatred to the project tenants. Asocial worker frequently at the project was astonished by how often the subject of the lawn came up, usually gratuitously as far as she could see, and how much the tenants despised it and urged that it be done away with. When she asked why, the usual answer was, "What good is it?" or "Who wants it? "Finally one day a tenant more articulate than the others made this pronouncement: "Nobody cared what we wanted when they built this place. They threw our houses down and pushed us here and pushed our friends somewhere else. We don't have a place around here to get a cup of coffee or a newspaper even, or borrow fifty cents. Nobody cared what we need. But the big men come and look at that grass and say, 'Isn't it wonderful! Now the poor have everything!'"
I very much think the city should encourage the planting of street trees, and should maintain active and well-maintained parks. However, this prompt suggests that the approval process for a building would expect 10% of the acreage for that building to be green space, and that's a bad idea. Does the Superman Building have 10% of its acreage dedicated to green space? How about City Hall? The historic department stores on Westminster Street? No. By all means, I wouldn't say we should prevent green space, but I really think that the preference for it creeps in as a cultural bias leftover from urban renewal.

In some parts of the city, where land isn't expensive, adding green space may not be very expensive, and developers will likely do it without a prompt. What concerns me to about this is that for this to be here as a rubric question suggests it's there for the situations where developers might normally opt to use their whole plot for buildings, i.e., on expensive downtown land. Making 10% of land be green space means 10% fewer apartments, which means more expensive housing.

I think this requirement also irks me because the city is only taking meek steps towards reforming its parking situation, but apparently has no problem putting green space requirements on buildings. I mean, if we get to a point in our development where we can talk about green roofs and so on, I support figuring out a strategic plan to make that more common. But the first thing to go before anything else should be parking lots, and yes, where possible, garages. Remember, a lot of buildings in the city only take up a tenth of an acre, and might have several apartments and retail or office space. That 10% is a whole building if applied to an acre of land. If that land is seated where a really tall building can go, then it's an even bigger effect.

The city should avoid Community Benefits Agreements for development. The prompt puts it this way:

Our goal should be to develop housing and other building stock. Although we definitely should have some zoning rules to encourage things like walkability, frontage to the street, minimization (or, better, elimination in some places) of parking, etc., we shouldn't institutionalize allowing neighbors to object to buildings and then use their leverage to get CBAs, which are essentially a bribe. This is one of the ways that rich people actually cause housing prices to go up and to gentrify poor people out of neighborhoods: they decide they like the way things are and try by all means to prevent others from moving in. Many people intuitively (including me, if you had talked to me a few years ago) have the feeling that new buildings will "price neighbors out", and so CBAs are often presented as a kind of compromise between the gentrification of the new building and the community benefits that can offset that. In reality, CBAs will make gentrification worse.

Should the community be able to engage with a developer about issues that genuinely affect community health? Yes, of course. We don't have this here, but in many states there are community fights over proximity to fracking, and community input has been one of the few ways that people have been able to make in-roads against the dangers of that process to water quality. If a builder shows up deciding to put a hazardous materials plant next to a school, or something of this gravity, then of course people should have a say in that decision. The problem I have is not that communities should have a voice in these weighty, important questions, it's that this sustainability guide appears to pervert that in order to allow single-family residences to demand something of new apartments in order for them to be built, or for annoyed condo dwellers to block a new building that might obstruct their view of the sunset. 

These are some of my thoughts about the land use issues in the Sustainability Report.


RIPDA Position on Car Taxes is Wrong.

In their statement endorsing mayoral candidate Jorge Elorza, the RI Progressive Democrats cited the candidate’s commitment to eliminating car taxes in Providence, which it characterizes as regressive. While the Elorza camp has shown a lot of good positions on many issues close to my heart, this particular stance is wrong. The RIPDA folks should explain why they’re taking this stance.

The typical argument for why car taxes are regressive is that there’s a fixed cost for such a tax, meaning that the cost for a lower income driver would be a higher percentage of their income than the cost for a higher income driver. This is no doubt true within its limited scope, but is not the end of the story.

The logical fallacy in the RIPDA position is that it ignores two things: poor people disproportionately do not drive at all, and demand for driving is extremely elastic.

Programs that support driving act as matching grants, meaning that those who can meet a certain basic income requirement—enough to buy a car—can get the benefit. For a lower-middle income family that drives, lowering car taxes may offer a benefit. For a family that cannot afford a car, offering this tax reduction gives that family nothing. This is the case for other car subsidies, such as free parking and federaltax deductions on car expenses, which lower the cost of driving but raise the cost of housing or other goods. The benefit of low-cost driving might be construed as progressive if everyone drove, but in a world where the least powerful are most likely not to have access to a car, eliminating car taxes is a giant affront to our poorest. This, of course, speaks of the matter simply in its most basic market terms, and understates the environmental cost of driving, which also is expected to negatively affect the poorest most.

There are real costs to having cars go through our city, and those who don’t or can’t own cars pay many of those costs more directly than those who create them. It is estimated that drivers pay less than half the costs of driving, excluding additional environmental cost. Providence, for instance, just laid out $40 Million in road bonds to repave streets that have gotten next to no real improvements for biking, and no transit-only rights-of-way. Yet the costs of those road bonds are mixed into general funding, such that if the city hits a shortfall, it has to raise taxes on the general city population, or reduce some other type of services (e.g., schools). This is not progressive.

Costs also include pollution. Consider, for instance, the neighborhood of Olneyville, which is surrounded on many sides by Routes 6 & 10, disconnecting it from what were once extensions of its grasp into Federal Hill, the West End, and Silver Lake (Silver Lake even has an “Olneyville Playground” which no child can access from Olneyville without first crossing under a highway underpass littered with trash and fast moving cars). More than 40% of Olneyville households do not own cars. The solution is not to get more of them into cars. The solution is to make non-car ownership a more comfortable lifestyle, especially in the city.

Defenders of eliminating the car tax might argue that demand for driving is inelastic—People who drive can’t control that they have to drive. This appeals to an understandable urge to have empathy for the commute costs of others. While obviously there’s a kernel of truth to the fact that we’re all somewhat shaped by our environments, and that some people do have to drive for certain jobs, in a general sense the share of people who drive is extremely elastic, based on how costs are distributed. Mode share in cities has been shown to be extremely reactive to how much cost is put on the shoulders of drivers versus the general public, for instance through parking reform. A decrease in the car tax, which forces the city to put an even greater automobile cost onto the general public, might, for instance, mean a higher property tax rate, which in turn would deter denser development of buildings allowing less car use. This creates a vicious circle of induced demand to drive, fueling the perception that cheap driving is a public good in its own right, and aiding attempts to add even more political aid to drivers. This is not progressive.

The RIPDA position calling for reform of the Tax Stabilization Agreements (TSAs) for wealthy developers makes more sense than its position on car taxes, although there is a need to incentivize infill in the downtown and elsewhere throughout the city. One proposal we’ve had to replace TSAs has been a parking tax, which would lower property taxes not just for wealthy developers but also citywide. This would aid the city in infill without targeting only the wealthy. Car tax elimination, however, should not be considered. The costs of cars to the general public through infrastructure payments as well as pollution are high, and reducing the amount that drivers pay directly to these costs will only help the lower middle class and up, while excluding the poorest. It will also balloon the demand to drive, meaning that much of the benefit given even to these segments of society will be eaten up by an increased need to use cars. Just as the populist right often appeals to the need for cheap oil with calls for “Drill, Baby, Drill” a platform eliminating the car tax will immediately make driving cheaper, but not necessarily in a progressive way. The RIPDA position is well intentioned, but wrong, and needs to be changed. We hope that RIPDA will encourage the candidates to change their positions on this issue as well.


Link citations have been fixed on this post. Thank you to the reader who pointed this mistake out.


Update: A supporter of the RIPDA position on car taxes wrote to explain why they feel the car tax as it's currently designed is regressive. From the email:

You do have a valid point about the positive effects that the car tax has on shifting transit mode share.  And it is true that non-drivers are disproportionately lower-income.  However, I don't think that this effect is anywhere near enough to make the car tax progressive. 
The first thing you have to understand is the specific policy people are upset about.  Back in 2005, the state had a program where they paid for a $6000 exemption in local car taxes.  Largely to pay for the tax cuts for the rich, the state slashed those funds almost to zero.  So the city wound up lowering the car tax exemption to $1000.  At the same time, they lowered the rate from 7.678% to 6%.  The net effect was that cars worth more than about $25,000 got a net tax cut, and cars worth less than $25,000 got a net tax hike.  The issue here isn't really the concept of car taxes per se.  The issue is making the car tax more regressive. 
If the question is whether a car tax is better than a property tax, I agree with you that car taxes make more sense.  In particular, if the car tax has a large exemption, and the property tax has a higher rental rate, then it's probably less regressive, although that's just my gut instinct.  Even if the car tax is slightly more regressive, it's still better policy because of how it shifts mode share.
This is a more reasonable, nuanced position, but I still disagree.

I do agree that amongst drivers, this makes the structure of the tax less progressive in terms of income redistribution than it might otherwise be, but I still don't agree with RIPDA on this. The state was wrong to have a $6,000 deductible for cars in the first place. Having one operates in much the same way that the federal deduction for car depreciation works--it makes it as if car owners don't have to consider the loss of value on their car as part of the market cost of driving.

I do think that we should have a societal goal to have a progressive distribution of income and wealth, and I realize that having a car tax that is structured this way does not aid that. In my view, that's because this tax isn't in place to serve that purpose. But the best way for the city to approach issues of equity would be for them to develop a tax code and/or set of social services that boost the incomes of working class people without tying those benefits to cars. If your car is a junker, it still costs us a lot to have it on the road. But that doesn't mean we can't have great transit for you, great schools, and affordable housing.

If the city and state don't get themselves wrapped in a variety of schemes to make car ownership less expensive, they can put the money they save from the budget into other progressive goals.

(I do also agree with repealing the tax cuts for the rich that were made in Rhode Island).


Update #2:

To put things in perspective, both for me as a non-driver, as well as for those reading up on this issue, I made a spreadsheet to show what the tax would be in various cars. The first column is the cost of the car; the second and third are the effective price of the car with a $6,000 deductible and the tax paid, respectively; the fourth and fifth columns represent the effective price of the car with a $1,000 deductible and the tax paid, respectively.

So, you can see that the tax rate does change who pays, so that from around $25,000 up the tax goes down, while from $25,000 and cheaper the tax goes up. If taken as percentages, at the lower end of the spectrum this raises the tax a lot--for instance, a $7,500 car has its tax almost quadrupled.

But my take on this is this: if you can afford a $7,500 car, but you can't afford $400 in taxes on it, then maybe you can't afford a $7,500 car. Drivers only pay half of their road costs--that excludes pollution, car crashes, health costs, and all the other important externals that are affected by cars. The figure for drivers paying only half (HALF!) of their costs is talking just about ordinary costs like road paving, drainage, lighting, etc.

Again, around a quarter of Providence residents don't drive at all, and the city doesn't give them anything in particular for the great gift that is to the rest of us, even though non-drivers in our city are--like most other places that aren't New York--disproportionately poor. So you're already talking about a tax that doesn't affect this group.

A fair tax would probably not be based on vehicle value at all, because if you drive around in a clunker, you're not causing anyone else any less cost than the person driving a Beamer. 

Should we be concerned about making our tax system progressive? Absolutely! But if you look at countries that have very healthy wealth gaps, those countries make people pay their costs to drive. The reduction in inequality isn't measured in how equal people's access is to get behind the wheel. The measure comes from people's access to housing, food, healthcare, education, childcare and the like. By focusing on a very narrow measure of lower middle class annoyance, advocates for bringing back the old system of car taxation want to exempt drivers from even more costs--but that will mean less revenue for the city to take care of its schools, or to lower taxes on rental properties, or do other things that directly affect working class life.

So suck it up! If you can't afford to pay your car tax, guess what? I can't afford a car. Stop complaining!


Some news submissions

From Citylab, and via our friend Barry Schiller:

If you're an employer in a major metro area, it's in your best interest to offer a commuter benefits plan for every worker, regardless of their preferred travel mode. That typically means free parking for drivers, subway or bus pass programs for transit riders, and secure bike storage as well as maybe showers for cyclists. This seems only fair, like a bit of a win for everyone involved. 
Thing is, commuter benefits for everyone can end up being a loss for the city itself. That's because the lure of free office parking is so great that it not only neutralizes the other benefits, it actually entices some commuters into their cars and out of the alternative mode they might otherwise prefer. So what looks at first like a balanced policy in fact ends up favoring drivers—and that means more traffic for the whole city.

From The Whole Sky, a blog on parenting, via Alex Krogh-Grabbe, a Providence resident:

Speaking of weird free passes that we give cars, people seem curiously unconcerned about new parents driving. Sleep deprivation impairs you like being drunk. After four months of poor sleep, I don’t always feel confident in my ability to navigate stairs, let alone operate a motor vehicle with my child in it.