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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...

Stop Salting City Streets

Bird seed instead of salt? Hmm, maybe.
EcoRI News made an interesting recommendation recently: people should stop salting their sidewalks, and use sand and birdseed to create traction for walking instead. One has to only think of the destruction of Carthage to recall quickly how much of an environmental stress salt can create when it is applied in large amounts. The RI DEM recently asked communities to avoid putting removed snow near waterways, for instance, because the combined effect of salt and car effluents in the removed snow is extremely toxic to the water system when it hits all at once.

I tried the birdseed method out on my own sidewalk. It does help a bit with traction, although it's definitely a downgrade from a complete cleared walkway. I also like the aesthetic quality of the seeds, and it appears that the darker color actually helps melt uneven speckles in the ice much the way that salt does. The jury is still out for me as to whether I think it should completely replace salt on sidewalks.

A City of Central Falls-owned bus stop Thursday. 
By Friday afternoon, the city had apparently cleared the 
bus shelter itself at my request, but the sidewalk was still 
blocked. Note that the street is bare asphalt though.
One thing is certain though. We should stop salting streets whose speed limit is set at 25 mph or lower. It's important for us to remove the majority of snow in order to keep the utility of our streets, but having some snow is actually a blessing to safety.

hashtag, created by Jef Nickerson of Greater City Providence, has captured some of the experience of being a pedestrian in our city during these snowy times. When property owners don't shovel their walkways, or when RIDOT or the city haphazardly drop huge snow drifts onto sidewalks, pedestrians are forced out into the street.

What I've noticed over the past several days is that so long as the street is covered with a half-inch or so of snow, vehicles go at or below the speed limit, but have smooth traffic-flow. At the earliest stages, this looks like what I've dubbed a "sneet" or "snow street" which has been returned effectively to pedestrians by its conditions. But even as driving conditions get good enough to allow vehicles relatively normalized access, the snow cover that remains changes their behavior. I would estimate the average speed during these times to have been 15-20 mph, with the fastest cars I've observed pushing to 25 mph. Your head really turns for the person who is driving at the full speed limit during a snow storm, but if you're a traffic nerd you actually know that you're relatively safe around that person, as compared to if there was no snow on the ground. The existence of pedestrians in our overly wide streets has not impeded the flow of traffic, but has caused drivers to pay more attention, and to drive at reasonable speeds. 

Thayer "Sneet" 
Since salt has been better applied to the streets, the asphalt is now completely visible, and drivers have to experience of being able to forget entirely that there even was a storm. Speeds have gone up. The average speed on my front street is now back to its normal level, which hovers around 30 mph. On Hope Street, the speeds range between 30-35 for most drivers. The important thing to remember about this is that the drivers themselves are not being actively inconsiderate, but are just responding to environmental cues. It feels safe to go 35 on Hope Street, and going 25 mph feels incredibly slow. Doing 15-20 mph, which would be the ideal speed for a pedestrian environment, feels totally inappropriate to most drivers, even though there's clear data to show that a street that is reduced to those lower speeds can lose its signals, and thus move traffic more quickly.

A family tries to cross Broad Street because of
uncleared #CFsidewalks Friday.
We're very cognizant of the danger of slipping on ice, but the truth is that even if a driver hits ice and slips off the road at 15-20 mph, the chances of him/her seriously injuring or killing a pedestrian are small: at 20 mph, the estimate is a 10% or below mortality. By 30-35 mph, the serious injury/mortality rate for pedestrians jumps exponentially higher, to around 40%. The stray driver who speeds to 40 mph on clear streets carries a 90% chance of killing any person they may hit, while that same driver pushing it to 25 mph in the snowy conditions may have left their victim relatively unharmed.

The real danger to pedestrians from the clearance of streets comes from not only the fact that perfectly clear streets induce speeding, but also the known fact that sidewalks remain imperfectly cleared. So long as one or two houses or businesses along a route have blocked access, pedestrians will be forced into the road. This is no big deal during the sneet phase, and is tolerable after half-normal conditions return, but by the time salt has hit the ground and the street is bare pavement, all bets are off.

Streets are much wider than sidewalks. Applying salt to streets costs a lot of money. A WPRI estimate cited that one-third to two-thirds of the RIDOT winter budget goes to salt. Municipalities have their own budgets for snow clearance in addition to that. Providence's budget for plowing and salting last year was $1.8 million, and like many communities, it faced shortfalls due to heavy snowfall. While higher speed regional routes account for a portion of this spending, eliminating our salt usage on local streets would save taxpayers money.

I spoke to Central Falls officials on Thursday after my tweets brought them quickly to the street to discuss the sidewalk conditions. I was impressed with their initial response time but disappointed at their level of commitment to fixing the situation. The officials, I believe, want the best thing, but their overall message was that getting sidewalks right is hard, and that they have higher priorities given a serious snowfall. Realigning our expectations for street clearance quality would change this conversation.

The conclusions I'm drawing are not meant to be applied to higher speed, long distance roads like I-95. A road that is designed to move traffic very fast over long distances has totally different qualities than a city street. We should adjust our expectations in the center of towns and cities. The sense of unease we have at snowy streets is the very thing that might keep us safe.


Everyone Needs a Sneet

The term "sneckdown" was coined by Clarence Eckerson, Jr. of Streetfilms to describe a neckdown (also called a bump-out) made of snow. There's a great video summarizing it here, and unfortunately I can't excerpt from it because Google is a pain in the royal rumpus and will only let videos be posted to blogger that are up on its subsidiary, Youtube.

Here's a sneckdown from 48th and Baltimore Ave., where I used to cross the street with Warren Warner in Philly.

The sneckdown inspired permanent changes to the intersection:

A fun cousin of the sneckdown is the sneet. You're on a sneet when the street is shut down by snow, and still functions. All sneets are nice, but my favorite sneets are the ones that function even better than the streets they replace. Thayer Street is one such sneet.

This dog was so happy. Dogs need sneets and so do you.
It won't be the first or the last time that I say that Thayer Street is the perfect location for a permanently "opened" street--that is, closed to cars but open to people on foot. Thayer is a place constantly abuzz with pedestrians. It serves a population that largely does not drive (at least not regularly). It is in a location well-served by transit, but where there will never be enough parking for motorists.

Even with blustery winds and wet snow, Thayer Street has been full of people all day. I had some delicious pizza at Antonio's Pizza, where I've never gone before, simply because I was so happy to see a business putting some faith in the pedestrian market. People should go buy some pizza (the Wayland Diner and Hudson Street Deli are some other businesses I've heard have opened during the "travel ban", which is really just a "car travel ban").

This dog knows what a nice thing sneets are. Let's open Thayer Street to pedestrians so that we can have this experience everyday.


Council President Luis Aponte on Parking

Thank you to Sam Bell for bringing this to my attention.

Council President Aponte:

"If we can find ways to move people around in our city without additional parking, we should look at that."

Catch the full interview here. The key part comes up around 4:19.

It's my hope that Council President Aponte will strongly consider a parking tax as a way of dealing with the surface parking problem, rather than any subsidy to parking garages as has been the case in the past. A parking tax will make surface parking unviable, and then people will make decisions about how to supply parking (or not supply it). The plan will raise money for our city that can be repurposed to lower taxes for all other properties in the city.


Dooring Laws Stronger in Rhode Island

When praise is due, it should be given. So here's to us, Rhodies. We're doing something well:

Via Tyson Bottenus, better known as the cyclist who rode across the bay, I heard that the League of American Bicyclists is shouting out to Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Oregon as places that have good dooring laws:
The dooring law in Rhode Island has several notable characteristics that help bicyclists, pedestrians, and motorists understand the intent of the law. Perhaps most notably, Rhode Island is one of only three states to specifically clarify that bicyclists and pedestrians are part of traffic. In many states the dooring law only references “traffic” leaving it up to interpretation or a reference to a definition found elsewhere in the vehicle code. Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Oregon clarify that bicyclists and pedestrians are protected by their dooring law. Rhode Island also clarifies that its dooring law applies to bicyclists and pedestrians on sidewalks, shoulders and bicycle lanes.
"Dooring" is, of course, the effect of being smacked off your bike by someone opening their driver-side car door into a bike lane. In the Netherlands, it is much rarer, because bike infrastructure is seldom designed to have bikes in the door zone.

Rhode Island shouldn't rest on its laurels, but should instead opt to fix any bike infrastructure that is in the door zone, such as the Broadway bike lanes, in order to preempt the problem. The last thing we want to do is fall behind because we've taken our eyes off the prize. What most of the rest of the U.S. does is so out of whack as to not be worth paying attention to. We're behind, just not as behind.


Don't Take Your Guns to Town, Boys (On the Bus).

What are some of the quality-of-life issues that lead people to not take transit? 

This RIPTA ad explaining the rules of being on the bus offers a minor example of how transit agencies disrespect their riders. A little respect is worth three streetcars as far as I'm concerned, in terms of turning around the negative image of buses:

Now look, I don't mean to be contrary. I would appreciate if my fellow RIPTA riders left their guns and knives at home, thank you very much. But is it necessary to say so? I'm pretty sure that state laws would apply here. Saying so in the bus rules is overkill.

By the way, just a point of information: Rhode Island is the safest state in the country for gun violence on a per capita basis. (Fuck Yeah! We're Number 1 for something good!) But we suck in the realm of drunk driving, especially as compared with other Northeastern states. Could convincing some of those lushes to take the bus help? Maybe don't send subliminal messages about how they'll get shot (and/or blown up) on the bus and they'll think about it.

Do you walk into a coffee shop and get reminded to please put your guns away, sir?

Do you go to a shopping mall and get that treatment?

On the one case when I went to the DMV in Rhode Island, I recall feeling surprised that I wasn't virtually frisked up and down as I entered the building, because I have to empty my pockets like a criminal when I go to update my food stamps information. So is it safe to say that we don't remind drivers to keep their guns (and flammable materials) at home (some of them don't)?

New rule: RIPTA should only remind us of courtesy suggestions that aren't covered by the criminal code. Anything else is rude.

Now let's lighten up the mood.


The Narrowest Street in Providence

Providence does not have narrow streets. 

Please repeat after me: Providence does not have narrow streets.

The narrowest street in Providence that I'm aware of is Union Street between Westminster and Weybosset (the block adjacent to "Grant's Block", or as a Rhode Islander would say, "the block next to the theater that used to be there before Grant's Block"). It's possible there are other streets that are narrower, and if you know of one I encourage you to tweet it to me with a picture of it (@transportpvd).

Union Street qualifies, I think, as a kind of narrow street. But really, it's nothing exceptional. You can drive a car down it.

Here's the photo I used from the last time I went on this rant on the blog. This is a street in Philadelphia.

This also qualifies as a narrow street, and in Philadelphia, even though there are lots and lots of streets like this, people are aware that this is something quaint and old and not that likely to occur anymore. On the other hand, when I laid down to have this picture taken, my sister (who took the picture) got kind of indignant with me. "What do you want me to take a picture of? It's a street." 

This street is not the narrowest street I've encountered in Philly. This is a middling sort of Philadelphia side street, to go kind of Ben Franklin on you.

Below is a street I picked at random from a map of Philadelphia. I'm not sure I've ever visited this street, but it looks many others I've seen. I could guess that this street would be this narrow with a pretty high confidence just by picking one that only carries through for a block or two at a time. But this is not an alley. People have their front doors on this street. This street may very well have ADA issues because of how narrow it is, because I'm not 100% sure that a wheelchair would fit down the middle of it unassisted. Look at how the branches of the small trees touch the walls on both sides of the street! I could probably sit in this street and touch both sides of the sidewalk without stretching. There are hundreds of streets like this.

You'd be fair to say that the street above is not typical, even if there are lots of them. But I chose another street at random that did carry through and got this one, which is completely typical, and probably represents the vast majority of Philadelphia Streets in every section of the city except the very fringes:

This is kind of like the setup that we have on Westminster Street, with one lane of parking and one lane for driving. But on Westminster, you have a fairly large amount of wiggle room with your car. This street is designed to make you crawl down it, because people live here. Westminster is not designed that way (and either are Benefit, or Thayer, or any of the other "narrow" examples from Providence).

Which brings me to why I'm on the narrow streets rant again: Gano Street is decidedly wide. It is definitely not narrow.


The RI Bike Coalition members have been discussing how we can better connect the hopefully-soon-to-be-finished George Redman (a.k.a. Washington) Bridge to the rest of Providence. There's obvious consternation about the ridiculous sharrows that have been provided on this overly wide, fast avenue. Spending $20 Million and change on a bike bridge and then not connecting the bike bridge to neighborhoods except with sharrows is kind of a Rhode Island move, if ever I've seen one. 

Look closely at this picture. Look at how much room that car has just within the lane itself. Too much! That's why cars go so fast in Providence. Note the parking lane which is not being used. I picked this block of Gano randomly, but it's pretty representative of my experience on this street. Is there ever more than a handful of parked cars on the entire length of the street?

Back to Philadelphia. So far I've shown you only residential streets. What does a central business district avenue look like?

Here's Pine Street, part of the Pine/Spruce buffered bike lane pair (which has been in place since the mid-oughts):

My only complaint about this street is that it doesn't have physical separation between the bike lane and the cars. That should happen eventually. Other than that, this is an appropriate use of space. Look at how random be-caned and be-strollered pedestrians are caught enjoying themselves on this street by Google Streetview. Pine Street is probably wider than Westminster, but the car lane is much narrower, and the bike lane is probably 8' or 9' wide.

We need to think about how to connect Providence to the George Redman Bridge. Part of being successful with that is starting with a realistic conception of where we're at. Providence does not have narrow streets. Please people, stop saying that it does.

Update: I'm thankful to Corey Saunders (@philambulator) for commenting on this article from a Philly perspective. Corey emphasized that Philly's street widths help a lot with speeding, but that overall traffic volume is a subjective safety issue for biking. He brought up a new name for an old concept: he calls it's "filtered permeability" but I've called streets of this type "Autoluwe" or "bike boulevards".

This is that same Pine/Spruce pair during road work that closed the street to through-traffic.

This is an example from this type of road I like, because it has the option of allowing local car traffic when it's needed:

I saw that the conversation about bike connections to the Washington/George Redman Bridge has turned to using East Avenue as a connection. I like this idea and think that filtered permeability/bike boulevard design/Autoluwe could really make it more practical:

Here are my concerns that remain about this option:

*East Avenue comes to a T intersection and ends after a couple blocks. I don't want anyone to get the air violin out over this or anything. The East Side is fairly gridded, and it might be not that big a deal to find this if proper wayfinding signs are added. But it's a downside.

*I still think that Gano needs some kind of access. And Benefit should get looked at for special treatment too.

*The big elephant in the room is that this dumps people into India Point Park, and the path structure here and roads are really a problem.

The path in the park during the day is full of slow-moving pedestrians, making the path less ideal for both pedestrians and bikes. Consider, for instance, how annoying and unnecessary it is for a cyclist to suddenly meander slowly behind a bunch of strollers on the way to work, if the cyclist has commuted from, say, Bristol.

If the point of a bike path is to lure people to bike who don't 
like car traffic, the approach to the path is a major problem, 
especially after the rider may have already gotten lost several
At night, the path is empty, so there's the security factor. You can try to sell me on India Point Park all you want, but I don't like being there much because except during events it feels like I have no reason to be there. And I don't want to have to be there just as a means to an end to get someplace else.

And finally, you have to cross back over India Street to get to the entrance of the bike path, which is on the back-side of a building in an extremely non-intuitive place. In order to get there, you have to go past a bunch of highway entrances and exits.

How can we resolve the huge issues here on India Street? Can we use Dutch highway interchange design? This street is also extremely wide and should get separate space for bikes so that people don't have to enter the park for no reason.
We need to address these issues.


The 72: An Illustration of What's Wrong with RIPTA

Central Falls is RI's densest location. On top of that, Central Falls is part of an archipelago of contiguous, dense places like Pawtucket and Providence. But there's no good transit to Central Falls from Providence, which mystifies me as someone who works there and does not drive. 

To the right is the route 72 map, which is a wonder of the world in terms of its ability to connect two transit-oriented places in a way that spells failure. This map is actually incomplete, because the route starts in Pawtucket center, goes north on Dexter Street, turns, comes back down Lonsdale, and continues looping through the southwestern part of Pawtucket and into the North End of Providence before (eventually) coming to Kennedy Plaza. Some of the territory it traverses is indeed reasonably dense, and deserves transit, but other parts of the route (particularly once it gets to Providence) go past pedestrian-unfriendly areas with lots of parking and low density housing.

Our transit routes should be as linear as possible. This route tries to serve everything, and serves nothing. For instance, Dexter Street should probably have 2 minute frequency back and forth to Pawtucket center during peak hours, and no more than five or ten minute frequency even at the oddest hours of a Sunday night, not only because there are lots of people who need a bus, but because these are short, linear, dense places that can be connected efficiently in order to eviscerate people's need for a car for those trips. Instead the schedule for the 72 looks like this:

For those of you who drive, but consider yourself supporters of transit, remember that while a half-hour wait doesn't seem like a big deal, in reality it is, because it means that this route can only be used with a schedule. It also means that if one misses the bus by one minute, it's twenty-nine minutes until the next bus. That's a huge amount of time to impose on riders, who are already going to take a very loopy ride through town. There is no other option in Central Falls except to walk to Pawtucket and take the R-Line or 1 bus. This is in fact usually what I do on days like today when the weather/RIhole* driver combination makes biking impossible. 

And remember, this is the densest place in Rhode Island next to the two other densest places in Rhode Island, within a few miles of one another. There is no fucking reason for this kind of ineptitude, except underfunding/mismanagement of existing funds.

I created this image a while ago and never wrote an article about it. This is the area of Providence that is the Bermuda Triangle of not being a driver. I had to traverse to the North End to go to a mayoral outreach meeting once, which brought me a mile from my house as the bird flies, but required me walking some very unpleasant, awful routes. The 72 goes past this area, around the Walmart/Home Depot, and so this is my proposal for making transit work better here. We need bike share stations here, particularly to connect with the R-Line, we need some safety improvements to these streets, and we need to increase frequency on the R-Line rather than having a roundabout crappy transit route to offer lifeline service to this area. The bridge coming off of N. Main is already free of highway entrances/exits, which makes it one of the best places to cross in the city. Adding some beautification, protected bike lanes (the bridge is really wide and underused by cars), etc., would help with this. This area, back near the Post Office, etc., is not dense enough to require additional transit in and of itself, but could get much higher transit use from existing lines if we combined bike-share to it. In a lot of cases, this is what we need to do all over Rhode Island. Good bikeways serve as safer places for at-risk people to connect to buses, and higher frequency, centralized buses make for better service. We're using the wrong tools for the wrong things, only serving a few people, and not giving any of the people we serve a sense of dignity.

It's a remarkably saddening thing to behold the smallest, second-densest state doing things this poorly, especially when 50% of the already small state lives within a few miles of Kennedy Plaza. Central Falls deserves better than this, and so do people who live in Providence but might need to get to Central Falls.


RI-hole (trademark-pending) is my reuse of the term Masshole for Rhode Islanders. Enjoy.