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Keep (and Expand) Jorge Elorza's Roger Williams Park Changes

Councilwoman Castillo on the right, as featured in a film about her
Update: Yesterday I met with Councilwoman Carmen Castillo, whose activism as a union hotel worker is depicted in the photo to the right. Councilwoman Castillo (Ward 9) has joined Councilwoman Sabina Matos and Council President Luis Aponte in opposing the changes to Roger Williams Park, but we had a very productive conversation about it. Here is the gist of my argument for Mayor Elorza's plan, and for why the city needs to expand beyond it to a more expansive bike network.

Councilwoman Castillo is not someone I've ever met, but she has a broad reputation as a fighter for low-income causes and workers' rights, which I have heard amply about from our friends at UNITE HERE 217. I suspect that her position of wanting to revisit Roger Williams Park and push a traffic study comes from her desire to advocate for the neighborhoods around the park. Some neighbors definitely do feel that keeping the park as a fast cut-through for drivers onto Route 10 would be best, and that may indeed be a loud constituent opinion she hears. Here, below, is why that's wrong.

This won't be the first foray into Roger Williams Park, but the last one was (admittedly) before I had gone in person to see the park arrangement. Now that I've seen it, and I've interviewed some park users, I feel even more strongly that the Roger Williams changes are good and will grow popular with everyone over time, including drivers.

The Park Changes Are Popular
Changes to transportation arrangements people are used to are often unpopular in a knee-jerk way until the general public sees what they look like. Imagine the reaction to proposals to close traffic going through Broadway in New York City, or to tear down the Embarcadero: these were very unpopular decisions until people saw the results. In Copenhagen, Jan Gehl talks about how trying to make the streets bike friendly resulted in shopkeepers complaining that "This is not sunny Italy". Now, Copenhagen is a leading city for non-car travel, and the Italians might say, "This is not Denmark" when someone tries to remove cars from a city street.

In a short time, many people have realized how great it is to have a livable park.



I tried interviewing a bunch of Spanish-speakers on this question too, and found none that were willing to go on camera. But all of the people I spoke to in my broken Spanish said they liked the walkway and bikeway (and many were in the process of using it). The one couple I spoke to simply kept saying "perfecto" to describe the new walking opportunities.

The Park Changes Don't Harm Traffic Congestion
Much has been made of how the original traffic study on the park only covered the park itself, and did not consider diversion of cars out of the park and into neighborhoods. The NIMBY opposition to having a protected bike lane has surprisingly centered less around the direct desire to keep open driving for cars, and more from a fear that the traffic will go elsewhere like a pink cat ring.
But that's an unrealistic fear. The study found that the park receives just over two cars per hour per minute (Sorry! Got it right the first time!) on the route that was made a one-way loop. Two car per hour is not enough to create a traffic jam. Of course, all of us have been in Roger Williams Park on the handful of occasions throughout the year when a big event brings a large contingent of drivers into the park. But for the vast majority of time, it's clear that there will not be any traffic under current conditions-- which means it's pretty hard to imagine diversion.

Even If There Was Diversion, the Solution Would Be Doubling Down
The biggest single thing wrong with the park design, as currently completed, is that it is an isolated loop int he middle of a park that can only be approached on busy roads from all sides. So if our goal is to reduce congestion in and out of the park, the goal should be to double down on the policy of converting driving spaces to biking or walking ones. Why? Because bikes and people walking take up exponentially less space, meaning that if the park were to be made accessible by people on bike and foot (or by transit) then fewer people would have to drive to get there.

The space advantage is overwhelming:

Many people currently drive to the park. In fact, though I did not specifically ask the question, I would bet 1,000,000 to 1 odds the people I interviewed from San Juan via Massachusetts, and the man from Central Falls both drove to get to the park. Even the other residents who were from the South Side very well might have driven. But there's nothing inherent about the situation that says it ought to stay that way. The residents don't walk or bike because Elmwood and Broad Street (and even the roads into the park) are scary to walk or bike on. Central Falls, for instance, has really lousy transit connections, but is a dense, walkable town very near corridors that could be served directly to R.W. Park by bus. Even the woman from Massachusetts, depending on what park of Mass. she's from, could have taken transit or biked to this park, depending on her desire to do so. But if some drivers continue to show up in the park from places like Massachusetts, that's not a big deal. What matters most is the fact that we can build neighborhoods to allow the vast majority of local users not to drive: that means adding protected bike lanes on Broad and Elmwood, and continuing to bike- and walk-ify the park itself.

The Equity Stance is the Transit, Biking, and Walking Stance
It may be a voice in the wilderness at this point, given Rhode Island politics, but advocating for drivers is always the anti-equity stance. In Rhode Island, people-of-color are twice as likely not to drive, in line with many other places in the country. We still do not allow drivers' licenses for undocumented immigrants. People who are very young, very old, disabled, or poor often cannot or do not drive. And the cost of driving-- which is staggering-- is so great that even for those poor, old, disabled, or of-color drivers out there, it would be easier for government to provide alternatives to driving than to directly subsidize or support the habit. 
Consider that in the United States, immigrant populations are actually the most likely demographic of all to bike. That doesn't match with the perception that media (and even some bike advocates) put forward of white, athletic men in their forties donning Lycra to go for a race. But it is backed up by demography. In places with successful bike infrastructure efforts, equity is improved and segregation lessened by the increased physical access it gives to people of lesser means. And bike infrastructure is a way to support the people we tend to think bike least: the elderly and the disabled. 

There's a perception sometimes that the elites bike, and the "real" residents drive. But to the extent that that is true, it is only because our design efforts on streets make it impossible for most people to do anything else. In the Netherlands, immigrants arrive from countries in the Middle East where biking is not particularly popular or common, and quickly develop a knack for biking just as any new Manhattan resident suddenly learns to use the subway. In the United States, our largest flow of immigration actually comes from Latin America and Asia-- places with long histories or developing tendencies towards bike infrastructure and transit. Yet the U.S. quickly trains its immigrant population to become like native-born whites, and to drive.

We can honor Providence's Latin American roots by doing as Latin America does:

So, for Councilors Aponte, Matos and Castillo to be fighting to return Roger Williams Park to a car-drenched expressway is the wrong position. It may feel like the easy populist stance, but as we've seen in the past year, easy populist stances are often harmful (Sad! Apologize!).

When you take the pro-car position, you ride with Trump.

Please support the mayor-- and in fact push the mayor to go much further than he's gone. The loop at Roger Williams Park is not enough. We need City Council to start taking action to push the Elorza Administration to the left on issues like transportation equity and climate change. We need councilpeople like Councilwoman Castillo to be central in that push.


  1. Wasn't that two cars per minute? Still not much.

  2. Yes, that's correct. Thank you for catching that. I reported the number correctly in the earlier article but I must have got in the groove and typed the wrong thing this time.

    Yes, still not a lot in the sense of a traffic congestion tipping point. One car average for every thirty seconds. It's a fair number of cars in terms of bike comfort though. So it's important to keep the two separate standards in mind.