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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.



  1. My one occasion driving in Philadelphia, I remember marveling at how how casually the local drivers breeze through tight spots with inches to spare. In Providence, on 24 foot streets, a parked car on one side leaves about 18 feet but plenty of drivers will stop and wait for an oncoming car rather than pay enough attention to steer with over a foot to spare on each side. Well, at least they are not heedlessly zooming along!

    1. I had lunch with a trucker once who claimed that Philadelphians were "the best drivers on the East Coast". I don't know if his opinion was right. He thought Rhode Island and Massachusetts drivers were some of the worst on the East Coast. Whenever I go into one of my rants about missing Philadelphia, I know I'm being kind of chauvinistic about it, but the truth is that I think the people of Rhode Island are generally as nice as those in Philly, and the Philly ones are just as crummy as the Rhode Islanders. So the tendency for people to drive like fucking maniacs here must owe something to the roads.

      Every person that I've brought here to visit from Philadelphia has commented on the suburban nature of Providence, including those who live in the suburbs of Philadelphia rather than the city proper. I also have noticed that people who visit from Philly seem like they follow the posted speed limits more than most of the people I've driven with in Providence, which could be any number of things: the people I've driven here with from Philly tend to take transit, walk, and bike a lot, and maybe have more empathy; they may be more likely to drive slowly because they're somehow conditioned by driving in their own home city's norms, or it may just be a case of them driving slower because they're not used to the place and have to look around more. But it's a definite pattern. I'm weird like that. I look at the speedomoter of people I'm a passenger of all the time, like it's an experiment I can learn from.

  2. Thanks for including me in the post! Just to clarify, Filtered Permeability isn't my own idea. It's a transportation planning concept that seems to get more attention in the UK. An Autoluwe street is the end result of traffic filtering. Maybe we could use a better term in English?

    In the Netherlands, there are often city-wide Traffic Circulation Plans that reduce traffic in residential and shopping areas. I'm not sure if Bike Boulevards are specifically defined, but a Fietsstraat (bike street), is a street with very low car traffic that is designed to be a primary through route for bikes.

    There's a lot of praise for cities with a "grid," but a grid doesn't necessarily make streets safer nor more pleasant. Most of the streets in Center City and South Philly are residential and on a grid, but all of them function as potential through routes or shortcuts (rat runs) for drivers. This is why they're so unpleasant for cycling despite their narrowness. Sometimes the effective car speeds are very high. No one really feels comfortable "taking the lane," so they occupy a very confined door zone. We would really need Filtered Permeability for these streets to ever be attractive to potential cyclists.

    Thanks again!