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Could Providence Achieve Oslo's Car-Free City Center Plan?

In 2015, the government of Oslo, Norway declared its commitment to removing cars from its city center. A recent Streetfilm on Oslo highlights some of the successes the city has already had, as it focuses in on 2019 as the endpoint by which to achieve its car-free goal.


As Streetfilms points out, Oslo doesn't intend to completely remove all vehicles from the city center, but instead wants to get as close as physically possible to getting rid of private vehicles. So some of the changes involve car-sharing programs. But a surprisingly large amount of the city's plan to move away from cars involves walking, biking, and transit. 

One especially exciting goal is the removal of all street parking from downtown Oslo. The city is making progress on this goal, turning car parking into protected bike lanes. Sometimes existing protected bike lanes are being expanded as part of the sidewalk, and what was previously parking is becoming the new bikeway. Transport Providence did an analysis of Providence's streets that concluded that a very small percentage of on-street parking removal could lead to a pretty hefty change in the amount of bike amenities the city has. Some Providence-based firms, like Park with Spotter have started making it easier to find parking spots in the city in people's driveways, which could hopefully lead to better public support for parking removal in Providence. The city of Zurich, Switzerland has a policy of parking neutrality, whereby when new parking spaces are added somewhere in the city, the developer is responsible to remove them somewhere else, and that has led to great success, as reported on by Streetfilms and UConn engineering professor Norman Garrick.

Providence to Oslo Comparison

One of the questions that comes up when European capitals do ambitious things with their transportation is whether Providence can really expect to be able to achieve the same. The honest verdict is that some changes will take time, while others can be done quickly and without delay.

Oslo has around 700,000 inhabitants (a Boston-sized figure), but its density is around 3,500/sq. mile. For comparison, Providence's density is almost 9,700/sq. mile. But the way that Oslo's borders are set up obviously make this somewhat of an apples-to-oranges figure. Just looking at a map shows that a lot of land in Oslo is relatively uninhabited green space. I would ballpark maybe a quarter of this area being taken up by inhabited space, so the density of that inhabited area is more like 14,000/ sq. mile (I got that by multiplying 3,500/sq. mile x 4, which I'm not certain is methodologically sound, but makes sense to me).

The immediate result of this figure tempers the idea that Providence is denser than Oslo, but I'm not so sure it torpedoes the comparison, even so. This image shows parts of the state that are roughly within 5 miles of Kennedy Plaza, as the bird flies. 5 miles takes you a lot farther than you'd imagine, in Rhode Island:


Providence's population is fairly squeezed together: although the state itself is thought of as being the yardstick for "small", the places that have significant population are even smaller. If we think of Oslo as including a very dense city center, but also many of its suburbs, thinking about how that might play out in a Providence-centric view is helpful. Transport Providence once did a comparison of Portland, Oregon proper and Providence plus Cranston, East Providence, Pawtucket, and Central Falls, and found that the latter combination was only 60% the size of Portland-proper and of a similar combined density. If RIPTA improved the speed and directness of certain routes, like the 54 to Woonsocket or the 60 to Newport/Bristol/Warren, then areas outside of that pale could also be better connected to Providence without cars. Rhode Island has a very low level of state support for transit: Massachusetts spends about 4.5 times as much per capita on transit as Rhode Island does, and as Jarrett Walker pointed out recently at his Providence transit conference keynote, transit spending matters.

Oslo is also not as urban as one might imagine. When you start to tease out the neighborhoods on Streetview that make it into the definition of "Oslo", it's clear that not all of them are as dense as one might think. For instance, look at some of these:


These, too, are part of "Oslo." None of these Streetviews is from out in the hinterland of green on the map. They are all from within the urbanized part of Oslo (albeit nearer to the edges of that urbanized area). So while overall the land use in Norway might be preferable to that in Rhode Island, it's not idyllic: people who live in housing like this are not set up perfectly for car-free lives, and yet the population is working to create car-lite lifestyles.

In Some Ways Land Use Doesn't Matter

Density matters most for transit, and there is no doubt that transit is important to moving people out of cars. But the most easily achieved goals for Providence are not transit-related, but built around walking, biking, and parking.

Providence has an overabundance of parking, and both the city and state have made mistakes to worsen that problem. The Providence Journal reported recently that the $3.1 million dollar parking lot that the state purchased near the Statehouse (while simultaneously building another out of the Statehouse lawn) remains half-empty. Transport Providence has long called for the state to allow Providence to tax parking lots, so that it can use the revenue to lower property taxes and encourage affordable development and infill.

Hembrow explores density, which he posits is irrelevant to biking. See more
Removing street parking is easy, and can be done overnight as the city experiments with biking and walking routes. It's also easily reversed, meaning that the city can see these as experimental opportunities instead of things to be planned and fretted over for years at a time. Since there is no shortage of parking off-street in Providence, city officials should have nothing to fear in this proposal. Biking does not depend on density, as David Hembrow has shown, so it can be encouraged through infrastructure changes even when a city is in the infancy of its readiness for transit.

The Oslo proposal only removes cars from the city center, so taken that way, the land use of the entire region is less important. Providence's downtown blocks around Kennedy Plaza, Thayer Street, and other locations that are heavily frequented by transit and pedestrians should be beginning points for experimentation in car-free zones. The widely-lauded PVD Fest shows that when cars are removed from an even larger area of Downcity than that, the city becomes nicer to be in, and still draws lots of outsiders. In the same way that people living in car-oriented suburbs of Long Island understand that when they visit New York City, they should leave their cars behind, people living in the outer reaches of Rhode Island and Southeastern Mass. should understand that Providence is not a convenient place for driving-- but is a great place to visit without a car.
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