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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...

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.


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