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Part 1: Mark Baumer Reflection: Impounding Vehicles & Immigrant Rights

This is part of a multi-part reflection I've been doing following the death of my friend, Mark Baumer . There's nothing graphic i...

Please Call Sen. Whitehouse: #FixItFirst #NoNewRoads

We can't take action to stop Trump without stopping Trump's infrastructure plan. Tell Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse to stand up. No new money until we get a fix it first policy as law.

An impressive group of demonstrators marched from the Statehouse to Nathan Bishop Middle School, where Senator Sheldon Whitehouse took questions inside and outside of the school.

I asked Senator Whitehouse whether he would stand up for climate change through our transportation policy, and he gave a clear no. Give Sheldon Whitehouse a call and tell him to stand up, and just say no to Trump's planned infrastructure spending debacle.

DC Office: 202-224-2921
Rhode Island Office: 401-453-5294

Infrastructure is poorly understood by the public. It's true that our roads
 and bridges are falling apart, and desperately need work. It's also true that we have poor rail service, and very dilapidated biking and walking facilities. What is not understood is that we spend more than half of our federal transportation money on expansion and new facilities, rather than maintaining what we have. 

Donald Trump's infrastructure spending proposal has lots of problems, but the biggest core problem is that so long as state DOTs get new money without a method of holding them accountable to a Fix It First policy, they will spend on boondoggles to expand roads.

Expanding roads does not help traffic congestion, it worsens it. And expanding roads means that we have more to maintain. The new money from the feds is free, but the states and their local counterparts have to maintain facilities for decades to come. That's not free.

Most shameful of all, Sen. Whitehouse used the 6/10 Connector as an example of why we need more money for our roads. Sen. Whitehouse was a key voice in opposing the boulevard option, which would have been far cheaper than other options for the 6/10 Connector. That option had bipartisan support in the Statehouse, but our supposed climate champion couldn't be brought to back it. Sen. Whitehouse is also currently standing with the entire Rhode Island delegation for a proposal to expand I-95 on very shaky engineering grounds. We need our Rhode Island delegation to stand strong on infrastructure by not adding to our unpaid liabilities.

We need to say no, too, because Donald Trump loves to spend on things he has no plans to pay for in the future (think: casinos in Atlantic City that go belly up). Trump will have no problem floating large amounts of federal debt to create temporary jobs and the appearance of progress, only to leave us all on the hook for the financial, social, and environmental problems that result. Authoritarian leaders often use infrastructure as a way of getting support.

Sen. Whitehouse deflected my question by saying that we need to spend more on rail, and of course I would love to see our rail system improved. But the Amtrak Northeast Corridor is self-sustaining. When senators and congressmen add token biking, walking, or transit provisions to a budget that is mostly about expanding highways, we're getting short-shrift.

Ask Sen. Whitehouse to hold Donald Trump accountable: no new money until we have a ban on road expansions with federal dollars. Fix it first! No new roads!


In Honor of Mark Baumer

If you knew Mark Baumer from his Twitter feed, where he posted many humorous, Andy Kaufman-style videos, you would come away with the impression that he was a much louder person than he actually was.

What I remember most about Mark, who was struck and killed yesterday by a motorist on US 90 in Crestview, Florida, was the quiet way that he absorbed the words of people around him. Providence is not a place for serendipitous encounters, but I ran into Mark nearly daily-- at the grocery store, on the bus, passing each other on bikes, at an activist event, checking out books at the library--and Mark always had time to listen and ask questions about my life. It's odd, because though we'd mutually invited each other to one another's homes many times, we never actually succeeded in following up on the invitations, but I feel really close to Mark. Often our sidewalk conversations were taken an hour at a time. A short conversation with Mark was probably twenty minutes. And a lot of it was Mark just being empathetic towards the other people in the conversation. He was never a bragging presence, and that is a tremendously honorable thing to say about someone, especially a man, in this culture. 
Mark was not the demographic of the most likely person to be struck and killed walking somewhere. Nationwide, working class people of color are the most directly affected by this plague of deaths-- one more underreported dimension of the institutional racism that harms our nation. Mark's journey across the country-- barefoot-- highlighted his concerns about equity and the environment. Mark was deeply concerned and empathetic about the inequality he saw in society, and spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about how he could even the playing field by making himself a spectacle.  Florida, where Mark was killed, continues to be an outlier for pedestrian deaths: eight out of ten of the worst pedestrian fatality statistics belong to municipalities in the Sunshine State. Of course, though Rhode Island is actually one of the "better" places for walking, we too have a steady stream of deaths of this kind.

It's shocking to learn of the sudden loss of someone like Mark from this world. I hope his family knows the deep impact he made on all of our lives, and how much he is missed.

Rest in peace, Mark.

A local news report is available, though it is scant on details, and uses the passive voice to describe the incident ("the Buick left the road. . . "). Ultimately, many pedestrian advocates favor thinking of these deaths as "crashes" rather than "accidents", but I agree with others who think the most important emphasis in that is on the way infrastructure leads to deaths rather than the mistakes and personal failures of other humans. The report doesn't say whether the driver might have been distracted or not, but the biggest culprit is a lack of places to walk out of the immediate range of an errant vehicle. Hopefully Mark's memory is an inspiration for people fighting for those places.

Simple Mathematics

Eliminating the car tax will exclude the poorest Rhode Islanders entirely. Although eliminating the car tax would incidentally benefit some lower middle class people, it would do so in a trickle-down fashion. Eliminating the car tax is Reaganomics, and progressive Rhode Island legislators should stand up against the elimination plan Speaker Mattiello is pushing.

This new BMW from the website of BMW of Warwick has an MSRP of $54,825.

I don't have an encyclopedic database of what cars are owned by different wealthy Providence residents, but I think it's safe to assume that someone (many people, really) own cars like this on the East Side.

This car would have $3,169.50 due to the City of Providence at its 6% rate*. At the lowest municipal rate in Rhode Island, in New Shoreham, the car tax due on this car would add up to $534.54**. For comparison, again, the most efficient way to pay for RIPTA is to use monthly passes, which would cost a user $840 by the end of one year.

Keep in mind that the further up the economic scale you go, the more likely a household has multiple cars. It's quite possible that a single wealthy household is paying more than $6,000 in car taxes.

This used Chevrolet Malibu from CarMax has a "no haggle price" of $9,998. This car actually is twice the value of the car Rachel owns, so I'm not reaching for crazy outlandish examples. In Providence, this modest car pays $599.88 $478.80*** in car taxes. The New Shoreham owner of such a car would pay $97.48. 

Again, for comparison, the cost of a year's worth of RIPTA monthly passes (which saves you from the now $1.00 (!) transfer fees) is $840.

Fixing the basic inequality between different municipal rates through a "one state, one rate" approach makes sense, but not elimination of the tax.

Eliminating the car tax would pursue a Reaganomics agenda, because in order for someone to get $599.98 back on their modest car, someone with a fancy car would get more than five times more. Car tax elimination would exclude the poorest Rhode Islanders who don't or can't own a car, and would lavish unnecessary money on the wealthy. All the create a $215 million budget hole.

There's no way around it: $599 means more to someone who drives an old Malibu than someone who drives a brand new BMW. But that's the argument Republicans make when they justify cutting taxes on the rich because all income brackets will get a tax cut. To be honest, if someone handed me $600, I'd find it hard to turn down, because $600 means a lot to me. But our budgeting shouldn't be designed to give away more than $3,000 to someone else just to get that result. We can get working class Rhode Islanders an extra $600 without any difficulty, while approaching that tax return through a different tax. I favor the Earned Income Tax Credit. Rhode Island spends $190 million on the EITC, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. We could double the number of people who receive this tax for less than what the cost of eliminating the car tax would cost.

The lowest rung of the economic ladder is least likely to own a car, and most likely if they do own a car to be a one-car household and struggling to pay for the costs of auto upkeep. It would cost less than half of what eliminating the car tax costs ($94 million) to triple-- yes, multiply by three-- the amount of money RIPTA receives from the state as it would cost to repeal the car tax throughout Rhode Island's municipalities ($215 million).

Finding approaches that relieve the stress of the car tax without subsidizing cars would be the best way to go for the legislature, because the people who we imagine being most harmed by the car tax would be those who would benefit most from truly progressive policy. We can implement better policies than the ones being proposed.

*There's an exclusion of the first $2,000 of value on a car in Providence's car tax.
**New Shoreham (Block Island) charges $9.75 per $1,000 of value, or 0.975%.
***My error in the first version of this was forgetting to subtract the first $2,000 of value for the car before multiplying by 6%.

Autoluwe Tobey Street

Autoluwe is a fancy-schmancy Dutch word that means "car lite" or "almost car-free". Autoluwe design differs is similar to "shared space" in that it allows cars to mix with other modes, but it differs from "shared space" in that it takes specific design steps to limit not just traffic speed, but also traffic volume. You can substitute other terms like "filtered permeability" or "bike boulevard" to describe Autoluwe design.

Autoluwe has the advantages of a quiet cul-de-sac without the disadvantages: it keeps a completely permeable network of walking and biking connections (or could even be made to do so for transit as well), giving an upper hand to less expensive, more sustainable modes of transportation. Drivers can still use the spaces-- for instance, you can visit your favorite business by car-- but you can't use the routes for rat-running.

I've done a couple posts on what a car-free Tobey Street bridge could look like. One of the ideas of a car-free bridge is that it would act as a kind of filter for traffic. Local cars could pull up to the bridge, but not cross it, so the bridge itself would prevent Tobey from becoming a through-street. But a really strong objection to the car-free bridge is that it's going to go over a highway, which isn't the most welcoming hang-out place even if we do activating things on the bridge. So where else could the filters be put to get the same effect?

I created a map of what that could look like. Check it out.

This is an example of what a "filter' for cars can look like. Local drivers are able to use this street the same as they would use a cul-de-sac in Cranston, but with the added advantage that the network isn't broken for biking and walking. This is a common feature of a lot of bike-friendly cities, and because ti draws many people away from driving for short trips, actually improves the traffic congestion of an area.
Here's another example. This one uses "diagonal diverters" to make this connection permeable to people on bikes but not to cars. Note again that no one who drives to get around has any difficulty accessing this neighborhood street.

RIDOT Passes the Buck

As if to cap off the news that RIDOT is among several state DOTs pilfering biking and walking funds*, RIDOT has completely abbrogated its duties to take care of sidewalks on bridges it owns:
RIDOT passed the buck.
Some state officials, like State Rep. David Norton of Pawtucket, took aim at RIDOT for its inadequate care for pedestrians.

Legislation to hold RIDOT accountable for sidewalks in its care failed to get out of committee (see #10) last legislative session at the Statehouse.

RIDOT spoke up again today to insist that it is not responsible for sidewalks on bridges it owns, this time with statute in hand:
I guess this technically puts RIDOT in the right, but I can't help but remark upon the amount of energy that was put into digging through a law book to find the statute to prove that RIDOT isn't responsible that could have instead put to just sending someone out to fix the problem. Whatever the law is, it's also a backwards standard. Pawtucket's downtown was absolutely obliterated by the I-95 "S curve" that snakes through it, and yet the tax base of that very poor city has to be stretched taking care of the sidewalks on RIDOT bridges. Meanwhile, RIDOT thumbs its nose at urban residents by using funds that should go to walking and biking for road paving. I cannot think of a more arrogant stance.

*By the way, the Streetsblog estimate of nearly half a million dollars being taken from bike/walk projects and used for road paving sounds conservative to me, if anything, given that just one RIDOT project I know of costs $9 million and does the same thing. A "rest stop" (think: state-sponsored gas station and Dunkin Donuts) will cost the state $12 million, of which $9 million is expected to come from federal TIGER Grants. The group "Keep Hopkinton Country" is fighting RIDOT's efforts to dishonestly present this 500-spot parking lot project as a boon to transit (Ha! see population density metrics!) and biking (Ha!). You can follow them at @keephopkinton. The last rest stop to be located in Hopkinton under RIDOT's watch was closed due to lack of activity. EcoRI News is also covering the issue quite well.

What a win for biking and walking in the nation's second densest and smallest state.

Letter to Representative Blazejewski

The Political Roundtable on RI NPR featured Representative Chris Blazejewski, who represents RI District 2, and he spoke on a number of issues, one of which was the car tax.

Opposing a repeal of the car tax is a top concern of Transport Providence, as outlined in our Resolutions for a Better PVD list for 2017. Rep. Blazejewski is not my representative (I'm in Aaron Regunberg's district, and I hope he'll lead on this issue), but since he's speaking on this issue I wanted to express my thoughts on the issue. You should too if you're in his district, or you can look up who does represent you.

Here's my sample letter:
Dear Representative, 
I heard your interview on RI NPR today, and wanted to register my disagreement with your stance on the car tax. As someone whose household has to pay the car tax, I obviously don't love it, but I support keeping it. 
I commend your position of returning funds to working class households, and think your idea of an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit is a better idea. Many poor people do not own cars, so while some working class families certainly pay the car tax, it's not a precise way to target that group. The EITC would provide fungible support that people can use towards their car (or other things). The car tax repeal is not as fungible, since it ignores non-car owners. 
We have many environmental challenges, and many working class families give in to owning a car (or cars) because of poor RIPTA service. Why not focus there as well? 
The state faces a $110 million deficit, which is a third reason not to repeal the tax. Efforts to pass a single-payer bill or improve other existing programs will be rejected if the Assembly uses its political capital on this issue. People will say we simply don't have the money. 
I saw Katherine Gregg's tweet from July saying that you expressed many of these exact thoughts. Let me know how I can support educating constituents on this issue so you feel empowered to act. 
Thank you.

One of the panel members on the program, URI professor Maureen Moakley, said "Finally, who likes the car tax?" and proceeded to outline how no one in the political spectrum of Rhode Island finds reasons to support it. There was no counterpoint offered to this view, other than weak questioning about the deficit issue. 

One aspect of this issue I didn't originally include in this post, but which I'm adding now, is the strong correlation between Speaker Mattiello's campaigning on the promise to exclude undocumented immigrants from drivers' licenses, and his intense campaigning on making sure that those who own cars in the state don't pay taxes. Just as programs like Social Security were originally designed to exclude house-cleaners and farm workers, the "progressive" effort to give people a tax cut for each car they own seems to exclude a large community of color, by design.

From RI Future: Why do you supposed Speaker Mattiello would say "everyone pays the car tax" but intentionally exclude undocumented immigrants from driving?
The fact is that repealing the car tax as a form of income redistribution is an example of "A includes B, but A doesn't equal B" thinking. If we offered a tax cut to redheads on the basis that some redheads are poor, we'd be forgetting that many redheads are not poor, and many poor people have a color hair that isn't red. I feel for people (like my partner Rachel) who have low incomes and have to pay for a car tax, but a per-car tax cut means that people who own three Mercedes get a tax cut, and people who are poor and take the bus (or are excluded from having a drivers' license by racist drivers' license regulations) get no tax cut. This should be an absolute no vote for progressives concerned with true progressive income/racial justice.

I support the car tax, and my household has to pay for it. My entire adult life has been one that has placed me in an income bracket to received the EITC, but only a year of my life so far has been in a household that owns a car. Repealing the car tax would have never helped me until this year, while holding back on that repeal and strengthening direct support to all working class Rhode Islanders would have helped me all along. RI NPR needs to better represent the range of views on this issue. It's not an unquestioned consensus.


Making the Tobey Street Bridge Active

In discussions about the proposed Tobey Street bridge which would connect the neighborhoods of Federal Hill and Olneyville, there are two camps: one camp says that the bridge should be car-free, activated by pedestrian and bike traffic; the other says that cars are a necessary component not for transportation purposes per se but because the added traffic of passing cars would add "passive policing", what is sometimes called "eyes on the street" after Jane Jacob's turn of phrase.

If you need a review on why Tobey Street would be a good location to put a car-free bridge, check out the RI Future article I wrote on it.

I'm in favor of a car-free bridge, but I don't think the objection that pedestrian spaces can become inactive is unwarranted. There are many examples of great pedestrian spaces as well as dead ones, and the dead ones can be very unwelcoming, especially from the perspective of social safety. What separates a good pedestrian space from a bad pedestrian space is activation: do people use this space?

Is It a Direct Route?
A pedestrian bridge is not going to be actively used unless it provides a more direct route to a location than otherwise existed. 

In Walkable West Palm Beach, Jeff Speck argues that pedestrian bridges over major streets are not useful unless they provide a more direct connection for pedestrians than would otherwise be possible (he uses the example of a direct connection between a third-flood garage and the third floor of a building). This Strong Towns image that he cites captures an example of a pedestrian bridge that does not provide a direct route. You can see how people ignore it.

A journey that starts Tobey & Ridge and crosses to mid-block Harris Avenue* would be about 500 feet (red), versus 7/10ths of a mile using Broadway (blue), and 8/10ths of a mile using the Atwells bridge (green). This is not a significant savings of distance in a car, but it's a world-changer as a pedestrian. Even if you assume that the pedestrian has started their journey on a major street, like Broadway, the bridge is still worth the detour. It saves the pedestrian about a 1/3 of a mile starting at Tobey & Broadway to use the Tobey Street bridge to get to the middle of Harris instead of the Broadway one (it's about the same distance either way coming from Atwells & Knight).

I think that this passes the direct route test, but there is still the question of how much activity from commerce can be expected. I think we have some solutions to that as well.

There's Always Money in the Banana Stand
As they say on Arrested Development, there's always money in the banana stand.

I use the Banana Hut as a joke to help this stick in people's memory, but I think the bridge could be activated by something as simple as a small concession stand: a nighttime cafe, a newsstand, or flower shop could add passive policing to the bridge.

It's not a new idea. In Melbourne, Australia, putting small huts on the sidewalk to add passive policing to areas at night. The buildings are simple, cheap pop-ups. In return for staying open during later hours, the stands get a break on local taxes. Check out the video starting at around 3:38:

Palmieri's Bakery is already located at Tobey and Ridge Street. Imagine if the city or state offered free space in a very no-frills concession stand to sell coffee at night? The space gained by not having cars cross the bridge opens up some serious opportunities for outdoor seating right on the bridge itself. 

The social safety argument that a bridge without people isn't any better than a bridge with lots of car traffic is a valid one. I just think we have answers to it.

A Providence Example
East Street has a car-free bridge. The bridge probably sees its greatest activity during the day, but is not a formidable or scary place to go at night (though it could be better).

I think it's important to think about examples of car-free infrastructure that already exist in the city, and ask how well they work. The East Street bridge into India Point Park is car-free, and is also the main way of accessing the East Bay Bike Path. 

I don't use this bridge a great deal at night, though I also don't think I would be afraid to do so. The fact that the only thing on the other side of the bridge from neighborhoods is a park means that nighttime use is not that big a priority. But the Tobey Street bridge would be connecting neighborhoods on both sides. 

I think in the East Street bridge you can find reasons to argue for either perspective. Clearly, I wouldn't say that this is the most active place in the city 24-7, but it's not the worst either.

And for contrast. . . Gano Street. . . which has plenty of cars at all hours, but is creepy despite the cars (even in the day). I would much rather walk across the East Street bridge.

So, I think there are details to look at to make sure that a car-free bridge is done right, but ultimately I would argue that there's a lot of reasons to hold out hope that Tobey Street would work as a car-free bridge between two local, all-modes streets.
*I'm actually not 100% sure if the intended endpoint of the bridge on the Olnevyille side of the bridge, and the location may end up being Valley Street rather than Harris. But either way the result is the same, so it's not a detail worth sorting out before publishing this.

Eco RI Features Transport Providence Proposals

James Kennedy, author of the blog Transport Providence and a leading advocate of tearing the 6-10 Connector down, admitted the boulevard idea is toast, but he is pursuing a new set of demands that fall within the scope of the compromise design.Via a recent blog post, Kennedy proposed separated bike lanes — not just painted lanes — on each bridge crossing the highway, along with narrow traffic lanes. He also recommended a network of on-street, separated bike lanes in the neighborhoods surrounding the project, instead of the proposed off-street bicycle path that would hug the noisy highway.Kennedy’s most intriguing idea is to reserve the Tobey Street bridge for pedestrians and bicycles only. He detailed this plan in a piece for RI Future, in which he also recommended eliminating a redundant city street near the bridge in favor of building housing.
Eco RI News' staff reporter, Kevin Proft, also caught a detail of the plans that Transport Providence has yet to report on. RIDOT features an image of the Westminster Street bridge that has two lanes, but actually intends to build the bridge to a four-lane "stroad" design. 

As Eco RI points out, this image of a future Westminster Street is a bait-and-switch that suggests a smaller, more neighborhood-scale bridge where a four-lane one is actually intended. This bridge also does not have protected bike lanes, which is unacceptable.
Transport Providence calls for RIDOT and Providence Planning to address this bait-and-switch design. Not only does a four-lane bridge make the proposal less functional, but it also makes the bridge more expensive to maintain in the long-run. Rhode Islanders are being cheated every time RIDOT proposes such plans, and it is the duty of Mayor Jorge Elorza and Providence Planning director Bonnie Nickerson to object loudly to these types of plans.