Rhode Island has an extraordinary amount of highway infrastructure considering its size and population. It positively shocks me. I have made the point in numerous places that Providence as a city is on the top ten for the amount of lane-miles of highway it has per capita. But I wanted to go deeper into that statistic and really think about what it means to say that Rhode Island has too many highways.
Philadelphia, where I'm from, is on the list of cities with the fewest lane-miles of highway per capita. Technically, I'm not from Philadelphia itself, but from Delaware County. The suburbs I grew up in--Upper Darby and Sharon Hill--are probably best compared to Pawtucket (though that's probably an inexact comparison, it's the closest I've found. I do get slightly embarrassed when people assume I'm from the Main Line, though--it's kind of like confusing Pawtucket for downtown Bristol).
I think what made me think of this was my childhood pediatrician. My parents were never sporty people, but one of my doctors used to bike to the Jersey shore (and probably, he was coming from deeper into the suburbs than we were). When we'd go down the shore, I'd wonder to myself how anyone could do such a feat. As a little kid, I had it figure out as far as the Delaware River, but couldn't figure out my way into Jersey. And so now, as an adult, living in this bizarre* Rhode Island world, I look back on that memory and am trying to figure out what the analogue would be.
A Walk from the Suburbs to 30th Street Station
If I started out at my mom's house in Upper Darby Township and walked east towards Philadelphia, the first time I would encounter a highway in the "freeway/expressway" sense of that word would be after getting to 30th Street Station, at the Schuylkill Expressway. That's a 6.2 mile walk. It takes over two hours, according to Google Maps (though I tend to walk faster than their metrics assume). It's not often that I've done it, but I have walked that distance, if I have a day off and I'm into a stroll. One of my favorite things to do around Christmas time is to walk through each Philadelphia neighborhood and watch the style of decorations change from enclave to enclave, until I'm home. But as a kid, we'd have driven. My parents rarely took us on transit. We almost always drove. And yet somehow, despite much narrow streets, many more people, and--frankly--a more successful business environment, we never got caught in Beijing-style death-trap traffic. Why do suppose it was that we could get places without a highway? (cough: induced demand makes people drive more)
6.2 miles! If I started at my house in Providence and walked 6.2 miles east, I'd be in most of the way to Rohoboth, Massachusetts (the walk I used went over the Red Bridge and up Taunton Avenue).
My high school is on the stroad of Lansdowne Avenue, though
Lansdowne Avenue becomes very nice as soon as you go south
I don't mean to exaggerate the meaning of this fact. Upper Darby was a suburb that saw most of its development before 1950, though my house was built in the '70s. There are roads in my old neighborhood that I think would best be described as "stroads", as well as some very nice walkable places and traditional mixed-use areas. The design of my community could improve. But there is a key difference between stroads and urban highways, bad though both are: an urban highway cannot ever be turned into a productive place. A stroad (like Lansdowne Avenue is in my town, or North Main Street is in Providence) oftentimes has a history of having been productive in the past, and with incremental design improvements, it can be made productive again. Urban highways are a sinkhole. And also, for what it's worth, there'd only really be one full-on stroad to cross, and that would be Lansdowne Avenue itself.
Go West, Young Man!
You might say, c'mon James, you grew up in a border suburb of Philly, and your situation is unusual. So let's try going to the other way. Let's think about what would happen if I walked west, instead. West of Upper Darby are more thoroughgoingly suburban locations, like Springfield, Delaware County. It would still be a 2 mile walk for me before I approached where State Road & Township Line Road intersect and become a truly limited-access highway. Up until about that point, State Road, while fast and not exactly "urbanist" would be a productive place--a place with mixed uses, multiple types of housing, and the ability to walk--if not necessarily bike--safely. Township Line is somewhat less productively built, and more stroadified. But only after they combine, at the Media Bypass, do the two become a highway. Two whole miles from my suburban home.
Walking is something I seriously did a lot of growing up. When I moved to live with my dad in Sharon Hill, I walked to my grandparents house in Folcroft or even to my mom's house in Upper Darby all the time. I never crossed a highway. The walk from Sharon Hill to my childhood home is a 5 mile walk, and crosses through Collingdale, Aldan, Clifton Heights, and sections of Upper Darby. But I could walk there, and have walked there--hundreds of times.
All the Way to New Jersey (fer dem Joysy fresh tomatas!)
Here's one of those awful highway crossings I'd make on my hypothetical
suburban-to-urban walk. South Street Bridge, crossing I-76.
Let's drag the point further. If I started at I-95, which tragically cuts off Penn's Landing from the rest of Olde City in Philadelphia, and walked west to my house in Upper Darby Township, how many limited access highways would I cross in my 9-plus mile journey?
Exactly two. I-95 itself, and I-76 (the Schuylkill Expressway). On 9 mile-plus walk. I'm not suggesting that people really walk this distance. They drive, they take transit, or they bike it, for sure. But if I wanted to, without discomfort, I could walk to Penns Landing from my suburban house.
From East Providence to Silver Lake
How many highways would I cross if I started out in Watchemoket and walked to Silver Lake, a distance half as long as my walk from Upper Darby to Olde City Philadelphia?
I'd cross I-195--if I started out in Watchemoket Square, then I'd cross I-195 twice, in fact; once to get to the George Redman Bridge, and once on the other side to get back to Wickenden Street. In the old days I might have had to cross 195 yet again, in the Jewelry District, but that is thankfully no longer. Then we'd cross I-95. Then Route 6. Then Route 6 again just a few blocks later. Note that I'm not counting stroads or unfriendly roads. I'm counting only major, state DOT infrastructure that is limited access in nature.
So that's five crossings for a less than five mile walk when I'd have had two crossings for an almost ten mile walk in Philadelphia.
Add to that the fact that Philadelphia proper has the same number of people as the entire metro area of Providence, including the Massachusetts bits that no one wants to count. The whole Philly metro area is 5 million people--that's like the entire state of Massachusetts, from the Atlantic Ocean to the New York State border.
Are we seeing a pattern yet? Why might we have trouble paying for our road infrastructure in Rhode Island, a state with a diminishing economy and shrinking population?
WE GOT TOO MANY ROADS. TOO FEW BUSINESSES AND RESIDENTS.
*I am truly sorry to be so grumpy, Rhode Island, but my schtick is definitely to be the drill sergeant and try to impose upon you the reality that your design choices are awful. Please accept my tough love.