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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.

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*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. 

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