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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.
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*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.

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