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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...

Choose Your #TopTwentyOne #HitMePVD

As a thought experiment, let's choose our top twenty-one miles of bike infrastructure we'd like to see. Cities like Minneapolis are implementing much larger projects. Twenty-one miles is doable (I chose twenty-one instead of twenty because it allows cool Black Jack visuals).

Check Out Our Map: Where Would Your Protected Bike Lane Priorities Be?

The great thing about Google Maps is that if you draw a line, you can click on that line and immediately see how long it is. Your game: get to twenty-one without going over. Hit me!

My 21:

Broad Street from I-95 to Cranston: about 3 miles.
Waterman & Angell: 1.6 miles each.
Hope Street north of Waterman: Just over 2 miles.
Exchange Place into Broadway: Just under 2 miles.
South & North Main Streets: About 3 miles.
Elmwood Avenue from the split with Broad: Just over 2 miles.
Cranston Street from I-95 to the Washington Secondary Bike Path: Just over 2 miles.
Manton Street to connect to Aleppo: 1/2 a mile.
Thurbers from Broad east: 1/2 mile
Potters from Dexter to Eddy: 1 mile.
Olneyville Square: a block, give or take.

I've still got extra capacity left over.

See if your priorities are different. Tell us what your #TopTwentyOne are. #HitMePVD.

Refining the Conversation About Socialism/Capitalism

Even the image chosen to represent highways says it all,
without meaning to: Look at how overbuilt this exchange is!
Seen: Progressives actually arguing that highways are the same as public schools or social security.

We need to refine our discussion about socialism and capitalism. Things we get as a commons and things we get by paying for them are not opposites, but compliments. They support one another and make one another possible.

One should always pick on the people closest to you in politics (or at least that's how I roll). Political conversations are most useful when they help to refine an idea from within a community that largely agrees on the basics.

The best socialized systems still use prices to manage part of what they do, because to completely abandon the idea of pricing would be totally impractical. As a frequently fined person at the library, I don't resent having to pay for turning my books in late, because without a charge for my over-use of library books, my lateness (I know!) would get worse. I can recognize that there's a socialist aspect of libraries (socialized books) as well as a capitalist one (we can't subsidize irresponsibility, James!). 

A healthcare system might make visits to the doctor free, but incentivize pay to doctors based on the results of their treatments. Fee-for-service--where doctors are paid not for the health they bring about in their patients but instead for each action they take, no matter how ineffective--is one of the things single-payer advocates often suggest changing about American healthcare in order to make it more spry and cost-effective (Ironically, the ministry of health is in charge of many long-distance bike paths in the Netherlands, because the government sees a savings for every mile of bike path put in, just to bring us back to transportation again). The principle that you should get healthcare no matter how rich or poor you are (socialism) is thus balanced with the concept that there have to be price checks on the system to make sure it survives into the next day (capitalism). Another example would be competitive pricing of medications: in the U.S. we pay a lot more for medications simply because of protectionism legislated by American companies. Wanting competition is a capitalist principle, but combining that with universal healthcare is a balanced mixed-economy approach to taking care of the sick.

How Can RI Address It's Overgrown Highway System: Let's Start by Removing the 6/10 Connector and Replacing It with a Boulevard

A Detroit neighborhood before urban renewal, early 1950s.
It's hard to know why progressives use highways as an example of effective government action. Perhaps it's because the vast majority of us use the highway system at some point in our lives. Perhaps it's because progressives outside of the transportation realm haven't thought clearly about what's wrong with the transportation system. Maybe it's an example of reaching out across party lines (Do we perceive that conservatives like roads, and choose them as an example for that reason?). 

This is what public investment brought to that Detroit
neighborhood: not because investment is bad, but because
it was doled out in a way that made no sense.
I can't think of a government program that has been more representative of failure. We spend tremendous sums of money to create overgrown systems which are used heavily only for a tiny portion of the day, during which they don't function because of over-use. Then, during the rest of the day, the hugely overgrown jungle of concrete is barely used at all. We tear down some of our favorite parts of neighborhoods in order to facilitate fast movement through them. We create ghettos around the highway where people who can't afford a better living place get warehoused. Often times the healthy neighborhoods that proceeded the highway were where to ghetto dwellers lived before being forcefully removed  We fail to think about maintenance, and allow our investments to deteriorate, while at the same time expanding them into the horizon elsewhere (more money is put into highway growth in America than highway maintenance). In urban areas, especially, the highway system fails as a capitalist-socialist hybrid because it undermines the profit-creating communities that might create wealth enough to support a common provision of roads. What could be a more dystopian example of government overreach? Our highways are run like sclerotic Soviet collectivism gone wrong.  

Communities across the county have time and again met across party and ideology to support socialized books (libraries) and socialized schools (public schools), but never agreed to the highway system we have today. In the 1950s, the federal government set out to create a highway system run off of gas taxes, to assure that the user would pay for the cost of the service s/he consumed. Our highway system has become overgrown, so that costs are too high, and our gas taxes have been allowed to fall to the point that they don't pay for anything anymore. We wandered into a socialist highway system aimlessly, without intending to. It's not working. Let's stop making posters telling people they should support this failure of a system.


Being Over-Accountable

The last Providence Bike Master Plan was an abject failure, changing virtually nothing meaningful about the city's streetscape. As we approach the next bike plan, I'd like us to avoid making the same mistakes again. One of the biggest mistakes last time around was putting a lot of stock into public polling in order to prioritize what kind of changes should be made. It isn't that accountability to public opinion is wrong so much as that it's the wrong tool for the job. Bike infrastructure is one situation where planners can use basic rules and procedures to bring about the right result, and where public feedback may obscure what people want as much as it elucidates it. Being over-accountable means not taking timely action on a problem the city needs to resolve.

A huge area of Brooklyn was demolished to lead to the Robert Moses-planned
Verrazano Narrows Bridge, then the longest in the world. 
Planners have an expectation that they should be highly attuned to public feedback for very good reason. The reason's name was Robert Moses. He ran many departments of New York State for decades at a time, outlasting many governors and often outranking them in his ability to wield the power of the state. Moses' projects are scattered all over the country. Many of them are engineering marvels, but created huge amounts of damage to communities alongside the benefits they brought.
They often required broad usage of eminent domain to raze entire neighborhoods so that huge highway systems or bridge projects could be built. He came to blows with a then-unknown Jane Jacobs over his plans to bring Greenwich Village to its foundations and run a highway up New York City's Fifth Avenue. The rightful backlash against planners like Moses led to longer review processes for highway projects, which coupled with EPA and other types of reviews, ensured (in some measure, at least) that the public wouldn't be steamrolled. 

Temporary infrastructure is easy to put in and remove (and this
project on Broadway was very popular with businesses).
Bike projects really don't deserve the kind of scrutiny that larger projects get because they don't wield the kind of power that those projects do. Highway projects may cost hundreds of millions of dollars per mile, while bike projects usually cost in the thousands. New highways or highway expansions require the taking of private property using eminent domain (the old 6/10 Connector plans from the 1990s, which have thankfully been abandoned by RIDOT, called for expansion of that urban highway deeper into the West End, requiring many houses to be demolished). Bike projects (in the city at least*) do not involve private property at all. Highways can and have been removed, but the massive sunk costs of infrastructure ensure that they are rarely removed except when they are about to fall down, and even then often only after extremely strong and well-organized public campaigns. Bike projects are routinely put down as experiments and tweaked or relocated in order to accommodate unexpected problems. The flexibility of bike projects makes them a great type of infrastructure to put down with minimal planning, for exactly the same reasons that highway projects should be made to take a long time.

Check Out a Draft Bike Map: See for yourself, it's pretty clear where the bike routes should go in Providence.

The information that the city can gain from polling neighborhoods is very minimal, and easily misused. The last bike plan relied heavily on smart phone and internet form data from riders to (supposedly) decide where people wanted to bike. The interpretation of the information was completely bonkers. In a bike-unfriendly city like Providence, people rarely bike. When they did bike, they rarely do so for practical purposes, but instead stick to recreational uses. People rarely bike on major streets, and stick to side-streets. The problem with all of this (correct) information is that it doesn't predict anything about what people would do in a truly bike-friendly city. The Bike Master Plan called for an effort to get cyclists onto side streets where polling showed they enjoyed biking most. Advocates who attempted to point out the survivorship bias of the data were often told that they were out-of-touch with "ordinary" people, and that they should be "more accountable" to the needs of other community members. The polling method was flawed in the sense that only those who could use computer-centric methods of feedback could participate, but the flaw also went deeper than that. Having widely scattered public meetings to gather information is going to answer questions that don't really need to be asked. We know what works. It's time to implement it.

Let's create a bike plan that serves all neighborhoods. Let's:

Using protected bike lanes on arterials.
*Put protected bike lanes on all arterial roads (you don't need polling to find out where the arterials are, you can just find them on a map).

*Put low-traffic bikeways on side-streets, especially if arterials are far apart or made less accessible by hills. The rule of thumb should be that no resident is more than half a mile from a quality bikeway--the kind that a small child could ride on without his or her parents fearing for the child's safety.

*Focus on neighborhoods that show enthusiasm for bike infrastructure, and let those examples
Quieting traffic along side streets.
encourage others over time (e.g, WBNA has had mixed feelings about protected bike lanes on Broadway, but the Hope Street Merchants Association has been unambivalent in its support for them on Hope Street from the very beginning, so maybe Hope Street is the best place to start). 

*Otherwise, implement infrastructure evenly throughout the city. Ultimately, trying to poll whether a community supports having bike infrastructure or not is like trying to decide whether the community welcomes redheads or not. There's a principle at stake, which is that every community needs access. That's a leadership issue, rather than a representation one.

There's not much that polling could tell us about biking that hasn't already been shown multiple times across the U.S. and across the world. Quality bike infrastructure--either very slow, very low traffic volume streets, or those with protected bike lanes along higher speed, higher volume traffic--are the ones that work. Let's not waste time reinventing the wheel.

*Except in the case of rail-trail bike paths, private property is rarely even involved, and I'm more aware of situations where the rights of private property owners have prevailed in delaying or killing bike path projects than I am of instances where any property has been taken for them. 

Drip, Drip. Your Argument's Leaking.

A swimming pool in every back yard! Huey Long, eat your
heart out
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that every human being has freedom of movement (Article 13). I'm not even close to being an expert of any kind in international law. But I'm going to venture to say that this does not mean that we have a right to truck 18 wheelers around without paying tolls.

@TransportPVD Limiting the right to travel based on having a properly-approved purpose is heavily left-wing ideology. @JustinKatzRI

— Andrew Morse (@CAndrewMorse) November 9, 2015

To hear some Tea Party residents in this, The Bluest of All States*, truck tolling is an attack on freedom of movement. Agenda 21 strikes again!

In a less ridiculous way, some friends of mine on the left also see tolls as being regressive (Sam Bell of the Progressive Democrats is an example, though I think he means car tolls, rather than truck tolls).

It might make sense at first to think that the more of a commons you make everything, the more left you've gone, and that the less commons exist, the more rightward your politics have gone. And within a certain scope, that's true. But a commons is also most meaningful as a counterpoint to private property. To make everything common undermines the idea of the commons.

To pick an example: water. We all value and need water. Then, from this basic statement, can we surmise that the most progressive form of water management would be one that allows everyone complete access to water, unabated by any price concerns of any kind? 


We don't always know where government begins and the market
ends, but we get angry when someone tries to change the
(perceived) boundaries.
Clearly, at a minimum, one needs water for certain purposes. As a human being, if we accept the idea that capitalism isn't a life-and-death system, then a minimum allowance of water is the right of every human being. This is a social-democratic principle, really, and not a capitalist one, but capitalism has many forms, and most people would acknowledge that in order for the system to even exist, there have to be boundaries. We could debate about exactly where to draw the line, but all of us would agree to provision of free drinking water and water for basic hygiene to those who can't afford those for whatever reason.

Providing basic washing and drinking water for the poorest person is something akin to letting everyone bike and walk for free.

We might extend our expectations for basic water needs to include some recreational needs, and for that reason we might opt to provide public pools and so on. 

We know that providing public pools is more expensive than making sure that a homeless person can go to the bathroom or have water to drink and shower with, but we also know that we live in a society, and that having some things available for everyone is part and parcel of living in a society. Perhaps our public pool isn't free, but is very low cost, with a small fee for daily use. This is like the city bus.

Public pools are great. We wouldn't, though, try to provide personal pools in each and every backyard, would we? We can see why this wouldn't work. It would be absolutely environmentally disastrous. Sure, you're free to have one, if you want. But we're not going to pay for it with tax money. It would cost endless amounts of money. If we structured this the wrong way--say, by ignoring basic drinking and washing needs but providing everyone with a large enough yard their own pool--we could actually make things less equal, because only those with the ante-in of enough private space would get the pool subsidy, and those without it would face an inflated drinking price--no doubt made more expensive by our ridiculous universal pool law.

The pool example is what I would say we do with cars. We make it so that those who can afford a car get lots of added subsidies and public provisions, but of course some can't even do that, and those people are more likely to not even have the basic provisions of personal freedom of motion. It's bad enough here in Providence, where we know that RIDOT and the city are only beginning to feebly correct planning mistakes from decades of ignoring pedestrians or cyclists. But in some parts of the country this is even worse. The access that one has to basic freedom of motion in a poor section of Atlanta is as minimal for the poor as water access might be for someone in the slums of Mumbai. But those swimming pools sure are nice!
Can we admit that there are consequences to treating everything as an
unrestricted commons, to be used by big companies? Hoover Dam

If you challenged this arrangement, pointing out that poor people need drinking water, that overabundance of swimming pools is destroying the environment, etc., you'd be yelled down by angry homeowners with placards reading "Get your government hands off my swimming pool!" These folks wouldn't even feel the. . . water. . . all around them. Like goldfish, these people. 

But there's another level still to my metaphor. the equivalent of truck subsidies is more like the large-scale subsidy that agribusiness gets through state or federal provision of below market value irrigation (a truck does 10,000 times as much damage as, say, a Honda Accord, so our policy is effectively to give the trucking industry 10,000 backyard pools, and call it a day). A free swimming pool for each half-acre yard begins to look like a modest chicken in every pot compared to this. It all sounds very good, doesn't it? Ample water for the American farmer! Let's do it! But there are consequences. And, of course, while tangentially you could make the argument that driving is a kind of personal freedom, freight hauling is not. We've now gone beyond the basic level of a tragedy of the commons and moved on to full-scale corporate cronyism.

It's liberal Gov. Brown of California who outlawed tolls for pedestrians, but
does that mean that any kind of toll for any kind of use is un-progressive? And
what of the charge that tolls are a socialist plot?
Someone's going to yell "Hey! You can't charge farmers for water they use! That would just make food expensive!" But, of course, in a functional food system having a cost to water would mean that farmers used it more judiciously, so that's not really true. And it's also not really true for trucks. They have to compete with each other, and with other modes of freight. They'll only pass a cost if none of their competitors can out-compete them, and if that's the case, it was a cost that you as a consumer were destined to pay one way or another (you just paid it through taxes before).

We should believe in fairness. That's why a provision aiming to toll bikers and pedestrians in San Francisco failed. Where to draw the line beyond walking and biking is a debatable thing, just like what the exact basic amount of water a person needs to live a respectable life is debatable. But we know for sure that what a person needs in terms of water isn't enough to own and operate a giant mega-farm. And the same is true for movement. You don't have a right to truck things around at below cost (which is what the tolls are--they'd only bring trucks to the point where they'd pay $0.50 on the dollar, up from around $0.20). It's the tension between private property and the commons that gives the commons its meaning.


*Supposedly. Meh. 

Mayoral Leadership Needed on S. Main Street.

I met last week with the Deputy Director of RIDOT, Peter Garino. Garino's last job was at New Jersey Transit, and--I know it's odd to hear me say this, yes--I feel pretty confident that he "gets" a lot of transit and bike issues. There are disagreements, for sure. But overall, I'm happy with where his mind is at. 

Head-on crash on Benefit Street typifies the kind of dangerous
conditions along this corridor. Check out my proposals.
That said, we have a lot of work to do to bring the niceties of saying the right things forward to where those things are actually being done. This is a problem on RIDOT's end, and as you'll see below, it's also a City of Providence problem.

I brought S. Main Street to Dep. Dir. Garino as an example of a street that could be quickly updated with protected bike lanes. Under different leadership, RIDOT's engineers told the bike & ped advisory commission that S. Main St. could not get protected bike lanes because it would violate the "level of service" needs of the street.

Garino said, in fact, that RIDOT does not control S. Main Street, and that Providence city government is free to do with it what it likes. Garino said he thought the idea of protected bike lanes was splendid, but that it's not his role within RIDOT to tell the city what to do (the reason RIDOT-contracted engineers were working on the street in the past is that sometimes the state takes projects on behalf of cities or towns). 

Fair enough. For what it's worth, I actually agree with Garino that the city should have more autonomy to do as it needs.

Providence Planning Speaks
So I wrote to my contact in Providence Planning Department. Today I got a response back:
I've been told by our DPW that construction of the South Main Street ADA project will be at least two years out, so we should still have time to adjust the striping of the road as needed. We will be revisiting the configuration of South Main and many other streets throughout the City during our bike plan update, which will begin in early winter.
On the way home from my meeting with Garino, I saw this
crash on Benefit Street. Benefit is among three options I proposed
as potential corridors for a S. Main-adjacent bike route. Head-on 
crashes like this one happen because drivers go way too fast on
Benefit. We need action now.
The reason I'm not giving the name of the contact at Planning is that I feel that s/he was being genuinely helpful within the constraints of his/her power. I don't want to put someone's name out there and have people give a negative response that really isn't personally deserved by this fine, upstanding member of society.

But that said, I think this proposed time table totally unacceptable. It should not take two years to put protected bike lanes in. Those protected bike lanes were due like two decades ago, not two years from now.

The S. Main St. project requires the moving of parking away from the curb and into one of the travel lanes (i.e., the amount of parking would stay the same, but the location would change by ten feet). This is not something that needs "construction" as we would normally think of that term. The most that has to be done is some paint, and bollards. Both of these can be done by volunteers, if need be. There's nothing to plan, really, because if the whole thing were to hypothetically backfire, it would take volunteers a few hours to turn the whole thing around.

A view that RIDOT Dep. Director Garino expressed during my meeting with him was that the city government should be putting together a proper bike plan that outlines what the city's priorities are, so that the bike lane projects we get aren't piecemeal, as they have been in the past. I agree with this as far as it goes. We need an overall plan. But I also think that having a greater plan that covers the whole city should not interrupt our responsibility to move forward on completable projects today. Longterm planning might be appropriate in neighborhoods that have not expressed overt desire for bike infrastructure (say, perhaps, in the North End, or some similarly suburban enclave). But S. Main Street's merchant association came to meetings to ask for protected bike lanes. This is a project that should just go into the ground as fast as possible, especially given that this corridor is vitally important to getting people from Downcity to the East Side without having to climb ridiculous hills or endure high-speed aggressive drivers on S. Water Street.

Call the Mayor (Here)
It's time for Mayor Elorza to step up. His office should name some projects that are shovel-ready (though, like I said, there really isn't any shovel needed) and move. It's not really possible for people in the Planning Department to do this. This is an area where mayoral leadership is needed.