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ESM Misleads the Public on Blackstone Blvd.

I was disappointed and angered by the East Side Monthly editorial coverage of the Blackstone Boulevard "speed bumps". Some of what lays at the heart of the disagreement is subjective and up for debate, but on certain key informational points, the East Side Monthly also misled the public. It's fine for ESM to take the wrong stance on traffic calming, but not fine to mislead people.

You Can Have Your Own Opinion, But Not Your Own Facts
A key piece of information is miscast from the very beginning. ESM reminds readers that until a few years ago, Blackstone Boulevard was a 40 mph road. Traffic calming vis-a-vis bike lanes brought Blackstone to 25 mph. ESM describes the goal of the traffic calming to make Blackstone Boulevard slower than 25 mph. While on residential streets, I would actually favor a 15 mph speed limit, no one--no one at all--is trying to make Blackstone Boulevard slower than 25 mph. What neighbors concerned with speeding want is a plan that will keep speeds to the actual speed limit.

As someone who is interested in street design, I graciously accepted a donation of a speed gun from our friends at EcoRI News and produced a piece on speeding that covered several streets. At the time, I still lived on the West Side, but Blackstone Blvd. was one of the streets I visited. In my study, the vast majority of traffic was over the speed limit (essentially all traffic was speeding, except cars that had slowed to make a turn or park), while a significant portion of the traffic was over 40 mph. This finding was also in line with the more professionally done study presented by the city.

Speeds matter, and ESM failed in its journalistic duty to present key information that neighbors should know. At 20 mph, a pedestrian hit by a car has a 10% likelihood of serious injury/death. By 30 mph, the rate rises to 40%. At 40 mph, a person hit by a car is 90% likely to have serious injury or death as a result. When so much of the traffic on Blackstone hovers around 35 mph, there is significant danger to pedestrians and bicyclists.

I had been interested in going to the meeting at Nathan Bishop Middle School, where several years ago I worked in an Americorp after-school program. Six middle school students worked with me to build bikes donated by Recycle-A-Bike, and then set out to use them to learn safe riding. I was surprised as someone who rides my bike on Blackstone Blvd all the time how unsafe the street felt to me when I had middle-school aged children with me. It was as if my eyes were suddenly opened to all the stimuli that I usually ignored. Cars go really fast on Blackstone, and though I'm not a parent yet, if I were, I'd be uncomfortable with my children riding on it.

The issue of cost has been brought up in several pieces across several publications, and clearly was an issue that animated the anger of residents. Yet, I haven't seen any substantive research by any critical journalist, including ESM journalists, to see what the relative costs of different kinds of infrastructure are. Hundreds of thousands of dollars sounds like a lot of money, and to me personally as well as to most people in their daily lives in would be. But in the realm of transportation spending, it's in the rounding error zone. The costs for pedestrian and bike infrastructure is some of the cheapest of any infrastructure we build, and ESM did nothing to educate itself or its readers before opining so blithely on the matter.

ESM likewise entertained itself and its truculent readership with jokes about potholes as "reverse speed bumps", no doubt to throw the old saw that local government should "just stick to the basics" and not waste money on all this hippie-dippy nonsense. But road damage is heavily impacted by the volume and speed of traffic. Policies that encourage safe biking also are policies that reduce road wear. That would be an important piece of information, but that's nowhere in ESM's piece.

Speed Bumps Don't Work, So What Does?
I don't support speed bumps, and I don't think anyone does. Speed bumps are an inappropriate tool for Blackstone Blvd. For those of us who are concerned about speeding, and who want the speed to stay at the legal 25 mph, other tools are available. 

*Narrowing of the traffic lanes: Blackstone Blvd. has lanes that hover around 14'. That's highway width (10.5' is the accepted standard for city streets). I've been a passenger in many cars on Blackstone, and though all of the drivers I've been with have been conscientious, all of them have sped. Sometimes the results have been really funny: inside, me and the driver actually discussing the bad design of Blackstone Blvd, while speeding. Meanwhile, even though I'm cognizant of the mental processes that govern our sense of speed, I feel like I'm going too slow in a car going 35 on a 25 mph street. Why does this happen? The human brain processes speed in part by geometry: wider streets give the visual impression that one is not going fast, leading to even the best of drivers going too fast. Narrowing lanes changes driver vistas, and could bring speeds to 25 mph.

*As an important detail, let's remember that what causes traffic congestion in many cities isn't moderate speeds. As a driver, you gain a lot of ground going above the speed limit in between lights, but the higher speeds are also part of what causes lights to be required. Bringing Blackstone Blvd speeds truly to 25 mph does not necessarily mean getting places in more time. Even if the speed changes were measured linearly, 25 mph over 1.9 miles equals a bit more than 4 minutes, while at 40 mph, the time taken to get from one end to the other would be 3 minutes (60 miles per hour is a mile a minute: 40 mph is a mile in 1.5 minutes). So we're quarreling over a very small number of potential travel time difference . But because slower speeds allow de-signalization of many intersections, the many drivers can expect that a calmer Providence might actually mean better travel times.

Click the link for the video of Burlington, VT protected bike lanes.
*Put the bike lanes against the sidewalk: Many cyclists report feeling safer when separated from fast cars by a buffer of parked cars. The design change, when done right, also results in objectively safer streets for all users--drivers, cyclists, pedestrians, transit users. Switching parked cars further from the curb and putting bike lanes behind them can be done easily by city planners, and is also the type of change to the street that is easily reversible and risk-free to try out. It also means keeping exactly the same amount of parking, and the exact same number of driving lanes. These are some Vermonters making temporary protected bike lanes on North Avenue in Burlington to show what is possible. We can do this too (I can't showcase the video directly because it's a Vimeo, but click on the link):
*A third option is to make one side of the boulevard slow--with through-traffic only for bikes and pedestrians, but parking available for local drivers--and restore two-way car traffic on the other side. This, too, would keep exactly the same amount of space for drivers, and could even add to parking availability. A version of this plan has been proposed by Hugo Bruggemann, who at the time was a Pawtucket resident, but who has since moved to Wayland. 

Take Action
The residents who tend to be vocal and who tend to go to events are those residents who'd rather yell about their angry commute than listen to reason. But we need the many people in the neighborhood that care about street life to speak up. Please join me in making your voice heard to Councilman Zurier, and tweet us your thoughts at our Twitter, @transportpvd. You can also send an email to transportprovidence@gmail.com. We need safer streets, and we need to get to them as soon as possible.


1 comment:

  1. Looks to me like the Editor(s) were looking for a place to offer an opinion piece worthy of a lower quality publications Letters to the Editor pgae rather than cover the piece as a proper news article, which might hold them to some sort of journalistic integrity. ESM is the same publication that shortly after I moved here ran a "letter to the editor" about how residents are happy when all the university students go away for winter break so that they get to have their quiet Thayer street back.

    As regards actually fixing Blackstone. Several of us in more urbanist, cities for people crowd don't think parking sheltered bike lanes would make a big impact on in because parking rates aren't high enough to really visually narrow the lanes down to 10.5' except near Lippitt Park. Frankly, I think the raised crosswalks should be implemented the next time the street is repaved, the speed bumps can go, and otherwise the street needs to be reconfigured to manage speed better. I think that making one side 2 ways is likely the only truly effective solution, since 2-ways streets work better overall to reduce traffic speeds. I doubt that will ever get implemented because no one wants to expend the political capital to deal with the public. ("My god, the City Beautiful Monument that is the Boulevard would be destroyed!")

    Even the people that participated in the study from the neighborhood spoke or told us that they just want better speed enforcement by police without any change to the roadway.

    Lastly, to quote "Occasionally bordering on the uncivil" - apparently one has to start swearing to be considered uncivil? Name calling a city councilman is civil? Shouting down the presenter and people offering comment is civil?