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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!



  1. A better solution is to engineer the street so that it supports slower speeds / is incompatible with speeding. lots of solutions here that don't destroy the street grid. e.g., enforcement, additional stop signs, additional visual narrowing, and I'm sure others that i'm not aware of (minus humps which are awful).

    more generally, i've not had this experience. how much of what you're describing is a rush hour phenomenon, with people trying to save a few minutes delay on main?

    1. Thanks for the comment (and I think you made a good comment the other day as well).

      I think that a lot of what you suggest would work fine, and I would support general speed reduction as a first step. Especially around. . . I want to say maybe along Jenckes Hill. . . Benefit gets *really* wide. It's also too wide from about College Street south. The pitch-perfect area is around Meeting St. to Angell St., where Benefit is a normal street width. Adding parklets along the wider areas would be a great addition.

      But I also think that besides speed, volume of traffic is an issue. It's possible that to some extent just limiting speeds will discourage people from using Benefit as a cut-through (and yes, I think that's what's happening--people trying to go around Main St.), but the best situation is where cars are very few. In Europe, blocking through access for cars is a major tool for bikeability, but local car access is still allowed.

      Take a look at Cambridge, for instance:

      The Cambridge example is kind of high-tech, relatively speaking, but we could also go more low-tech, like in Portland or Berkeley:

      We could also go for the lower-tech versions that exist on neighborhood streets in Cambridge, where two gates exist like chicanes, and bicycles can ride through but cars can't. The chicane gates approach has the advantage of allowing emergency vehicle access too.

      I agree that interrupting the grid is a bad move if no options exist for transit, bikes, walkers, or delivery people to get through, but I don't necessarily share the enthusiasm for a complete grid for private cars. To the extent that we can push cars to a few routes, and give the run of the place to everyone else, our city will be much better.