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Calling for Peter Alviti to Resign

It's time for Peter Alviti to retire.

I stumbled upon this article today describing the backups that occurred when a poorly orchestrated change to the traffic patterns on I-95 was instituted. The Projo did not make any deeper insights into the fact that I-95 is almost always clogged, and that perhaps something about the design of I-95 itself is the root of the problem, with these changes being just a symptomatic addition to the problems.

I-95, like other urban interstates, is like a river, with every tributary around it flowing to it for the morning commute. What happens when you funnel everyone into one route? It gets clogged. Kind of simple, but of course our policies in Rhode Island don't recognize this basic fact, and continue to seek solutions that repeat the problem. Yes, if you confuse people during their morning commute about which lanes they're allowed to take, that will exacerbate the problem, but the root issue is that have created this incredibly expensive and cumbersome piece of infrastructure that never under any circumstances, with any degree of planning or expertise, can work. It is a failure by design, and the hubris of Peter Alviti is that he continues to act like a clown pretending that he knows how to tame this tiger, when he does not.

I call on Peter Alviti to resign today, not because of his handling of this problem per se, but because he's shown a complete inability to learn and adapt from mistakes. If seeing the brittleness of the I-95 system hasn't caused Alviti to see that his solution to the 6/10 Connector is as doomed to failure as this one, then he's not fit to run the DOT (And yes, I do think the Providence counterproposal is better, but only marginally, and I think what we really need at this time is a reactivation of the grassroots to demand the shutdown of the 6/10 bridges that are supposedly so unsafe, so that the people of Providence can have time to formulate a plan that they actually like and can live with for decades at a time).

I thought a bit about whether I wanted to make a demand like this. I'm under no illusions that my making such a demand means it will happen, or even much less that people at the top will immediately even taken notice of my having said that Alviti should resign. But I think my role in the ecosystem of thought is to put out ideas whose time may not yet have ripened, and to hope that it emboldens other people to join in the calls, until eventually there are enough people saying a certain thing that it becomes a noticeable trend. We have the power to change the way things are done, and it is a matter of us recognizing that power as a group and acting upon it. Only time will tell how long that awkward dance unfolds before it takes proper course.

Today I sat in a classroom in late October, watching students and a professor argue amongst themselves about how best to cool the room. Is the air conditioning working, they wondered? Should we open the windows? We are in a crisis, and that crisis is not being taken seriously by the people in power. The utter failure of our DOT to adapt will literally without any intended hyperbole or exaggeration lead eventually to the deaths of many, many people, perhaps here, but certainly abroad, as we stumble through the many foreseen and unforeseen challenges of climate change. The crisis is fixable, but we cannot fix it until we recognize the problem and put people in charge who are willing to meaningfully address it.

It's time for a change. We want someone in charge of the DOT that sees highways as the last option, and transit as the first option. We want someone who sees urban highways, in particular, as a dead-end route-- a solution that is too expensive, and that doesn't ultimately work. We want bicycling and walking to be seen as central aspects of the way people get around, and for that to be reflected not at the edges of policy, but at its center. And that requires a change of personnel. It's time for Peter Alviti to retire, and be replaced by someone who is acceptable to the environmental and transit community.


Delco Style

Future anthropologists of the internet will wonder why a blog devoted to transportation in Rhode Island talks so damned much about Philadelphia, but I guess we'll just have to leave them scratching heads.

Saw this, and needed to comment:

I went to the same high school as Tina Fey, and even wrote the continuation of the same column in the school newspaper she wrote, so I feel like I've got some Delco street cred to dish out.

I've watched a couple of these performances she's done, and she gets parts of the accent right, but I'm also surprised at the parts it seems like she drops.

The big joke in this bit was the ferry/furry merger, and the long O in the Philly accent. These are parts of the Philly accent that swing towards the South. Other aspects of the accent that overlap with New York seemed to be absent from her portrayal. 

I wonder what this says about how we perceive ourselves through others? Fey spends a lot of time in New York, where big pieces of the Philly accent are going to remain completely unnoticed by people around her: cawfee, byead, Mary, marry, merry (although a real Philly resident would say, "Murray Christmas." Like Bill Murray).

It's also interesting to see how the Philly accent has become something worthy of comment on television. Typical portrayals of Philly in the past often picked New York actors to play roles: Sylvester Stallone as Rocky says "Yo, youse wanna' go home" whereas a real South Philly resident would have said "Yeow, yuzz wanna' geow heowme?" 

Providence is a city that also bridges two more well-represented accents (Boston and New York) and I wonder if television and movie portrayals of Rhode Island have the same shortcomings.

Alls I ken say is, why are some myead and byead and glyeahd and sad? I deown't kneow, geow eahsk yer dad. Deown't eahsk Saturdee Noight Live theowgh. They deown't kneow.


I've been thinking about how to respond more fully to the great disappointment that the "halo" design is for 6/10. I wrote at RI Future that the design is slightly better than the RIDOT plan (which is a very low bar). But I've also been thinking about how we can retake the high ground, and demand more from the city.

This is the song I've always chosen to represent RIDOT's plan: rebuilding the expressway. 
I was thinking about a shortcut I could take.But I was wrong. I made a mistake.

Then there's the Providence plan: the halo. It's a lot like the highway. Why not write something to the tune of Halo, to describe all its deep, disappointing mediocrity?

So here it goes:
Remember those walls I built?
I thought they would tumble down.
But Elorza won't even fight.
He barely even makes a sound. 
The highway lets the cars all in.
It acts like a giant spout.
Trapped in a glut of traffic.
It won't ever let us out. 
This asphalt's a-baking.
The highway's a-snaking.
It's a risk that I'm taking.
Every time I go walking out. 
Everywhere I look around.
I'm surrounded by your embrace.
On three sides there's a halo.
Our city has been defaced. 
Hit me with a ray of sun.
Reflecting on this ugly mar.
Like a needle in the arm.
Because we're addicted to our cars. 
I thought we'd see it fall.
But this don't really look like falling.
Enshrouded by a giant halo.
Why don't you take us to the ground again?
I see a halo halo halo
Halo halo halo
Halo halo
Halo halo




I-95: Removing It On Our Schedule

I-95 at Washington Street, in Providence.
I-95 is a gash in Providence and Pawtucket's urban fabric. But what if we started thinking about the many advantages I-95 banks for Rhode Island cities?

I-95 has a lot of surprising advantages, when you stop to think about it:

*It's a giant land-bank.
*The tremendous width of the corridor means that it is (sun-bakingly) open to light. There are no limitations to what we can build there.
*The man-made ravine where the highway is located also adds visual interest: the embankments could have buildings built right into them, which (like the RISD Museum) would have the advantage of active street entrances at the top (the service road) and the bottom (the highway bed).
*The ravine also creates a natural place to send overflow water: I-95 could become a land feature that helps us deal with climate change, naturally watering plants instead of overflowing our sewer systems.
*The right-of-way is centrally located and a perfect place for transit.

What would I-95 look like if its eight lanes and ramps were used as temporary festival sites? Here I've repurposed the ramps
as ways to walk out of the highway. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lines could serve multiple stops in the city, right at festival level, and could connect into normal highway traffic beyond the festival boundary.
The way we should test this out is by doing festivals on I-95 regularly. It's the death of Cyclovia (with a Y) and the birth of Cíclovia (with an Í).

This isn't just a replay of the 6/10 Connector idea: with 6/10, we've been talking about removing infrastructure that is about to fall down (and we may-- fingers crossed-- succeed). With I-95, some of the infrastructure is nowhere near ready to be replaced or torn down, but envisioning a different highway on our own schedule presupposes that we don't have to wait for that day.

And the purpose of this isn't to imagine what a great idea it would be to cap the highway, either. It's true that putting a cap on a small portion of I-95 could reconnect neighborhoods, but that proposal would also be expensive, and would leave in place a pollution spewing, parking-gobbling, traffic-creating highway. Our festival should be coordinated with better transit as a means of modeling what will come to replace the highway in due course.

Our first test area: Atwells to Broad Street. The festival could grow beyond this as we become ready.
I've thought a lot about the thorny question of ramps. A highway is designed so that you can easily enter and leave going on direction on one side, the other direction on the other side. So taking away half of a highway seems kind of tricky. If we did this in stages, or if we allowed cars (at more moderate speeds) to enter the festivals in certain places (like streets), how would we deal with entrance and egress?

Seems pretty simple to me: Make one side of the highway a boulevard with periodic roundabouts near the exits. The ramps tend to be wide already, to give people "forgiving design" to safely leave, and adjust their speeds up or down. So the ramps have plenty of room to become two way streets into the roundabouts.

What if we started building actual buildings into the highway? What would we do with the other side of the highway in the meantime? I think a roundabout system could be used to allow cars to use the road bed on one side, while another side could have rapid transit. Streetmix only allows me to put buildings in certain places, but you could imagine that more buildings than this could be built at intervals, reducing the overwhelming "City Beautiful" effect of the massive space.
Wissihickon is a narrow park in Philadelphia, but is 7 miles
long. It's an overgrown former mill area, with the Wissihickon
Creek running down it.
If we removed I-95 from its fork at 295 in Cranston, or even if we allowed it to continue to the Providence border, removing it from Providence to Pawtucket/Central Falls, this would be an extraordinarily large amount of land. I just did a quick estimate, and from the 295 fork to the state line is about 11 miles, and the highway is hundreds of feet wide, so we're talking hundreds of acres of land. I don't imagine that we'd ever be able to imagine a development scheme for that much land in any immediate future. But what if we filled in some spots with green space? The fast part of the BRT, between stops, could be green spaces (not as any utopian vision, but just until we have a need to fill them in, which could be a long time). A smaller roadway could be in place to carry some traffic, with clustered development areas.

What comes to mind for me is Wissihickon Park. I'm not sure if the water table would be high enough to allow an overgrowth of woods, but if it was, I-95 could go the way Wissihickon did: in the 19th Century it was abandoned after its mills became obsolete, and over time it just returned to nature. Someone who knows more about what the possibilities are flora and fauna wise should research this.

Finally, what would it mean to commit ourselves to a plan that maintains a gash in the urban fabric? Thinking of highways as something that can be taken over small piece by small piece allows us to work on a schedule designed by people, and not by the time tables of DOTs. But it also leaves us with thorny questions of how to deal with the infrastructure that fails when it does go.

Pronk: Today beside the highway. Tomorrow: on it.
I suggest that highway bridges that cross the highway be considered places to land-bank for additional buildings. When a bridge (say, Atwells Street) starts to get old, it can be taken down. In its place would be build buildings, with gaps at intervals to allow the BRT lines or walkways to pass through. The building roofs would becoming the "bridge", with only smaller spans between them. This design would never work for car bridges, but it would work very well for bike and pedestrian bridges. So it doesn't totally remove the need for bridge-building, but it greatly reduces it. And it has the added benefit of gradually filling in vistas (again, getting rid of that pesky "City Beautiful" effect that Jane Jacobs would have hated). It could be a lot like this. Bridges that make up the highway could be brought down to just two lanes, for the BRT line.

Why believe in this vision? Because it's not that hard to imagine Providence residents reclaiming a highway. If we imagine I-95 as just another piece of land (one that currently has a bunch of cars on it) then we can decide to do with it what we want, when we want. Columbians close much of their highway system on Sundays. Why can't we? And from there, it's just a matter of time before we add better bus service on the highway to connect people to those festivals, and then build permanent kiosks or planted areas, and finally just close the whole thing and acknowledge that it's an outmoded idea.

Cíclovia Providence with an Í: not a glorified block party like Cyclovia. A real social movement that calls for a better landscape for our cities.

Crossing Amtrak

The point keeps being made that the Amtrak tracks don't allow crossing by shorter bridges. Along with the topography, this is supposed to prevent a boulevard. I don't agree. An assumption that underpins this is that all of the bridges across Amtrak from the boulevard to Harris have to be big, and have high design speeds.

Roads that are designed for higher speed get a design for that: they're straighter, wider, and flatter. That's why higheays, though not flat, are usually less than a 5% grade, why their lanes are wider than city streets, and why things like the Pawtucket S-Curve are so unusual (and why S curves on smaller streets can actually make them safer, by slowing people down). At high speed our vehicles can't accommodate these twists and turns, ups and downs.

But at slower speed, this is not a problem. If the bridges crossed the tracks like a squared off S, there would be no problem. This would work be as a crossing for local traffic: some cars, with a lot of bikes and people on foot.

I tried to diagram it:

Harris Ave===================================
ramp off of Harris----------->||
bridge over Amtrak.                ||
ramp down to boulevard.         ----------->

If you wanted, you could probably do two directional ramps


This tupe of ramp is common with bike bridges, because ADA requirements add length to infrastructure to maintain a mild grade. I see no reason why small, one or two lane car bridges can't be made this way. The land adjacent to the train tracks above Federal Hill has adjacent space because of the demolition of the old fruit depot, and the highway side is even bigger. This would make the most sense as a way to deal with the Dean Street bridge, because although it would be a longer bridge than would be the case if the tracks could be crossed directly, it would still be a lot shorter than if the Dean Street bridge was built from the peak of the hill across.

If we get rid of the faulty idea that the topography and train tracks stand in the way of a boulevard, we also eliminate the need for the halo and for all of the ramps associated with the highway design. We can have a few of these ramp style bridges, at intervals, to carry local traffic each way. Some can be for cars, and some perhaps only for bikes and pedestrians.


Back Against the Wall, PVD Planning Presents 6/10 Plan

Unfortunately, RI Future is having some technical difficulties, so I'm posting the piece I originally intended for their site. Please check out RI Future if you're not familiar, as I write there pretty often.

Mayor Jorge Elorza appeared with his team from Providence Planning to present a draft proposal for the 6/10 Connector Monday night. The plan took the form of a parkway, which was a significant improvement over the RIDOT/Raimondo proposal to rebuild the highway as-is. Nonetheless, the harried push to curtail public comment initiated by Governor Raimondo left the City of Providence’s Planning Department in a backs-against-the-wall mugging-style situation: it had to produce something that hewed to RIDOT”s preferences quickly, and so some of the potentilal for the 6/10 Corridor has been sacrificed in this plan.
The looming context of the meeting was Governor Gina Raimondo’s September 7th announcement to rebuild the highway as-is. Though the bridges in question remain open to car and truck traffic, Gov. Raimondo and Rhode Island Department of Transportation Director Peter Alviti have maintained that the condition of the bridges creates an emergency situation in which the planning process must be severely curtailed. On the 7th, Director Alviti stated that the surface boulevard was “dead”. [It seems like this would be well known, but for full disclosure, that boulevard proposal came through the group Moving Together Providence, of which I am one founding member].
If there had been any hopes that the City of Providence would reignite the boulevard proposal, it did not happen Monday. The parkway plan honed very close to the design of a highway. The city’s plan made a number of changes to the RIDOT proposal that improved neighborhood connectivity through biking and walking access.
I’m going to take off my objective journalist hat and comment on some things I liked and did not like, as well as some things I continue to have questions about, as we move forward.
Good: Reclaiming Land
While the parkway continues to take up an extraordinary 240’ of width, the city’s plan nonetheless reduces the footprint in places to half of what the highway would be. This has allowed the city to claim fifty of the seventy acres originally expected to be developable under the surface boulevard proposal.
The Providence proposal reclaims significant land in Olneyville, with a phase two proposal to extend DePasquale Square into about half of the 13 acres of Federal Hill that were lost to the Dean Street exit/entrance ramps.

There is an open question in mind as to how easy it's actually going to be to get development to happen next to the parkway, because in many respects the "parkway" looks like it's still a highway. But I'll bracket that concern until I see more.
Good: Creating new connections for Smaller Streets like Magnolia and Tobey
As a former resident of Tobey Street, one of my favorite proposals was changing the Tobey Street on-ramp into a bridge connecting Federal Hill to Olneyville. Street grid connections like this are a good idea.
Bad: Continued Use of Traffic Pseudo-Science

Traffic engineers who are in any way honest understand that it does not make sense to do traffic counts on a road and then plan capacity for that roadway accordingly. Numerous highways have been removed and seen a significant part of the traffic that uses those highways disappear, and this is such a common occurrence that it is now a routine understanding. Given the political context of pressure from RIDOT to reify traffic counts, the City of Providence Planning Department did the logical thing, which was to base its various proposals on projections about how many cars would be on 6/10. This is going to make many of the otherwise reasonable proposals less livable. It’s a shame to see the boulevard proposal die on the western half of the roadway that inspired Cheonggyecheon

Bad: Stroad Design for Connecting Streets 

The images used for connecting streets were four lane roads with anemic looking bike lanes alongside them. Urban streets should be two lanes, with even the most traffic-oriented streets getting two lanes with a turn lane. The bike lanes put in these proposals are anemically narrow (Dutch infrastructure goes for 4 meters to allow bikes to pass one another) and is without separation. These streets need a road diet

Bad: Bait-and-Switch on the Roundabout 

You can really imagine how much of a bait-and-switch this is by imagining this as a multi-lane car structure.
The Providence Planning proposal made use of a widely circulated image of a raised roundabout in the Netherlands, which serves bicycles crossing a Dutch highway. Problematically, this image was intended to go besides a proposal for a raised car roundabout to connect Routes 6 East and West and Route 10. 

Roundabouts are not inherently a bad idea, but the use of this Dutch image is misleading. (Surface) roundabouts are an economical and safe way to connect roads that are high volume. (Would a raised roundabout that of course has many structures holding it up be cost-effective? That remains to be seen). They cost less than signalized intersections and usually allow more steady flow of traffic, causing them to be the default treatment in some states. Smaller roundabouts like the one carried out in Poynton, UK can be used in such a way as to create more pedestrian friendly areas while moving a surprisingly large number of vehicles. Larger roundabouts like those seen on Parisian boulevards can also carry a lot of traffic, but are being greatly curtailed as Paris attempts to revitalize the pedestrian connections around its major squares. Dutch bike design takes pedestrian and bike crossings away from roundabouts, while using them as a connection for cars. 

In short, the roundabout should be understood as what it is: part of the parkway (which is really just a word for a scenic highway). The other connections need to put bike, pedestrians, and transit in the forefront. 

Bad: No RIPTA Vision 

While Providence Planning presented its efforts to remove cars from Olneyville Square via the raised roundabout as a way of improving through-flow of RIPTA buses, this follows the same induced demand logic that other traffic congestion schemes follow. Making a more direct connection between 10 N and 6 W will definitely take cars out of Olneyville immediately, but the pattern is that within a very short time traffic will fill that space and find equilibrium. So plans to create transit improvements need to acknowledge that. One way to improve transit-flow and make Olneyville more business friendly would be to disallow car through-traffic (allowing cars to visit and park at the edge, but pedestrianizing the center of the square). Having designated areas of the square for bus travel would then allow for better transit flow, though Providence Planning should be cognizant of the dos and don’ts about pedestrian spaces. 

There also should be Bus Rapid Transit on the boulevard itself. I’ve pointed out in the past that while BRT does have some costs associated with it, a lot of the biggest costs going along with the RIDOT BRT proposal were added lanes for the BRT, and skyway bridges to connect pedestrians to center stations on a highway. A parkway continues to be a road designed with high speeds in mind, and I’m not certain how BRT could be best handled on a roadway like this, but I think it should be explored. 

Getting Mugged by RIDOT 

Two television stations and two newspapers asked me what I thought of the plan, and I compared it to a mugging. The Rhode Island Department of Transportation has very transparently used safety concerns about the Huntington Bridge to torpedo normal rules of process for deciding what to do with the highway. Essentially, Providence Planning has its back against the wall, and RIDOT is saying, “Your money, or your life?” Given that very limiting context, what Providence produced was a reasonable compromise that I can live with, in the same way that I accept other unpleasant realities forced upon me. I think the plan is leaps and bounds ahead of RIDOT’s proposal, but that’s not setting a high bar. 

La Shana Tovah

Rachel and I were watching this last night, and I was confirmed in my belief that the deeper meaning of life is about parking.

Happy New Year, to anyone celebrating. 

Just look at the parking lot!