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Olneyville Road Safety Assessment

The Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition has an update on the "Road Safety Assessment" or "RSA" (not to be confused with the "Royal Society of the Arts" RSA).

Here is the report, quoted in full, with my thoughts in bold. I have a Twitter update from RI Bike saying that they are trying to find a way to put up the full report, which is a large PDF. Obviously my thoughts are conditional and are subject to change as I see more detail, but I'm interpreting this as best I can with what's here.

On April 2nd and 3rd 2015, a Pedestrian and Bicycle Roadway Safety Assessment (RSA) was performed by engineering firm VHB in conjunction with a multidisciplinary team comprised of safety, traffic, and highway engineers, local enforcement, and local community organizations. The objective of the RSA was to identify issues and potential near and longer term solutions focusing on pedestrian and bicycle safety. Below are the recommendations VHB put forward based on the assessment.
VHB is the author of the Bike Master Plan, of which we have been critical. Several of the engineers at VHB are cyclists, but they tend to push "vehicular cycling" which is an outdated and dangerous way of dealing with cycling. I am also suspicious of the control that VHB continues to get over bike projects because of the fact that VHB is in a "third party" auditing position for the state over contracts, when in fact many of the contracts go to VHB. Not to put too florid of a point on it, but the parading that VHB does as a bike-oriented planning group really bothers me, because nothing they've planned so far has ever been very bike- (or pedestrian- or transit-) oriented.

Immediately (within the next 6 months)
  • Pedestrian – Provide signing and striping enhancements, coupled with an educational campaign  and additional enforcement, to encourage use of crosswalks and push buttons . Review the pedestrian signal wiring and equipment so they are working properly. 
Since re-wiring is to happen anyway as part of this plan, Mayor Elorza should push to have this plan modified so that push buttons are removed from the intersections entirely, as promised in his mayoral campaign. 

  • Bicycles – Improve area signage and pavement striping related to bicycle use and partner with community groups to develop a plan to raise safety awareness for bicyclists. 
You cannot "raise safety awareness" around bicycling. You can only improve safety and comfort in a meaningful way with infrastructure and enforcement changes. 

There is no bike striping in Olneyville Square, so I would like to know what this refers to. Signage does not work, and should be rejected by the city.

  • Autos – Implement signal retiming and restriping to improve capacity and progression throughout the corridor. 
Translation of "Improve capacity and progression through the corridor": Increase speed and volume of traffic. This is at direct odds with any goals related to bikes, transit, or walking.  Cities in America that are serious about pedestrian and bike safety have timed signals not for vehicle throughput, but for modest speeds. Philadelphia makes a point to set many of its signals to 20 mph on major corridors like Chestnut or Walnut Street.

  • Transit – Restripe to provide bus pull-offs/lanes.
This is not a transit improvement, but an improvement to aid throughput of cars.

In the Near Term (between 6 months and 2 years)
  • Pedestrians – Provide minor infrastructure improvements and pedestrian crossing technologies to better define pedestrian crossings for both pedestrians and vehicles.
Because this is vague I am going to withhold comment.

  • Bicycles – Provide on-street bicycle facilities within Olneyville Square including connections to the Broadway bike lanes, East Coast Greenway, and Woonasquatucket River Greenway.
This is also vague, though hopeful. The only facilities that are appropriate for a high-volume (and sometimes high speed) area like Olneyville Square are protected bike lanes. The other thing to add is that the buffered bike lane on Broadway leading into the square, though overall a good improvement, still has the parking signs next to it, and does not have any bollards to keep vehicles out, so our blog has received many community complaints about the bike lanes being blocked by cars. Adding bollards needs to be part of this plan.

  • Autos – Provide minor infrastructure improvements to improve capacity and progression throughout the corridor.
This is vague, but again, "improve capacity and progression throughout the corridor" means increase the number of vehicles that can move through the corridor. This is not a goal we support, but it is typical of VHB's work.

  • Transit – Implement modifications to transit facilities to match up with pedestrian activity.
This is extremely vague. 

In the Long Term (beyond 2 years)
  • Pedestrians – Provide transportation options for vehicles to travel through and around the square, offering an opportunity to incorporate “complete streets” to benefit the diversity of users including bicycles, pedestrians, motorists, and transit riders.
This is vague. One option that needs to be strongly explored is removing cars completely from the square itself, and using a 6/10 Boulevard to allow cars to bypass the area. The key here is that allowing cars to bypass does not mean setting up bypass roads for high volume traffic, as American planners tend to do. The most important ways to enter and exit Olneyville Square should be without a car, but Olneyville Square itself should be considered for a car-free zone.

I would bet money that this is not what the above passage in VHB's report means, but that's what it should mean if we're being serious. Jef Nickerson did a lot of imaginings on a "Re-Booted" Olneyville Square, and people should look to that for inspiration, as well as following the 6/10 Boulevard plans as they unfold.

  • Bicycles – Provide off-road bicycle facilities within Olneyville Square including connections to the Broadway bike lanes, East Coast Greenway, and Woonasquatucket River Greenway. 
This is great. My caution here is that people should not interpret this as meaning that there's a new energy to put extra bike routes in until specifically shown that that's what this means. There is an on-going plan to put some kind of a protected bike lane along the Woonasquatucket River behind the Mall. That should not stand in for real access to Olneyville Square from other directions.

  • Autos – Provide transportation options for vehicles to travel through and around the square through enhanced circulation within the corridor for local traffic as well as offering additional freeway connections for transient vehicle to by-pass the square.
Translation of "enhanced circulation": moving more vehicles. We should abandon any notion of moving more vehicles, and should instead be constricting the capacity for private vehicles, in line with everything we know about induced demand. Just a reminder that Olneyville is a neighborhood where nearly half the households own no car at all, and another quarter or so of households are one-car households. So there is no community-oriented reason to see cars as the central way of getting to the square.

  • Transit – Consider providing separated right-of ways or technologies to allow transit to by-pass congestion in the square.
I support separated bus lanes, and I would like to see more emphasis on this. The 6/10 Boulevard makes sense as one of the corridors for this to happen.

A key detail to keep in mind is that bus routes are not like magic lines on a map. The length of a line can be deceiving, as Jarrett Walker points out on Human Transit quite often. The frequency of the route and the pedestrian interface, as well as a stern commitment to not trying to increase road capacity for cars, and continuing to reform land use to reduce parking craters are all central to making sure that a bus route is successful. So let's continue planning rights-of-way for buses, looking at an MBTA stop in Olneyville, and making sure that we're not just overlaying bus lanes onto a pedestrian-unfriendly corridor full of parking lots.



  1. We need automobile safety buttons at red light intersections. Here's how they work:

    1. An auto driver pulls up to a red light.

    2. She-he gets out of the car, walks over to the automobile safety button, pushes it, gets back into the car and waits for the light to turn green.

    3. When the light turns green, a little automobile safety light off to the side of the traffic signal helpfully says "drive!" (if the button wasn't pushed it keeps saying "Don't drive" or "Wait" all through the next green light and red light cycle) The driver sees the "Drive" signal and drives through the intersection.

    I'm not that big a fan of "walk" and "don't walk" signal lights. Those buttons don't work half the time anyways. I don't see why drivers shouldn't be tortured equally.

    --Paul Klinkman

  2. It is absolutely ASTOUNDING that Providence will not get rid of beg buttons. Or maybe it isn't astounding, and that's the sad thing.

  3. I love seeing out-of-towners standing at intersections waiting for the Walk sign - not realizing they have to push the button to get the go-ahead.

  4. Either do protected bike lanes and make drivers slow down where necessary for safety, or it's all about looking like you're doing something to shut up the safety advocates without actually making anything less dangerous.