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Side-by-Each in Woonsocket

If you missed our first #EntranceRampRI post on Central Falls and Valley Falls, check it out. The theme of EntranceRampRI is that Rhode Island already has most of its bike highways, but it hasn't built the entrance ramps. Here we continue with Woonsocket.


The first thing you need to know about Woonsocket but will never hear most Rhode Islanders say is that it's beautiful. I mean, just fucking gorgeous. Woonsocket has got to be the most pissed-on city in Rhode Island (not literally--that's probably Providence). But Woonsocket doesn't deserve its poor reputation.

Connecting the existing bike highway up the Blackstone River to Woonsocket's core will really make a huge difference in changing people's preconceived notions about the city. The website for the Blackstone River Trail, in its most recent (November 2014) update states about Woonsocket:
An on-road Blackstone River Bike Route was adopted by the City Council in 2012. Thanks to great partnerships, the Blackstone Heritage Corridor provided signage and other resources to the city in order to establish the route. 

Right now, while the bike path is just a twinkle in our eyes, the only bike facilities in Woonsocket are sharrows. 


First, a Word from Our Sponsor

(Just kidding) Woonsocket really isn't paying us off to tell you it's great. Take a look at some photos, and see why you should visit.

Of course, one of my faves is clearly the RIPTA waiting area, which is next to the restored train station where commuter service will soon pick up again (a few times a day) between Worcester, Woonsocket, and Providence.

Connecting a City to Biking

Now that you're convinced, let's talk turkey.

We've written about Woonsocket before. When the city released its Downtown Livability Plan (pdf) we gorged excitement over it that in retrospect I think was probably just a teensy bit exaggerated. A lot of the plans focus on the above-mentioned bike path, and Woonsocket should really start thinking outside the box on how to go beyond the bike-path-only approach.

What the Plan Has Going for It
  • It designates a right-of-way to become a separated bikeway. Part of the right-of-way is the Truman Drive, which it suggests should go have a two-to-four-lane conversion. 
  • It talks about parking in a relatively forthcoming way: in the plan, Woonsocket's parking spaces are noted to be only 25% full at peak times. The plan suggests removing some on-street parking from streets where doing so will allow one-way to two-way conversion of streets. Two-way streets have big benefits over multi-lane one-way streets. But as we'll talk about, there are more creative ways to get even bigger benefits than a simple one-way to two-way conversion.
  • The plan has some interesting ideas about using abandoned spaces for temporary purposes, like farmers' markets, flea markets, and the like. I'd like to run with this idea and apply it to some other areas of policy as well.

Problems with Bike Highways
No funding or planning is really needed to make Truman Dr. a bikeway on one side, but until money is available for an ADA/bike ramp, connecting this to Main St. would be a challenge.
At the time that I wrote the original piece with Rachel, we both were exhausted from constantly pushing against walls about Providence's (complete lack of) bike infrastructure. We wrote it when the first Providence Park(ing) Day was still up in the air and not guaranteed to succeed, and looking back on that pre-Park(ing) Day time I remember just how bleak things felt. The idea that little Woonsocket was going to get a bike path segment was so exciting that the details didn't matter that much. We picked up on it and tried to hammer Providence with the fact: Why aren't you doing this?

But the Blackstone Path extension, which is really just another bike highway, has a lot of limitations. This is one of the underpinnings of #EntranceRampRI.

The bike highway will take a long time. When we get the bikeway, great. In the meantime, what do we do? The window on this, in theory, is about five years, but anyone who knows the constantly evolving roll-out dates for bike infrastructure on the East Coast Greenway and/or any Rhode Island project in general knows that this isn't 

Bike highways provide less bang for your buck (than on-road bike routes). Bike highways are orders of magnitude cheaper than a lot of car infrastructure, but are also much more expensive than converting part of a road into a space for bikes or pedestrians--which is so cheap that activists can do it without permission. The plan mixes a lot of costs throughout different categories, but the big chunk of cost for the pathway is $500,000. The ADA/bike ramp to meet the pathway connection from the Court St. bridge is $5 million by itself, though. I want to put cost in delicate context so as not to give the impression that I'd be against doing this. This point is less that it might not be good to do it than that our first $5.5 million of improvements could have more of an impact than this path. 

Bike "highways" are for getting on and zipping away someplace far, rather than connecting block to block. This is especially the case because bike paths in the bike highway model tend to be built along rivers and in rail beds, where you may be above, below, or cut off by water from other points-of-interest except at certain limited crossings or ramps. This is the case for all of the Blackstone Path extensions.

The bike highway can obscure a lack of other infrastructure. It wasn't until I decided to revisit this report (it's like 200 pages long) that I realized that we got over-excited about this bikeway, and in the process, totally let the plan off the hook for its lack of vision for on-street facilities. A lot of sharrows are proposed in the plan (see this Car-Free PVD piece talking about appropriate and inappropriate use of sharrows). I'd rather have no bike path in the city at all and have serious bike infrastructure on-street everywhere than have a really beautiful bike path but lots of sharrows leading to it.

Bike highways are about beauty, not direct-access. The problem is relatively small, in some cases, especially if the limited-access allows speed. But take this map, for instance:

Where a biker gets dumped off the bike path, they usually have to take Rt. 122 to get to downtown. Rt. 122 is really unfriendly for biking, but look at how direct it is! And look at the number of side-streets that connect to it. By contrast, the bikeway, if built, would arch around the southern bed of the river, then cross to the northern bed, and into Truman Drive.

Switchback Mountain The ADA/bike ramp has not only the issue of cost, but also of access. While these types of switchback ramps do increase the number of people that can walk or wheelchair up and down between two places, they're a real pain in the ass for biking if your goal is to get anywhere at all in a serious way. I've been looking with some disgust at the soon-to-open (hold your breath, I think) East Bay Bike Path bridge connection, because to access it requires first a complex switchback down to India Point Park from East Avenue, and then a tight and multi-tiered switchback back up to the bridge (not to speak of traffic, pedestrians, dogs, children, and so on in between). The path itself gets people to bike on a flat right-of-way, which is a big advantage over passing through the neighborhood. But the switchbacks at the end of that journey sort of kill it for me, especially at $5 million.

Fixing the Problems

Greetings from Mars First things first: the surface of the moon could be a more welcoming place than where you come off the existing bikeway.

The street ahead is Division Street, and at the end of that is 122 (running parallel to the building in the background). To the left is the rail underpass going west and meeting Rt. 126. This area (or even just the parking lot next to it) could be activated
with food trucks to meet social safety needs.
Melbourne, Australia does a really smart thing where the city offers tax-free space to small vendors, whose purpose it is to keep eyes on the street late at night and early in the morning. The vendors are expected to stay open late in return for the tax break. Wouldn't it be great if Woonsocket offered exemptions from city taxes to food trucks at this location? They wouldn't be competing directly with restaurants in this area, because there are none. The role of the food trucks would be to supplant the need for active policing, and it would bring a lot more people in on the bike path--because people would know it was safe at all hours. 

Rt. 122 is no place to bike.

Let People Off the Path Leaving the path area is really hard, because after going past the abandoned lot the Division Street spits bikers out onto Rt. 122. 122 varies throughout the city, but in this part of the city it is a truly unpleasant place to bike in every possible way. The lane widths are wide enough to encourage speeding but not wide enough to allow room for motorists to pass comfortably. What did Woonsocket do to address this? It put sharrows down (I kid you not!). Last I saw them, they were pretty worn down, so even within their own pathetic universe of bad engineering they were failing to do what they should do. 

122 crosses the freight train tracks for the old Providence & Worcester Railroad at a very uncomfortable angle. I'm not sure if this is general knowledge to drivers, but believe me that crossing train tracks at anything too far off from a right angle is scary on a bike. It's scarier than normal here because you can't slow down (a driver will honk), and you can't get the right angle going over without pulling out deeper in the lane. 
Avoiding 122 would be possible if this train underpass were closed to
cars--how about some stone or concrete bollards here? This is currently
a one-way going towards the path, so coming into Woonsocket this way
puts one in danger of a head-on crash with a driver.

Solving this crossing is no big challenge: to the direct left of the path, going west, is an underpass with a very narrow passage--maybe 9 feet. It comes right out to Manville Road (Rt. 126). Crossing 126 could get some improvements, but on the other side is a grid of streets, and cyclists can take Willow Street. I'm afraid it is hilly--there's no other option until the path is built--but it's comfortable to bike. Even after the path is built, Woonsocket should activate some of this residential grid as bike boulevards and bring cyclists back to 122 at a point in the street where it is easier to make changes to accommodate cycling.

Greene & Carrington

Carrington facing east: this is currently a double-one way (possibly to
frustrate through-traffic). I would make it a bike-boulevard, also to 
frustrate through-traffic of cars--but would allow local residential 
access. Bikes would move two-way on this stretch.
Willow Street ends at Greene Street, and one would have to bike north back to the main road (Rt. 122), two blocks over. The in-between block is Carrington Street, which runs parallel to 122 and merges with it. I would make the intersection of Greene & 122 and Carrington & 122 each bike-only, enlarge the triangular plaza that already exists, and allow only local residential car traffic on Carrington. This isn't really an anti-car approach, because it allows residents the advantages of quiet, quasi-suburban streets without losing the connectivity advantages of a city grid. 
Another view looking south down Greene, with Carrington as the cross-street.

Protected Bike Lanes on 122.
The street to the right in this picture is Carrington, which would be closed to direct car traffic (but open to residents coming from the other direction). This intersection would get protected bike lanes and have no right-hook issues since that intersection would be closed. The cross-street to the left leads just to parking and a dead-end.
At this point there's no other way to address biking but to have cyclists go back to the main road, but that's not a problem because this section of 122 is more visually interesting than the previous stretch, and also has room enough to allow bike infrastructure.

122 narrows (relatively) as it approaches Greene Street, and then opens right back up on the other side of Court Square. But there's more room here than you'd think. Here's how I'd set this stretch of 122 up:

Starting further up the street at Park Ave. & Hamlet (122), I would change the signal from a green-yellow-red to a blinking red to prepare drivers for calmer speeds. As they approach the intersection with Greene St., bikers would be able to merge onto 122 (Hamlet Street). The intersection would be greatly simplified by the bike boulevard design at Greene, meaning there'd be no danger of "hook" crashes from turning cars. The protected bike lanes are narrow by Dutch standards but do the job.

Add Parking & Protected Bike Lanes at Court Square

Yes, you heard me right! Let's add some parking. Court Square has the width to have protected bike lanes all the way along it from here, and over the bridge, but it requires moving some parking around. Let's take the cars (parked across the street in the picture)and move them into the slipway that's at Court Square (in the foreground of the picture to the left). Philadelphia did a great project (below) with this at one of its diagonal streets, and the number of parking spaces equaled out to the number taken away.
In the Grad Hospital district. This wasn't originally a slipway, but the last block of a diagonal street--but it's the same principal. Some seating could be added on the inside of the parked cars. 
From here, the bridge at Court Street should quite obviously get protected bike lanes on both sides. The good thing is that the bridge is huge, and gets almost no traffic congestion, so the protected bike lanes could be made quite wide in order to accommodate people trying to move more quickly alongside those who are trying to pull off and look at the beautiful sites from the bridge.

No Two-Ways About It

I want to address the plans for two-way traffic in downtown Woonsocket. As I said above, two-way streets are a much better option than multi-lane one-ways. The two-way conversion has shown some success in Providence, and is marked among the low-tier improvements that cities can make to lower crime and vehicular crimes in downtowns. 

Two-ways are not the only way to convert wide one-way streets, and I'd argue for keeping the one-way configurations but adding serious protected bike lanes throughout the grid to bring bikes through with more ease. 

In Groningen, Netherlands, the grid is arguably made unnaturally complex to traverse by car because the city blocks cross-city access through its center square to other quadrants of the city (buses and bikes can pass). I wouldn't call for anything as radical as that for Woonsocket, but I think the plan authors overplay their hand on the importance of navigability to a two-way conversion. The biggest impact I think you'll see from two-way traffic is a reduction of speeds, creating the eyes-on-the-street approach to safety and improved pedestrian access. Navigability also improve in downtowns when the amount of bike and pedestrian access is increased, whether there's two-way streets or not, because people simply have the chance to explore their surroundings at a different pace and with greater ability to see around them.

You might wonder whether people who live in the neighborhood would prefer a two-way conversion to my plan, given that two-way streets sound like a more baseline approach to the problem. I'm not convinced they would, though. From what I've heard from people in Central Falls and Pawtucket, residents are often suspicious of the idea of returning two-way traffic. But why are they suspicious? Because they fear too much loud and dangerous traffic and assume a one-way will cut down on that. Let's take the energy of NIMBYism and use it to our advantage. What neighbors want is a nice place to be, and added bike infrastructure (not sharrows) will do more to provide that than simple two-way streets. It may even be possible to leave some of the on-street parking in place that the plan muses about moving, because protected bike lanes can be narrower than second car travel lanes would have to be.

The Side-by-Each City can become a center for biking for much less than is proposed in the Woonsocket livability plan, but also borrows from some really great ideas in the plan, especially the idea of activating spaces temporarily. While a bike path sounds at first blush like the most important thing, I hope I've demonstrated that cheaper facilities can provide more bang for their buck. Let's look at how we can connect the Blackstone Bike Path to Woonsocket using some simple #EntranceRampRI techniques: bike boulevards and protected bike lanes. This plan preserves more on-street parking than the other plan (hey, even I'm surprised), while removing some parking when necessary. And it will also be actionable on a much lower budget. A strong Woonsocket leader would take these plans and move to put protected bike lanes and bike boulevards in before the end of this year, in order to lose no time.


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