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What's Wrong with the Jazz Fest?


The Folk Fest draws many bicyclists, but the vast majority do not bike to the event. Many times fewer people bike to the Jazz Fest. Still, this image is a sign of what is possible, and we shouldn't push for even more.
The Newport Folk Fest is the bee's knees of biking in Rhode Island, and possibly the U.S. This year 3,369 people biked to the festival over three days--the peak number on Sunday was 1,200, or about 12% of the attendees. Bari Freeman, director of Bike Newport, said she was unaware after a long internet search of any U.S. venues that match those statistics when I spoke to her yesterday.

The Jazz Fest draws fewer people in general than the Folk Fest--I haven't gotten hard numbers from this year yet, but the estimates I heard were around 10,000 for Folk and 5,000 for Jazz--but the number of cyclists dips a lot lower still. Yesterday's peak amount was 105, according to the Bike Newport Twitter account, and the day before that was a piddly 39: this hovers the event around plus-or-minus 1%.

So what's wrong with the Jazz Fest?


Let's Keep It International


Very old and very young bike in the Netherlands, not just cool twenty-somethings.

The real question, to begin with, is not just what's wrong with the Jazz Fest, but why don't even more people bike to the Folk Fest than already do? 12% is a notable amount in the U.S., but Dutch author David Hembrow tweeted to us to say that many local events in the Netherlands have nearly 100% bike mode-share. The Folk & Jazz Festivals are international in character, but even those who come from far away and not by transit often park their cars in town and use a shuttle or ferry to get to the event. The rest of the drivers sit in interminably awful traffic, even despite these laudable attempts at diversion.

@TransportPVD @BikeNewportRI Very much depends on event. Some near 100% (local events). Some much lower. Eg int class mcycle racing in Assen
— David Hembrow (@DavidHembrow) August 2, 2015

The other thing to say is that there's not necessarily anything "wrong" with the Jazz Fest, or its participants. I talked to a lot of of people at the event and asked why they thought there was less biking at the Jazz Fest than the Folk Fest, and most of the explanations centered around political culture or age. While I think there's probably some truth in the idea that Folk Fest attendees are younger and more politically overt than Jazz Fest participants, this is less an explanation than it sounds. We can't change people: as we all get older, we'll get slower than we once were, and more cautious. Some of us will always be more political than others. And some will always be more adventurous than others. What we need to change is the situation those people are put in: older people like biking just as surely as young people, and even take it up specifically when their bodies no longer allow running or other high-impact sports. With the right accommodations, older people in the Netherlands bike many times more than the Folk Festival participants do, and not just in recreational situations, but also to the grocery store, to work, and to all the errands of their lives (In fact, if you want a particularly comical example, what Oewehoeren: "The Old Whores" a surprisingly uplifting and clean(ish) documentary about two senior-citizen twins who wish to retire from a life of prostitution. The twins complain that they just can't fuck--their words--people the way they used to because of arthritis, but still go on bicycle tours throughout the movie). 

So what's wrong with the Folk Fest?


Stop Parking Cars on the Lawn


Cars were also allowed to park all around the lawn during the Jazz Fest (I didn't attempt to get a precise measurement of this, but I'd guess there were hundreds of cars on the grass). The amount of permanent paved parking provided is generous, so the lawn parking was in addition to the official parking area. Flat-out reducing parking has been one of the most successful methods of reducing driving, as pointed out by Donald Shoup and a range of others.

No one but vendors or technicians really need to park at the festivals. The bus shuttles that get run from parking areas in the center of Newport come much closer to the gates than even the best-parked car in the whole place. In addition to reducing the congestion of the event to zero, ending the practice of lawn parking would completely obviate the extensive police detail of traffic cops at every intersection during the event arrival and departure times, and would mean that Fort Adams itself would be less depreciated by cars running all over it. Let's reserve parking only for people delivering large, heavy shipments of things to the events.


Close Some Streets to Cars Temporarily

I observed the Newport Police Department shutting down major intersections and diverting cars this way and that in order to deal with the overflow of people driving out of the Jazz Fest. Why not apply this diversion technique a bit more precisely, for better results?

The Bike Newport RI bike map actually suggests a slightly different route, but the way I prefer to take to get to the Jazz Fest is straight down Thames, a right onto Carroll, another right onto Harrison, and then all the way down Harris (there are a few other turns, but there's nowhere else to go but where the street takes you). I find this route acceptably calm for me to be willing to bike on it, but despite the fact that 100% of the motorists I've encountered going this way have been reasonable drivers, it still puts a tiny edge of stress on the ride just to have cars there at all. This subjective safety phenomenon is even more the case for less gung-ho bicyclists.

Groningen permanently disallows direct car trips from quarter to quarter, 
leading to 50-60% of trips being taken instead by bike. (Streetfilms)
According to Google Maps, this bike route is 2 miles--including the jaunt into the parking lot. This should be car-free during major festivals. The expected bike time to the event from Thames St. would take 10 minutes.

The car route I propose is down Bellevue Avenue, along Ocean Drive, and back up to Fort Adams from around the back. That car route is just under 7 miles, and would take 20 minutes by car, according to Google Maps.

Experience from European cities shows that when cars are made the slower means of arrival, there are large diversion rates to other modes of transportation*, so rather than just pushing the cars to a different route, this would likely also reduce the overall number of drivers. In addition, a lot of people who might have biked if they didn't feel the whoosh of a car go past them on the way to the festivals would join in and bike the much shorter route reserved for them.

No one here is saying that Harrison Street should be shut down to cars permanently, but it makes sense to do so for the festival days. Most of the affected neighbors in the Lower 5th Ward would still have access to their homes by car within one block's parking, just by using alternate routes. Only a few mansion-style residences on the route would be genuinely off-the-grid for driving during the event, and they could still access everywhere by bike.


Give the Shuttles An Advantage Too

The enormous number of people taking shuttles to their cars would be unnecessary with proper biking set-ups, but bus shuttles would still be necessary for those taking a large amount of stuff with them, and those who are older or frailer. So set up the car-free streets with a bike section and a bus section, separated temporarily by cones. This could be Harrison Avenue, for the festivals.

The bus lane could be reversed for coming and leaving, and if two buses met going the sam direction they could negotiate by pulling to the side at intersections.


Use Transit for the Right Purposes

You might think, why does it matter so much if people take a ferry or a bus to their car, instead of taking a bike? I think that's a good question. The shuttles and ferries themselves are a far preferable way to get people around than personal cars, and the organizers of the Folk and Jazz Festivals should be lauded for taking those steps to keep people from driving. But each mode has a purpose, and what bikes are good for is dispersed (that is, autonomous) local (that is, short-distance) trips. Buses and ferries are better used to take larger numbers of people between center to center over distances that biking doesn't allow.

A slight exaggeration of what the 60 looks like, yet it keeps its infrequent schedule. 
We need to ask ourselves how we can get many more people to arrive in Newport with no car at all, by bus. The Amtrak Northeast Corridor makes very convenient stops in Kingston, and in theory one can arrive to Newport by catching the connecting 64 bus at URI. The 64 ought to connect directly to the train station to make alighting it easier, and its schedule should be more frequent during major festivals. The 60 bus, which always looks like the Darjeeling Express for the number of people on it, also needs increased frequency. At peak times it comes every half-an-hour, but we had to wait an hour for the 60 bus home, because the festivals fall on a weekend and end at night. We also missed our first bus because it was so full that we couldn't take folding bikes on it. 

I would pay a higher fair to have more frequent service--perhaps every other bus should run at a higher price, with the remainder staying at the usual $2 "One State, One Rate" level, like congestion pricing for buses. I'd also pay for an extra seat on a regular bus to be able to store my folding bike on it: with no city-wide bike share program, renting a bike in Newport will set you back a lot of money, and the bike path down the East Bay isn't complete yet. 

I saw hordes of people standing in line for a ferry trip across the harbor for $10--a trip of less than a mile. This reminds me of tragicomic stories I've heard from pedicab friends about biking drunk people home from Newport or Providence bars. You think, "great, they're not driving!" but in reality, the pedicabbing is just a local service to get them to their cars, necessitated by parking and congestion issues. The same is true on ferries and bus shuttles. You can't really celebrate the lack of driving as much when you know that 90% of the trips will end in a personal vehicle at the other end. Let's fix that by using the right modes for the right purposes.

Let the ferry stay something that people take only for the novelty of being on the water, and leave the practical local travel to two wheels. Then take care of these issues with buses, and we can get people from New York, Boston, T.F. Green Airport, Providence, and elsewhere to the city without ever putting them in a car.


Newport, We Can Do This

Fort Adams is pretty close to sea level, as is much of Newport. If we don't make drastic changes in our lifestyle, it will be under water soon enough. So we can't be satisfied with the numbers we currently have for biking--even the more impressive ones from the Folk Fest need major work. Making sure that there's still a Folk or Jazz Fest for future generations means fixing these problems aggressively, and that means doing the things I outlined above. I predict that we could easily get the Folk Fest to 50% bike attendance within two years, and get the Jazz Fest to above the current Folk Fest levels of biking, if we implemented these steps. Let's do it.
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*Huge overnight diversion away from driving has also been observed in the U.S. in the case of highway removals or collapses, but hasn't been systematically used as in Europe as a means of engineering.

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