Featured Post

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...

God is in the Details

The Loma Prieta earthquake damaged the Embarcadero and the Central Artery
in San Francisco, and both were removed.
I'm not trying to get mystical on you here. This is a direct quote from RIDOT Dir. Peter Alviti. Alviti was referring to how the science of traffic engineering will determine what the demand is for the 6/10 Boulevard, and the number of lanes will be set accordingly.

I've met Alviti twice, and I've found him smart, open, cordial, and just about everything he's said, in principle at least, has been acceptable to me. But as the director says himself, "God is in the details". Alviti has indicated that the current brand of traffic engineering we have is more open to multimodalism than in the past, and that's true. But we should be cautious not to celebrate until we know how multimodal we will be.

Driver counts are a poor way of deciding how many lanes there are going to be, because the counts inherently treat a highly elastic number as if it has predictive power, when in reality the predictive power comes only from how we decide to build roads. 

To see extreme examples of this, look to roads that have disappeared without adding any new capacity--no boulevard, no bikeway, and no BRT or rail. Roadways like the West Side Highway, the Embarcadero, and the Central Artery have collapsed entirely--their capacity went to zero, overnight--and despite these collapses having come without any planning to accommodate the loss of lanes, there were no traffic apocalypses. The West Side Highway is a stronger example than people realize. In the 70s and 80s, New York's subway was full of crime (real and perceived) and vigilantism, fires, derailments, and service shutdowns. We think of the collapse of the West Side Highway as unrepresentative because we paint a picture of New York today and overlay it inappropriately over that period. How was there no traffic jam? Did people take the bike-share system (didn't exist). Did they take the subway (scary!). Did they walk (on the West Side?!!!). Perhaps they used their own bike to get around (much of Manhattan banned bikes from its streets, so they'd be breaking the law).

S. Koreans celebrating Buddha's Birthday along Cheongyecheon, one of several
removed highways in Seoul.
I'm not sure if there is a god in traffic engineering, and if there is one, I dare not predict that god's plurality or monotheism, gender, or other attributes. But one thing is sure: true traffic engineering is Buddhist in nature. Life is suffering, and one cannot escape the suffering. One can only flow with it, and use the capacity of human nature to move positively through it.

The problem with setting an expectation of how many cars there will be based on how many cars there are is that it doesn't take this Buddhist view. People will divert to transit or bikes, to carpooling, or to single-driver car use based on the conditions they're given. There is suffering (traffic) that people are willing to take on, and they will grow to accept the container of that suffering. 

The 6/10 Connector is six lanes along Federal Hill. Will we put six boulevard lanes down, plus two BRT lanes, and expect people to cross all that to take the BRT? I'm very concerned that the "science" that Alviti speaks of so enigmatically may refer to such a plan. Will we put only four down (that would make at least slightly more sense, since Memorial has four lanes)? Why not put down three--two lanes and a turning lane--like we suggested? Two lanes with a turning lane is shown to be as effective as four lanes in carrying traffic without any diversion to other modes (in other words, the congestion reduction of four-to-three-lane conversions doesn't come from people suddenly taking transit or changing trip times, as in a highway collapse, but simply happens because because of a better organization of existing vehicles). Much of the congestion we experience on four lane roads is from vehicles slowing down for turns, while much of the speeding we experience is from people jockeying to pass each other for no reason. Getting turning vehicles from both sides onto a shared center lane gets that congestion out of the way without the speeding that four lanes would bring. I'm in no way committed to this in stone, but I think it may be possible to even get rid of signals on a three-lane road, except for signals to mark the BRT crossings at turns. This would reduce traffic congestion even further, because narrower, signal-free roads can carry traffic slowly (safely!) but steadily (quickly!) to its destination.

People only have a certain appetite for traffic, and their driving changes accordingly. People only have a certain appetite for pedestrian danger, and their transit riding changes accordingly. 

The Katy Freeway in Houston Texas gives a remarkable example of the opposite of the West Side Highway. The Katy Freeway was eight lanes to begin with, which is larger than any freeway we have in Providence. TxDOT expanded it to what Rick Perry called "twenty-three lanes of freedom". The cost was unbelievable. The benefit, according to an early Houston Chronicle article, was ten minutes of reduced travel time. But by a few years later, the demand to drive--from sprawl, from people changing modes, and people just taking more trips to eat up the new road capacity--grew to the point that now trips are slower than they were with eight lanes. The expansion was like adding a new fifteen lane highway, but it could not meet people's demands. Life is suffering.

Sidharta Gautama found suffering and enlightenment after a prolonged experience of being shielded from it. It turns out that sheltering oneself from reality does not bring happiness. The daze we've been in through the latter part of the 20th Century is a similar delusion. We must wake up, see the reality, and act accordingly. God is in the details.

I have updated this article for clarity. Thanks for your patience, as some of the things I write on the fly don't make much sense when I go back and read them a second time. :-)



  1. I'm noticing that the East Coast Bikeway from Hartford ends at the 6-10 connector. Wouldn't it be thoughtful to push it up to downtown Providence, and beyond that along the Providence River to India Point Park where it might connect with the East Bay Bikeway and the East Coast Bikeway to Worcester?

    Thank you for allowing anonymous publication of comments!

    --Paul Klinkman

    1. Hi Paul,

      I'm sorry for how slowly I've been approving (and replying) to comments.

      I think connecting the whole thing straight through makes sense. We should remove the exits from the Viaduct and just keep the main bridge that is part of I-95. In the longer term, we should even remove I-95, and I-295 can just be redesignated as I-95. But right now, the reason that isn't proposed is that the Viaduct is getting a crap-ton (the technical term) of money spent on it (in fact, it's over-budget, and over-schedule right now). So one proposal we do bring forward is to use the land that exists under the Viaduct so that people can have a park (there are 20 acres under it, so it's a lot of land). The short-term challenge is to figure out how best to connect people to it in a way that doesn't endanger them. Perhaps if we build an excellent park space under the Viaduct, that will lead people to ask questions like "why do we have this thing in the first place?".

  2. Did you know that Route 95 at the Providence Place Mall almost collapsed one day? A man whose day job was for pesticide applicators Griggs and Brown, "Without Griggs and Brown, the whole town would fall down!", saw a huge crack in a route 95 girder. He dragged a RIDOT guy down to the site, and then RIDOT shut down all of 95 north on a Friday afternoon. If you look behind the mall you can still see the wooden supports under route 95 holding the highway up while they're building the replacement. Take that picture!

    --Paul Klinkman

    1. I knew that that had happened, but I didn't know the rhyme that goes with it. Thanks for sharing.

      By the way, is that the saddest thing? Even the empty land under a highway overpass can't be pesticide free. I'd love to see us explore what kind of natives we can bring there; get somebody like Farmacy Herbs to set up a self-seeding flower garden.