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Options for S. Main St.

This Wednesday I will meet with Dep. Dir. Peter Garino of RIDOT to discuss S. Main St (please thank RIDOT's new leadership for reconsidering level of service as the most important metric for S. Main St.). Here are some options we have.

The Whole Shebang

A huge intersection at Benefit & N. Main allows for a different design.
Option 1 would be to put a protected bike lane from Wickenden St. to N. Main & Olney. This would be the "reach" option (at least in terms of pilot projects). The length of this route is 1.3 miles. At $30,000 per mile cost (which is high, according to this report), bollards for this route would run about $40,000 (if you think that sounds like a lot of money, consider what the alternatives are--this is cheap!).

Connecting this corridor would be a big boost to biking. Olney is a low-grade hill, and has lots of room in its own right to get protected bike lanes. As we expand from one pilot project to another, connections are key.

A "pop-up" or temporary protected bike lane in Burlington, VT. Check out the
video here. Protected bike lanes are more appropriate for arterials like S. Main
because there is the expectation that all modes should have through-access.
A key issue would be working out the confluence of Benefit, N. Main St., and Olney, which come together in a free-for-all. There's a significant buffer of space at the intersection that could be taken to make this possible. Width reduction at this intersection would surely make driving and walking along here safer as well. I find this intersection to be one of the worst in the city for walking.

The protected bike lane option would retain parking as is, but would reduce a two-lane street to one lane. 


We can go "halfsies" on the project, by connecting S. Main St. by bike only up to College St. As a north-south route for city use, this clearly cuts the utility of the bike route, but it does a great deal to address connections from the East Bay Bike Path to Downcity, and also addresses the key concerns of merchants on S. Main St., who want to stop speeding.

This route is 0.6 miles, so a bollard-style protected bike lane would cost $18,000, according to my high-end estimate. This option would be the same as the first in all but its length.

The Benefits of Benefit St.

Bike boulevards block through-access for cars, while still 
leaving local access unimpeded.
The third option is to go for Autoluwe design--in Dutch this means "almost car free"--but use Benefit St. The idea behind Autoluwe streets is to allow full access to cars for local access, but to bar through-travel (Autoluwe is also called "filtered permeability" and can be referred to as a "bike boulevard" too--it's common on the West Coast). This cuts the volume and speed of traffic drastically, but accommodates a lot of driver fears (where am I going to park? No worries. The same place that you always did).

A couple benefits exist to the Benefit St. option. Providence is already used to periodic closures of the block behind the RISD Museum, and so having a permanent "filtered permeability" system in place would not be foreign. Benefit St. has a gentle slope, and as said in item #1, intersections with Olney St., so this would also work well for north-south journeys. 

Bike boulevards often add green space to neighborhoods.
The cost of doing such a project varies depending on how it's done. Portland cyclists have occasionally upped the ante on existing bike boulevards, adding their own infrastructure without authorization. I would advocate that we go for nicer infrastructure than would be put in by activists. The NACTO guide suggests a cost of $5,000 to $45,000 for landscaped traffic islands or traffic circles, and a cost of $15,000-$30,000 per 100 feet of concrete barrier. 

The advantages to this type of project are that it keeps access to local drivers very much the same, and adds an aesthetic element that might be absent from an initial protected bike lane. The disadvantage is that (especially for the first time) blocking part of a street might seem like a bigger step than putting in a protected bike lane. 

S. Water St.

S. Water St. is home to speeding. Pluses for this location are
the river. Minuses are putting cyclists at the backside of buildings
that largely face S. Main St. Bikes mean business.
S. Water St. should be considered as part of any plan. S. Main and S. Water are opposing double one-way streets. This design causes speeding on both streets, but isn't necessarily optimal for drivers in an overall getting around sense. Whether we reduce S. Main to one lane, or make Benefit a bike boulevard, S. Water could be used to pick up the slack. Making S. Water a two-way is a smart idea, and the street is wide enough that it too could get bike infrastructure while maintaining two-lane traffic.

My Take

My take on this is that the easiest thing to implement immediately is a protected bike lane. I love the bike boulevard design and have advocated for it here as the future of Benefit St., but having access to businesses on S. Main is important to cyclists, and our first real bike route probably should be a connection to downtown. I vote for option #1.

Open Letter to Peter Garino of RIDOT

We may be Back to the Future, but Rhode Island's roads are still in the past. 
Will new RIDOT leadership change that?

Hi Mr. Garino*,

It was a pleasure to hear some of your thoughts about future bike and transit oriented planning in Rhode Island tonight at the Providence Bike & Pedestrian Advisory Commission.

I wanted to challenge you to take on a pilot project now that DOT can use to show the success of bike-oriented streets.

A year or two ago, the community got together to ask that S. Main Street be given a protected bike lane. The proposal would have limited traffic to one lane, with the same parking (parking was a higher concern for merchants than travel lanes). Merchants indicated that the two lane, one-way approach gave S. Main St. fast traffic during much of the day, and was detrimental to business.

At the time, the head of the merchants' association, the RI Sierra Club, the Providence Bike & Ped Commission, and others came together to say that this was a high priority project. It was rejected by RIDOT contractors because it didn't meet "level of service" specifications for the street.

Your comments during the BPAC were encouraging because they indicated:

1. That streets should get infrastructure even if RIDOT isn't currently working on them actively at the moment.
2. That level of service should not be a guide for design, and that priority should be given to bikes, transit, and walking in urban areas.
3. That RIDOT should focus on high-priority corridors, especially those corridors which can be connected cheaply and with little extra planning.

This picture has the bike lane directions in UK style, but that is
just an error. 
As you might imagine, the corridor along S. Water and S. Main into Wickenden St. is high priority because it is one of the best ways for non-athletic citizens to get up College Hill. While some of us are able to go right up College St. or Waterman directly, having a "P-Wiggle" way to get around the hills is vital to small children, older people, or disabled people. We hope that you and Peter Alviti** will discuss this, and announce a reversal of the previous RIDOT position. This is a high priority corridor because it connects downtown and several commercial areas to student-heavy areas of the city, where the easiest transition to biking can happen. It is also low-hanging fruit, because the major changes involve paint and a few bollards, do not change parking, and are already approved by local businesses.

As your statements indicated, we hope you will make money available to Providence Planning as soon as RhodeWorks is passed.

For perspective, here is an example of a similar street conversion from Burlington, VT, that was put together this September.

Thank you,

James Kennedy
Transport Providence


*Peter Garino is Deputy Director of RIDOT and previously worked for New Jersey Transit. 
**Peter Alviti is the Director of RIDOT, and previously worked in Cranston DPW.

Improving Bernie's Transportation Message

For Purple Mountains' Majesty. . .
I'm a Bernie Sanders supporter, and given the field of candidates available to me, there's no doubt that I'm voting for Bernie. I find Hillary Clinton completely unacceptable, to the point that if the Republicans resurrected the corpse of Ronald Reagan and propped him against her opponent's podium as a stand-in, I'm not certain I would feel motivated to vote for her. She's voted the wrong way (or, at times, backed her husband's positions) on entirely too many issues--gay rights, criminal justice, inequality issues, and of course, her hawkish foreign policy stances. Even when she's changed her positions, it's often seemed driven by her calculating grasp for political power rather than because of any genuine change of heart (maybe that's why, to me, the "Curb Your Enthusiasm" version of Sanders is less funny than the empty, manipulative, plastic SNL impression of Clinton. I find the Clinton candidacy to be as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than the Trump one, because while there are many overlaps between Clinton and her opponents to the right, there's a severe danger that much of the Democratic base will just go to sleep during her years in office and let her carry on destructive plans because they're cloaked in blue (whereas, with Trump one might expect that the candidate's penchant for saying divisive, offensive things would at least keep an activist base alive to oppose his policies). I also think that the claims that Clinton is "more electable" are pretty suspect. Clinton is reviled on the right, and not well liked on the left either. Many voters who might otherwise feel left out of the voting process will turn up to vote for Bernie Sanders, and those same voters cannot be counted on to exert effort for Hillary. Polling shows Sanders outperforming Clinton against a Trump candidacy, for exactly this reason. And let's not forget the "commanding lead" that Hillary Clinton seemed to have with black voters over Barack Obama going into the South Carolina primary--Obama won the primary. The talk of the town, much like in this election, was that Hillary Clinton was the black voters' choice and (ironically, in retrospect) that Obama was somehow representative of white urban liberals. Sound familiar? Wait, who's the candidate with the deeply developed anti-racism policies again? Who's the candidate who was a member of CORE and SNCC? Who was the candidate who stood up against the 1993 Crime Bill, while the Clintons supported it? Go home, Hillary supporters.

But with that said, there are things that could be improved about the Bernie Sanders campaign. On transportation issues, I think the Sanders campaign should act aggressively to draw libertarian-leaning moderates into its camp, by highlighting the fiscal irresponsibility that has been the hallmark of our transportation bloat.

Sanders' campaign calls for increased taxation of the 1%, and this is a stance that I think he's correct to take. One bullet-point on his campaign page calls for increased funding into the country's deteriorating road system with part of that funding. It's this spending priority that I think is incorrect, or at least incomplete. We need to make our infrastructure safe to use, but we also need to address the fact that our infrastructure bloat has been a major cause of why we're in this mess in the first place. I'm not necessarily claiming that Sanders doesn't understand this (he may). But his campaign does little to articulate it, and this is a problem not only because it's the wrong progressive position, but also because there are conservatives who understand the need to address overspending on infrastructure.

I've been trying to make a version of this point to progressives for some time. Just because you like redistribution (let's call that ice cream), and ketchup (let's call that roads that don't collapse and kill you) doesn't mean that the two should be mixed on one plate. Two delicious things, just not good together. I'm as progressive as anyone, but the most efficient use of funds taken from the rich is to put those funds directly back into programs for the poor. Roads are not a program for the poor. In order to use a road, you have to have an ante-in in the form of a car, so while roads are a legitimate public infrastructure issue, they're not the optimal use of our political capital when going after wealthy people for funding. We should instead save that redistribution for other policies, and fund our roads through user fees.

Optimizing our road system so that it runs more like a market is actually very compatible with the goal of also having redistributive programs of uplift. Progressives whose base of action is mostly about class often question urbanist or environmental claims to put additional charges on gasoline, or to use tolls for revenue or to optimize traffic congestion. The argument underlying this progressive opposition is "but what if poor people don't have the money?" The answer is to give poor people the money. The trick is just not to have that money filtered through the road system. Now, poor people can certainly choose to drive somewhere if that makes sense to them, but they can also pocket the money and use it for another purpose.

When poor people can have a base of financial security, our capitalist system operates better. That's exactly the point that Sanders' campaign makes in its push to be "more like Denmark". But in the Nordic countries, user fees are high for driving. The promotion of social equality in Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands is not confused for a need to make driving cheap.

You say, "alright, James, I agree. But you really think this is a good campaign pitch to Bernie Sanders? He's going to alienate Republicans even further." Well . . . 

A similar argument popped up in a Ben Carson interview with George Stephanopoulos, with Stephanopoulos asking Carson whether some of his positions were a bit "Bernie Sanders-like" and Carson arguing that aid programs should work like Food Stamps in order to give its users choice.

It's a shame that Gov. Scott Walker dropped out of the race for president, because Walker would be a great example of what's wrong with ever-expanding road spending. Walker has spent his time in office fighting spending when it's perceived to be for liberal projects, while throwing the treasury all out on road expansion projects in places that don't want them. The Milwaukee road expansion that Walker pushed not only got urbanist opposition from expected liberal quarters within the city, but was also rejected by his own party for its fiscal irresponsibility. With an increasingly cogent segment of the right understanding that fiscal responsibility can't just mean cutting aid to the poor, Sanders taking a lead on this question would put him in the position of being bipartisan, in much the same way that his visit to Liberty University and his moderate stances on gun control have.

Sanders has been one of the most strident political voices for action on climate change, and it is for this reason that I feel certain that his presidency would be good for transportation reform, much as Obama's administration has been to some extent. But the Sanders' campaign has an opportunity: it can go on the offensive and start to talk about why we're in such dire straits. That is something I'd be excited to see.


Moving Together PVD

The sign of the "Artist Formerly Known as Prince" is about as sensible as the 6/10 Connector (it even looks like a highway interchange!). Maybe we can build something more fiscally and environmentally sustainable. ;-)
You may have caught this on Twitter, but the stroad formerly known as the 6/10 Boulevard, now has its own website as "Moving Together PVD". We hope you'll check it out. It lays out the arguments for why we should cease to have the 6/10 Connector as an urban highway, and should instead build a multimodal boulevard in its place.

Check it out! Share it!

For Whom Does the Bell Toll?

The Rhode Island GOP has again released a plan it says will nix the need for tolls. As I've made clear elsewhere, I'm a toll supporter, but the specifics of the GOP proposal are not all bad. Quoting from The Projo:
The plan is not without controversy. The funding sources that would be tapped include a $3 million annual cut to the state's film tax credit program and $500,000 annual cut to Twin River's marketing revenues. Morgan called both examples of "corporate welfare." 
The group also proposes taking revenue from DMV fees that currently flows into the general fund and redirecting the money for bridge repairs. The proposal calls for $24.3 million from DMV fees in 2017 and grows to $59.7 million by 2026. 
There's also a $4 million cut to the General Assembly's nearly $42 million budget. Morgan declined to provide specifics on what should be cut, but she held up a list of the Assembly's employees and said there are too many people working for a part-time legislature. 
Another $300,000 would be cut annually from the Medical Advisory Board's budget. The board has three staff members. Morgan said the board only meets every two months, and those staff members' duties could be shifted to other full-time staff in the Workmen's Compensation Court.
When it comes to tolling, good policy doesn't necessarily fall on ideological lines. Some of the specifics of these proposals would be needed to understand if they're worth our time--e.g., what exactly are we cutting from the Statehouse budget? Would that affect things like transparency, research, etc.? Would cutting from the Medical Advisory Board have an adverse effect on processing of disability hearings? These are questions beyond my realm. Other parts of the proposal should flat out be embraced. We shouldn't be paying taxes to advertise a casino. The fact that "corporate welfare"--a Ralph Nader-coined term--is in the regular lexicon of the Rhode Island Republican Party is a serious sign of sanity.

It is also worth noting that many Republicans in top leadership in Rhode Island have openly embraced things like the proposed boulevard conversion of the 6/10 Connector, citing cost, livability, and environmental concerns. Many around the country would be happy to have such ideas seeing such a broad, bipartisan hearing.

I would contend, as the GOP does, that for many highway projects we should not be extending ourselves into debt service. But that advice cannot be all encompassing. For many of the bridges in question, we've allowed the repairs to fall so far behind that to delay them further will cost more than the debt service on fixing those bridges now. The GOP proposal still calls for a revolving-fund approach to addressing bridge repair, and given the overwhelming nature of the disrepair we face, that is not currently possible.

That does not mean, on the flip side of that equation, that many of the debt-shunning policies that the GOP prefers are the wrong course. What it means is that we need to prepare in order to be in the place to do those things.

One way we can assess the usefulness of a piece of infrastructure is to think of how much it costs, how much wealth it produces, and what people are willing to pay for it. Anti-tollers are saying that the price they've set is zero.

People will respond that we pay for roads through gas taxes. That's only partially true. Road infrastructure is paid for in this country through a variety of means, and only about half of road cost is covered by gas taxes. That is both a function of the gas tax being low, and our spending being too high.

Gas taxes also have the fault of charging higher fees to users of local roads, and then essentially turning much of their funding over to highways, interchanges, and bridges. This is one reason tolls make sense: assigning a cost to going on a particular piece of infrastructure is more optimal than having a kind of gas tax slush fund that RIDOT can use at its discretion. The tolling requires, by federal law, that those bridges that are tolled are the only ones that can be paid for. This is truly GOP thinking if ever there was such a thing.

Tolls also make sense because they charge the users that use the most, in terms of weight. The proposal to toll trucks comes in the face of the fact that a single truck does 10,000 as much damage to roads and bridges as one car.
Says libertarian blog Strong Towns, "The real welfare Cadillacs have 18 wheels."

All sorts of scare tactics have come forward about the effect of tolls. It's true, in a matter-of-fact sense, that truckers will try--to the extent that the market allows--to pass the cost of tolls on to consumers. But not to toll is also to pass that cost, just through some other means. Even the worthiest of cuts proposed by the GOP have at their heart a kind of bait-and-switch tactic that you would expect conservatives to dislike (So, wait? Because the government made an unaccountable corporate welfare decision in favor of the movie industry or the casino industry, that means that we can just take that money back and put it to bridges? Who said I want bridges either . . . ). The appropriate thing to do if we repeal corporate welfare--which we should--is to put that money into a tax cut, and then start the conversation about roads on fresh ground. Let's not muddle the issue.

It might seem like wanting drivers to pay a cost to cross a bridge is anti-car--and look, if anyone in the neighborhood deserves that accusation, maybe it's me--but it's really not anti-car at all. The Swedes put together a frankly capitalist mechanism of managing their road congestion, which was to charge the equivalent in kroner of $1 at rush hours. The results were that drivers could get where they wanted to go. The Swedes are one of the wealthiest and one of the most equal countries in the world, so by no means were people avoiding the road because of the $1 charge being too expensive. The cost was minimal. What was really going on is the classic conservative principle that when people pay something--anything--for a service, they use that service differently. Most voters hated the idea of congestion pricing when it was proposed in Sweden. The voters saw the results, and now 70% support it. 

The GOP proposal treats our road system like a buffet, when what we need is a la carte.

The tolls proposed are for trucks, not drivers. But a man can dream! We should have tolls for trucks to cover costs (hey, by the way, they only cover about $0.50 on the $1 of the damages trucks do to roads, so the trucks are still getting a deal). But we should also use tolls as congestion charges. If we ever evolve enough as a society to do that, the full funding taken by congestion charges could be set aside, by law, and given as tax dividends. We could debate about how those dividends would be divided. Would it be just equally to every person in the state? Would we put a bit extra to people below a certain income? Would it be per car (which would favor families that owned two cars)? Would we put part of the funding to transit, in order both to improve the experiences of drivers, as well as to provide a safety net from tolling? Those are all open questions. The point is that tolls on trucks are about trying to close (a bit) of the cost that trucking puts on our road system, while congestion pricing as a concept could be revenue-neutral and all about having a more sensible use of scarce resources.

In short, while the GOP proposal is a worthy starting point for a conversation, it's not at all the end. We need to pass the toll proposal. But we can also use the GOP proposal as a way to talk about what other choices we can make about budgeting, for our roads, and all manner of other things.


RIDOT Unaccountable, Says ACLU of RI

Quoting from an ACLU of Rhode Island press release:
"Citing a recent “pattern of disturbingly inadequate” responses to open records requests “on truly critical matters of public import,” five open government organizations have called on Governor Gina Raimondo to issue an executive order that calls on state agencies to “adopt a strong presumption in favor of disclosure in addressing requests for public information.” 
In a letter sent Tuesday to Gov. Raimondo, the five organizations -- ACCESS/RI, American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, Rhode Island Press Association, New England First Amendment Coalition, and League of Women Voters of Rhode Island -- cite three recent incidents in which state agencies addressed Access to Public Records (APRA) requests. The groups called the handling of each of these requests “questionable” and indicative of a “disinterest in promoting the public’s right to know.”
In the first incident, according to the Providence Journal, the state Department of Transportation provided an incomplete response to a reporter’s request for records related to the administration’s hotly debated truck toll proposal, failed to properly request an extension of time to respond, and then denied records without specifying what was withheld or whether there was any information in the withheld documents that could be released, as required by law. . . ."

I wouldn't describe the toll proposal as "hotly contested", since the vast majority of Rhode Islanders support it. And, of course, I worry about the kind of crap journalism that comes out of The Projo on matters like these. But regardless, RIDOT does a lousy job of being open with records, and an even lousier job of responding to journalists. This is a pattern that goes deeper than this administration, and I would even say to an extent this administration has been better than the last one.  But Gov. Raimondo would do well to respond to these charges with more transparency.

Other agencies were implicated in this press release, but this is a transportation blog, so I focused on the RIDOT section. Interested parties should contact the RI ACLU if they have questions.


Trashy Business

Image from the NY Times recycling piece.
The New York Times had a very well-written, thoughtful opinion piece on the way we approach recycling (hat tip to Aaron Renn, who tweeted it out). A lot of what it said I roughly knew in some form or other, but it organized ideas in a way that I hadn't thought of them. 

I'm sure many of you know, for instance, that the most useful things to recycle are metals, glass, and paper, roughly in that order. Metals are really worth your effort to recycle: aluminum cans made from newly mined aluminum use twenty times as much energy to be produced as cans from recycled aluminum, and of course there's also the issue of toxicity from mining. Conveniently, metals, glass, and paper are also pretty easy to recycle compared to some other goods. 

Plastics are much less worth our time to recycle, and some plastics are practically unrecyclable. But the NY Times article brought to clarity something I've often wondered: is it worth my time to wash a plastic peanut butter jar? According to The Times, if the hot water in your house is heated by fossil fuels, the answer is an emphatic no. You'd be far better to throw the jar away. Insights like these were new to me. The overall point of the piece is that we need to think about these cost-benefit analyses when we decide what our approach to trash is, because though we may wish to do good in our actions, sometimes our well-wishing does more harm than good. It also brings, arguably, an interesting complimentary study to questions about why working class families are less likely to recycle (I know I've had some trouble convincing some members of my family). It argues that recycling is a very labor-intensive act in a world that increasingly highly values labor but does not value things, and that only relatively affluent people are going to go through the effort to carefully wash a peanut butter jar to put in the recycling (more on that jar later. . . ). 

Incidentally, Providence's rate of recycling, 25%, isn't as bad as you might think (at least according to the Times piece). The piece says that experts contend that only about 35% of U.S. waste is worth our time and effort, environmentally and economically, to recycle. So arguably we're pretty close to where we should be. I'm not going to pass final verdict on whether that's true, and I'd be fascinated to hear counterpoints in the comment section (with citations, not just from your butt) but learning that certainly made me feel better.

The Times article brings up an issue of importance and then simply glosses over it: what is the effect of the trash and recycling trucks on our streets? The article suggests that efforts to collect recycling and compost in cities is a negative with the exception of certain highly-recyclable items, in part due to the added truck traffic. Trash trucks are actually something I've spent some time thinking about, so I wanted to stretch my mind here and think this issue through.

Trash trucks are really bad for the environment, and of course, a recycling truck is just a trash truck with different paint on the outside, and different freight inside. A Governing article on the subject cites an average efficiency of trash trucks of 3 miles per gallon. A big issue that leads to this inefficiency is not only the fact that trucks are heavy diesel vehicles, but also that they move along at walking speed. It's the worst possible use of a technology--trucks should be what we carry huge things long distances very quickly in, not tools for hovering around at 2 mph. 

The Governing article suggests that a "quiet revolution" is happening by changing trucks to compressed natural gas. I'm agnostic on this question: diesel is a tremendously polluting source of fuel, not just in the trendy climate-related ways that we've been heavily talking about lately, but also in terms of deadly lung ailments. Though trucks are a tiny part of the vehicle mix, they account for a majority of the particulate matter from transportation--that's the stuff that gives you asthma and lung cancer, and it strikes whether you believe in climate change or not.  Having natural gas in place of diesel would certainly help with that, although as many others have pointed out, natural gas is not exactly a great green savior come to rescue us either. It has a lot fewer of the particulate issues, but escaped methane and ground water pollution from fracking are serious issues to be considered too.

A more important "revolution" might be rethinking how we use trucks. This issue of them moving at walking speed is very fixable. We can use bike carts to collect trash, recyclables, and the like and carry them to central depositories, where larger trucks can take hauls that are too large or too long distance for bikes to go. The efficiency of a trash truck moving at full speed without stopping is--much like with your car--going to be a great deal better than when it's rolling along house by house by house. 

The other question to bring up with the NY Times article is whether it's really fair to lump truck pollution into the problems with recycling. I'm not going to claim expertise on this, and it's possible I've misthought the question too. But the way I look at it, if my peanut butter jar is not worth recycling, then I still have to throw it out. That jar is going in a truck one way or the other. It seems plausible to argue that you need two trucks (or at least, two truck trips) to pick up trash and recycling separately, but the same Governing article I cited earlier says that cities are very quickly finding ways to put trash and recycling in the same trucks. So it seems like a case of double counting.

A local Rhode Islander who lived abroad told me once that the Danish have huge trash bins under the sidewalk at the end of each block, with separate holes for people to put trash, recyclables, and compost. Families in cities are expected to walk to the end of the block and toss things down the various slots, and a truck comes--once--to the end of the block to pick the whole thing up. The closest thing I found to confirmation on this tale was this about underground containers that are conveyed to their destinations using pipelines--I have to admit that sounds more fanciful than practical, and compared to the truck story, for some reason doesn't add up to me as a reasonable solution to the problem. But hey, what do I know?

Here's a great video some acquaintances of mine in Philadelphia made back when they were running a "pedal coop" to pick up recyclables (Philadelphians were not the first to do this--in the United States, at least, the first people to think of it were people in Northampton, Mass., which has a much more sprawly, snowier, and hillier terrain than Philadelphia--or for that matter, Rhode Island). 

The coop was practical because the City of Philadelphia did not collect recyclables for businesses, and some businesses were willing to pay bikers to collect recyclables rather than a truck. Philadelphia has areas to drop recycling and trash that are actually reachable by bike. I put some time and effort into thinking about whether such a thing was possible here, because obviously making money to bike around all day would be a dream for me. It's not practical here because the trash and recycling goes to Johnston--very far, very uphill, and very un-bike-friendly. It's a worthy and valid discussion for us to talk about what we recycle, and what we throw out. But we should be thinking about how to plan our pick-up areas to allow bikes to do the short-distance hauls, and have the trucks come into things only for the larger, more long-distance jobs. 


Open Benefit Street to Living

The Problem
One of the more surprising (but frequent) places that drivers act dangerously is Benefit Street. Benefit should be the poster child of picture perfect urbanism--and in many ways it is--but it also has a lot that could be (easily) changed about it to make it a more vibrant, successful street.

The problems I encounter on Benefit are perhaps minor compared to ther parts of the city, but they can still ruin a day. 

Yesterday while I was biking to Adler's, a driver in a Lexus SUV came upon me around Star Street, revved, sped up to 40, and passed me on the left side of the street. The driver nearly had a head-on collision with another car. Then, of course, iconically, we were stuck at the same Angell St. red light.

Benefit St. is more dangerous than it should be. A guest author submitted her harrowing story of being hit by a speeding car on Benefit St. from behind when the driver passed at high speed. My experience of Benefit is that drivers pass too fast every single day. Though drivers going 35-40 mph are outliers, most drivers are doing 30 mph easily, at least on stretches where they have a clear path. Benefit Street's effective speed should be more like 15 mph.

The Solution
The clearest solution to fix Benefit Street is to close it to through-traffic (and "open" it to people).  Benefit has a modest grade, making it a great access point from north-south on a bike. 

This is not a radical proposal, because it's already done pretty often by RISD. 

Festivals already regularly close Benefit St. several times a year, so why not do it everyday? 
I would modify the closures in a couple of ways:

1. Although I'm a big fan of big pedestrian-oriented festivals, I think a balance between bike through-traffic and pedestrian areas would be useful. So I would propose that 2/3 of the street be given to food truck and pedestrians, permanently, but that the other 1/3 be painted green and made a two-way bike-way (I'm in support of parking fees for the food trucks, as a kind of "rent" for using the area). Portland, Oregon has great examples of how to demarcate pedestrian and bike space in areas that are shared by the two groups.

John Brown House
2. As with the existing festivals, this would not have to happen on the whole length of the street. Key choke points should be closed off so as to keep drivers from treating Benefit as a through-street, but the majority of the street should remain open to local car traffic, and parking should be maintained as it is. This is a business and resident benefit (sorry, pun unavoidable). If you're a business, you want only those drivers who came to see you. You don't want the fast traffic to spook the customers away, If you're a resident, you might want to drive up to your house, but you don't want strangers to do so. That's why people love cul de sacs so much. This is a cul de sac with added mobility benefits.

RISD "Beach" is one place where Benefit should be closed 
to car through-traffic.
3. Currently the festivals happen near the back end of the RISD Museum. This is one place that I think they should continue to happen. I would add diverters to the following:

*Meeting Street: What a great place to put outdoor seating! It would greatly augment the seating of restaurants like Geoff's that are already present nearby. During the winter months, It would be nice to put evergreen plants and white lights to encourage a brighter, more beautified street.

*In front of the John Brown House: The old slaver might turn in his grave, but let's turn Benefit St. back to the people in front of his mansion.

*At RISD "Beach". There's already so much pedestrian activity at RISD Beach. Why not narrow the street to just the bikeway, and give the other 2/3 over to pedestrian seating?

Objections, and Answers

"I won't be able to drive."

Yes, you will be able to drive. And park. You just won't be able to drive clear through from Wickenden to N. Main St. 

"It'll hurt business."

Sales figures before and after bike lanes from a Seattle study.
Opening streets to more pedestrians helps businesses, especially if it adds seating, and makes the area more comfortable. Customers who drive will still be able to access the street, but many more will choose to bike or walk when they might not have in the past.

"It'll be bad for older people, disabled people, etc."

Nope. Again, if someone wants to arrive by private vehicle because they can't walk or bike, that's an option. Also, pedestrianized areas and bike paths greatly improve safety for people with disabilities. In the Netherlands, bike paths are a huge part of people on rascals being able to get around, because they share the paths with bikes.

"It's too costly." 

It's no more costly than what is already done. We can afford some tables and chairs, and plants will just draw more customers to the area.

"What about emergency vehicles?"

Emergency vehicles can access the street through the bike section, which ought to be left wide enough for a fire truck or ambulance to park (or drive through) if necessary. Unlike cars, people on foot or on bikes can get onto the sidewalk in an emergency situation.

"What about buses?" 

There are no bus routes on Benefit, which makes it all the more important to provide good access to non-drivers through biking and walking improvements.

And, of course, all of these objections can be met with the reality that this is already done quite often.

So let's do it permanently!


EVs: Not a Solution

Electric Vehicles or EVs have a bunch of problems with them, some of which I've written about here before. The seemingly endless upsurge in enthusiasm for EVs confuses me in the same way that the constant font of Donald Trump support does. EVs are almost as overhyped as self-driving cars (but don't get me started. . . ).

A Citylab map shows that EVs are somewhat better for the environment where states have a higher mix of green electricity, though even in those states there remains problems with toxicity of batteries, land use, and car crashes.
EVs don't emit carbon dioxide or other pollutants at the source of their use, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they are without emissions. Citylab has a great map of where EVs create fewer emissions than gasoline cars, which also shows where EVs are worse. Rhode Island, along with the East Coast, Midwest, and much of the South, is one of the places where driving an EV is worse for the environment, in terms of emissions, than driving a gas-guzzler. Our electricity simply does not come from green sources.

Besides emissions, EVs have the problem of battery toxicity. Batteries are becoming a more affordable option for driving everyday, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they're a clean option. 

EV incentives aren't a good use of money. Certainly, in order for us to get beyond climate change, we'll have to internalize the costs of carbon emission, and that means setting some kind of carbon tax, or otherwise incentivizing people to make different choices than they do in a market that doesn't internalize those costs. But if you were going to spend a dollar wisely, EVs would be one of the least efficient ways to achieve that end. 

Consider the possibility that we develop a greener electricity mix. With off-shore wind, it certainly looks like Rhode Island is on its way. But that green electricity can only be used once. If we take electricity that could be used to power homes or businesses and use it for driving, that has the opportunity cost of not allowing us to use it again. Driving is a very energy intensive use, and if we're going to invest in making wind or solar competitive, we should try to apply as much of that investment towards eliminating our coal or natural gas use in electricity production,  rather than adding a whole new electricity use. It was a serious challenge to get off-shore wind off the ground, and the project still faces continued technical threats and opposition from grouchy Rhode Islanders who don't want their utility bills to go up. We need to make sure this investment isn't wasted.
This is the beginning of a cost comparison bar that goes on for
pages over at People for Bikes. (See full image).

Consider how poorly our state invests in biking and transit. An investment in transit or biking would make more sense than continued efforts to promote EVs, because that investment would come with other benefits that cannot be provided by EVs, even in the best of scenarios. A recent study showed that cities would be 37% larger on average without transit, and argued that many of the trips avoided by car in cities due to transit are not from people switching from cars to transit per se. The switch also involves many people who neither drive or take transit, because of density allowing walking or biking trips. Everyone having an EV will require acres of parking or hundreds of millions of dollars of parking garages.

EVs don't resolve our healthcare costs, even if they hypothetically get run completely on green electricity. The number one cause of death for young people, including children, is car crashes. That danger does not significantly diminish when people get older, but is simply supplanted by other car-oriented illnesses, like heart disease. While in the future, EVs may be part of our transportation mix, treating them as a green project to be subsidized leaves out the option to use our money for promotion of active transportation, that would help reduce this other cost.

Finally, because EVs remain expensive even after receiving subsidies, a policy of promoting EVs is inherently an inequitable one. The federal tax credit per EV is $7,500, while the Chafee administration put three-quarters of a million dollars into just fifty charging stations for the state. Rhode Island does not have a state incentive to buy EVs. Let's keep it that way.

With our scarce dollars, we're choosing an option that brings fewer benefits to fewer people at greater cost, and ignoring the people who never have and never will be able to drive--children, the disabled, the elderly, and the poor.

Now, is there no reason for anyone to buy an EV? I suppose that it's good to have people in rural areas buy EVs if they can charge them with green sources of electricity. But the focus, then should be getting better provision of green electricity, not better EV subsidies, because the ideal situation is for there to be relatively few people in rural areas in need of cars for all their trips, and for as many people as possible to live in towns, cities or suburbs. Subsidizing EVs assumes a whole bunch of things about our transportation choices, like what our land use will be and how often we'll drive, and then tries to meet that need. A promotion of green electricity alone would not, but at some point when green electricity became very cheap it's possible that those who have already greened their home energy use and cannot give up a car will take the opportunity to go to an EV because of the cheapness of solar and wind.