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Are More Highway Ramps Better?

The fine-toothed grain of a street-grid helps to move traffic effectively, and it creates other things that are nice, like walkable, business-friendly neighborhoods. This isn't an idea I originated. It was an idea that was assailed ruthlessly by 1950s and 1960s planners, who based their visions of the world on the utopianism of people like Corbusier. The small-scale street-grid was brought back to life by the ordinary observations of Jane Jacobs, a woman whose high school degree was enough to make her one of the most celebrated urban theorists in history.

But one of the things that I hear a lot as a question is "why remove exit and entrance ramps from highways if more connections are good?" If the theory behind a 6/10 Boulevard was that we want fine-toothed connections, isn't that what more exit- and entrance-ramps are?

My answer is this: they're two different things.



Ramps are different for one really big reason. They cost a lot of money. You have to build a large structure to carry a ramp to and from a highway, whereas the central beauty of a small surface street is its cheapness.

Ramps are also different because they carry only cars. Having fine-grained connections becomes less and less relevant the more than a particular piece of infrastructure caters to cars (especially fast-moving cars) because it's the limited access quality of the highway that makes it possible to heighten that speed advantage of the automobile. The fine-toothed street-grid that Jane Jacobs valued was important because it enabled pedestrian activity, the cheapest and most nuanced travel mode. You need to get right to the door if you're a pedestrian.

If you're a business, what you should be most concerned about in Olneyville is the destruction of the fine-toothed street grid. Second to that should be your concern about the speed and effectiveness of the highway. And as it happens, if you've already conceded that you're going to have a highway somewhere, then having the exits and entrances be limited accomplishes both of these goals well. It creates the openings for more small-scale grid networking, for pedestrians who have already arrived, and it speeds traffic by making the highway a poor choice for local trips and a good choice for long distance ones.



Now just for reference, where is the nearest ramp other than Plainfield Street to Greg's hotdog shop?



It's less than a quarter-mile away on Hartford Avenue.

Pilduski Street, on the Silver Lake side. The ramp is ahead of you in this photo, and the highway (not visible) is to the left).
I don't know if the city and RIDOT intend to keep this unnecessary ramp, but they certainly shouldn't do it on account of any concern for business. Businesses would do well to be rid of this ramp so that the streets that connect neighborhoods can be re-stitched. It would take nothing away from the functionality of the highway, and if anything would help it to function better. 

The only person I know who thinks otherwise is Greg Stevens, a Johnston resident and owner of the Olneyville New York System hotdog stand. I've never grasped why politicians tend to kiss Greg's ring so much, but he told me to my face at his restaurant last year that he struggles to get people other than himself to attend meetings of his group Olneyville Merchants (@OlneyvilleMA) because, quote, "these people don't speak English anyway" (You can take that for what you will). 

I happen to think that Greg's business would have sold more hotdogs with a boulevard than without, and I think it will sell more hotdogs with a less egregious highway than with a more city-dividing one. But even if that were not the case, having the city craft its policies around Olneyville New York System's desire to be directly at the end of a highway ramp is a complete abdication of the responsibility to see to the needs of anyone else in the neighborhood or the city. Ultimately, it's hard to advocate for what could be here where this ramp is, because it doesn't exist yet. But we're talking about lots of business space and residential space that could bring a whole lot more to the city than some hotdogs.

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