We Ain't in Kansas No More, Toto!

If you'd like to see the PDF of this, please email me, or tweet @transportpvd.

As you all may know, I've been doing work on the East Providence bike plan, and today I had the opportunity to talk with planners about changes to East Providence's road system that are in the works. These plans are currently at 10%, so there's a long way to go before they're implemented. And thank goodness.

There are some good things here (sort of), so first:

Putting some kind of a traffic circle where the Veterans' Memorial Parkway is makes sense as a traffic calming device, and to reconnect Mauran Avenue.

The plan removes a slipway that currently allows cars to swerve wildly off of Warren Avenue onto I-195. Also good.

The additional ramps into I-195 are all below grade (they say "in the pit", which is what it is) so there is no widening of I-195 into the parallel streets.

I like the closures of the Potter Street and Purchase Street Bridges to cars. This was planned in order to deal with conflicts in traffic that are entirely car-related, but can also act to create space for bikes and pedestrians if we apply the closures that way.

Okay, now the bad:

The traffic circle is way to big and requires taking properties, and with the curves on this thing being what they are, it's not likely to calm traffic more than a tiny bit. Traffic circles can be good or bad, just like any other thing. This one borders on the bad--I'd say it's only a slight improvement over what's there, but that's an extremely low bar, and we should be going for better than that.

Are you a good roundabout, or a bad roundabout?
Next, there's a lot of focus on increasing the connections cars can make between various highways, and between various parts of the neighborhood and highways. I think this is a mistake.

There's a general principle that holds true that the more you're able to offer people options to network through a variety of routes, the more resilient a street grid will be. You could take the idea of adding all these connections between different stroads and highways as a version of this. But I find that in Rhode Island more than Philadelphia, people use highways as a way to cut past red lights and take local trips. You almost can't ask to go from one neighborhood to another without someone telling you what exit to take, as if the best way to get from the West Side to the East Side is to take I-95 northbound and get off. To my eye, the highway network here needs to lose exits and entrances. Yes, this would mean that people using the highways would have fewer options as to where to get on, but that doesn't mean the same thing as it does in a local road network, because the different "options" to get on one ramp or another don't take you to different streets, they just dump you on one collector. So you're all stuck in the same traffic jam, but the traffic jam is worse because half the people on the road are just trying to avoid a red light as part of their two mile journey to the grocery store.

Secondly, the various ramps and such here cost tens of millions of dollars. Now, I know someone will say that these bring jobs or development, but so do local roads. For the same amount of money, East Providence could probably repave and redesign quite a large percentage, if not all, of its local road network. This project does not necessarily add anything in terms of car mobility in the long run, but it wastes money and treads water when what East Providence should run and not walk as fast as it can to someone that's willing to get rid of some of its ugly transportation waste.

The way that East Providence is set up intrigues me. If I were designing it from scratch, I'd never have built all these extra roads--Massasoit, Waterfront Drive, Veterans' Memorial Parkway, I-195--nor would have have stroadified Broadway, Pawtucket Ave., etc. But because these larger ring roads exist, we can borrow from the knowledge the Dutch have imparted to us.

The Dutch often use ring roads to take major trips around the inhabited parts of a town or city, and make everything within that ring very calm. We have an opportunity here to do much the same, using the ring roads as throughways for necessary freight, long distance (more than five miles) travel, etc. But in order to make that work, I suggest taking the off-ramps from I-195 out to this section of town. We should keep the ones that go directly into the Veterans' Memorial, because going from a highway to a road makes sense, but we should have a better roundabout to calm cars until they get past Watchemoket. But we should take out the ramp for Taunton Ave, and the one for Warren Ave. Cars coming into East Providence from I-195 should have to go all the way to Broadway, and come back.

It's clear why this is good for bikes, pedestrians, transit. Why is this something people should support if they never touch these modes of transportation (that is, they only drive)?

*If you live in East Providence, this will open up a lot of developable land, in an area that the city recognizes once was its thriving downtown (Watchemoket ain't so thriving anymore).

*This calms streets and creates ways to build business. Ask yourself: Would the people of Newport, Warren, Jamestown, or other nice communities allow their downtowns to be infiltrated by so much highway-oriented blight? No, of course not. These communities have highways to get people from A to B over long distances, perhaps, but they calm their centers. And that's why people like them. (You could also ask: Did the people of the East Side allow a highway to come through from I-195 to connect to the "Red" Bridge/Henderson Bridge? No. . . It's fine to resent their privilege at having stopped these projects, but try to seize some of it for yourself!

*As a driver, if you're getting on the highway, you should want the highway to be as free of cars as is practical. So you want people who are taking trips of five miles or more, but not local trips. And you want as many trips to be taken by transit as possible, even if you never ever in your life step on a bus. Having these ramps in the downtown of Watchemoket ensures that short trips will be taken on the highway. You'll be stuck in traffic.

*On the reverse side, even if you want to take a short trip, having all these ramps is going to make it so that you don't feel safe, in a social sense or in a traffic sense, to do anything but drive. You will definitely drive, because what should be a thriving center will be a maze of hideous, loud, noxious, and polluting ramps.

*As a businessperson, you want people to be able to get to your town, but you want to get as much benefit from that as possible while reducing the negative aspects. Businesses on Taunton Avenue and Warren Avenue should want only cars that are coming to visit them on their streets, not all the people trying to shove their way out of the city. Think of Olneyville Square. It's constantly in a harangue of traffic, but how many of those people do you think actually stop and spend some money? Not enough to make it worth what people go through there.

*These costs do not have enough benefit in cold, hard cash to make them worth it. Our DOT and the DOTs of most states are going broke, while places that invest in transit, biking, and walking, and maintain modest streets for cars, and highways that are only for longer trips, do not go broke. Chuck Marohn calls this the Ponzi Scheme of Suburban Development. East Providence should understand this. It was an older town, with a center, and the highway came in promising Jetson-like modernity, but it instead tore out the heart of where people used to get their enjoyment. The highways are a feature that exists, and East Providence can use them for what they're good for for as long as it has them, but it should not add capacity to them, because they're far and away the most expensive thing we can invest in for transportation, with by far the lowest economic return.

*And think of it this way: East Providence has a bunch of positives. It has some really nice buildings, both commercially and as housing. It has some enviable density, with New England triple deckers that could draw a lot of very hip people into its sphere. It has the bike path. It has this beautiful river. It has such a short commute to Providence that I walk to work, even over the Henderson Bridge--from the West Side of Providence!

What do I propose:

There's a good reason for long consideration to go into major transportation projects, because they're often expensive and hard to reverse. I oppose these ramps, with the exception of the one onto Waterfront Avenue. I'm agnostic on that one, because I think perhaps it might be useful to have Waterfront Avenue act as a ring road in order to calm the center of town. I could also see arguments against it, especially since I hear that Waterfront Avenue is being used heavily by bikers as a northerly route, and because I think the expense may not be justified. I hope E.P. residents will get involved and talk more about these large projects.

There's no reason for us to take forever to do cheap things that are easily reversed. East Providence needs to start putting in protected bike lanes, or making its streets extremely calm (under 20 mph), depending upon context in various parts of town. There's no reason to delay that or have that be part of a decades-long planning process. 

East Providence needs to remove slipways. There's no reason to delay that. Put parklets in them. I bet you can get the Korean Grocery Store or St. Mary's Church to pony up some money to plant flower beds in that Warren Avenue slipway, no problem, because I bet that though they drive they also don't like people speeding down their street.

There's nothing stopping us from experimenting with closing the bridges. We can do that with temporary infrastructure too. The costs would be in thousands of dollars rather than in tens of millions. 

East Providence is a place that at present I would not live in if you paid me, but if it dealt with its serious transportation flaws, it could be a place I'd enjoy being a part of. Let's make tactical urbanism a part of that process.

Start paying attention to the man behind the curtain, because you've got all the brains, heart, and courage necessary to fix this problem, E.P.


Broadway Double Protected Bike Lanes?

Time and again, people have really made a strong point that the service roads create an obstacle to properly implementing protected bike lanes on Westminster. So we could try doing Broadway instead.

This is what it would look like:

Protected bike lanes can also be put side by side, like this, and I like that too because it's possible to put tree cover in:

Westminster has very low parking occupancy (just above 10%) and for much of its length is near Broadway. So Westminster's problem of not having enough parked cars against the sidewalk to calm traffic could be improved by this plan.

Also, as a neighbor on a side-street like Tobey, I have to say I like the fact that people will walk past my house to get to their car. The streets are too empty at night, and having some pedestrians will make them safer. One of the few times I get this community feeling is when people get out of a Columbus Theater show and walk up and down the street to get their cars (or bikes, or just walk home. . .). Having this circulation past things on foot is also one of the things that converts people in their cars from one-stop shoppers (or even through-drivers to somewhere else) into people who will stop at a restaurant, take a look in a shop, etc.

This is also a great plan because like the previous one, it adds parking to the service roads, and that will help calm traffic, encourage people to visit from the growing downtown (and visa-versa), and replace the lost parking spots. 


No More Sharrows

The Phoenix had an eco forum, at the end of which I asked the city's director of sustainability, Sheila Dormody, to account for why Providence has done little more than sharrow some streets and call it day for the bike plan. Dormody responded to say that sharrows are a step forward--not where we should be, but a step forward.

I kind of forgot how much sympathetic laughter was going on as I asked my questions (there was some for Dormody as well). Providence definitely has a support base for a real bike plan.

A young woman stepped in to say that she used to bike in Providence, but doesn't anymore, and would rather walk four miles from her house to an event than bike. That's sad, considering that Providence has exactly the geographic prerequisites not only to be a bike-friendly city, but also could be poised to make biking a major form of transportation.

Why do I say sharrows don't help? Frequent readers of this blog may know why already, but (hopefully) I'm picking up a few new people now and again to add to my reader(s), so:

  • Sharrows represent shared space, and shared space is only appropriate is low-volume, slow-pace areas. The only two streets that come to mind like this in Providence are Thayer Street and (downtown) Westminster. You could maybe stretch this category to include the portion of Hope Street near Rochambeau, but that's a real stretch unless further traffic calming efforts are made.
  • In the Netherlands and other cycling countries, areas with speeds above 30 km/hr (18 mph) are considered too fast for shared space of any kind, and require not only painted bike lanes, but separated facilities that have some kind of median or divider.
  • Sharrows are also fine if they're used for wayfinding. When I lived in Philadelphia, a block or two of very calm (Dutch calm) streets were painted with sharrows between the South Street Bridge and the Spruce & Pine buffered bike lanes, so as to bridge the gap for people who weren't familiar with the area. The sharrows were not expected to improve safety on an otherwise unsuitable street. And this, of course, is an example from Philadelphia, which any good urbanist could find critiques of (the first critique I can make is that the Spruce & Pine bike lanes weren't protected, but were merely "buffered" by painted lines--yet at least no one in Philadelphia stopped them because of the street supposedly being too narrow. Spruce and Pine are each about as wide as Downtown Westminster, maybe a tad wider, and there's room for a parking lane on one side, a 10' car lane, and another 9' bike lane).
There's nothing wrong with taking small steps forward, but it is wrong to tell people that you're taking steps forward when you're treading water. It's also wrong to say that the reason we have to take half-measures is because bike infrastructure is too expensive, when the reality is that the city has been too tepid to envision any changes that take away travel or parking space from cars. Bike infrastructure is far and away the cheapest of any other transportation improvements that can be made, and if included in an existing project, can sometimes be completely cost neutral. As part of the very repaving project that Dormody mentions, the city could have repositioned parking spots or added rubber armadillos and/or plastic bollards to streets in order to create separated space.

The real issue is that Providence politicians--who are in charge of Sheila Dormody after all--are (as yet) too tepid to envision the city that Providence can and must someday be. We all know that Sheila Dormody wants a bikeable city. Maybe the next mayor should actually let her build one.


Broadway & Westminster

Councilman Bryan Principe set up a meeting some months ago between Transport Providence and a variety of city services, city council members, and community organizations to discuss the idea of protected bike lanes on the West Side. Principe deserves praise from the neighborhood for his efforts on this issue. I've been especially impressed to see Mr. Principe talking excitedly to other councilpersons about the examples from Streetfilms of successful biking in the Netherlands, New York City, and other places. You may recall Councilman Principe as the guy who goes around the West Side and helps people shovel out their sidewalks while RIDOT leaves the sidewalks in its care completely unshoveled.

The conversation between different community members and city services had a long way to go, and at the time I decided not to report on it because I wanted to see where the process would go on its own. There hasn't been any additional motion forward since February, so I'd like to start the discussion up again. 

There was some concern over the idea of changing parking arrangements on the W. Side by some participants, but thankfully there seemed to be some agreement that a compromise could be met eventually around protected bike lanes that would rearrange some parking but not all of it.

Our original proposal for Westminster Street was that it would lose both of its parking lanes due to extremely low parking occupancy. This proposal was met with strong opposition by the WBNA, although some of its members supported the idea and signed our petition, and one of its business members, Fertile Underground, was actually actively involved in the earliest planning and discussion around the idea. From what I've gathered, the plans for protected bike lanes are dead in the water unless we get the WBNA to go along, so if you're a member (like I am) then you should talk to them about how important this is.

Our new proposal is the creation of dual protected bike lanes on Broadway and Westminster which would remove only one parking lane from Westminster and keep parking completely the same on Broadway. Additionally, the proposal would add parking to the I-95 service roads in order to calm traffic there, re-making the three-lane one-ways into two-lane one-ways. 

Broadway would squeeze its existing bike lane space into a wider one-way bike lane, protected from traffic.

Westminster would lose one lane of parking for a protected bike lane. It's current parking occupancy hovers around 10% on the street, and many businesses have unfilled parking lots.
Service Road 7 would gain parking, which is especially helpful since one of the few areas of Westminster that gets higher parking occupancy is near I-95. This would also calm traffic. Note, I've put a grass median in place to imagine a separation from the gained width left over from changing a 12 or 13' travel lane into an 8' parking lane, but if funding is not available this could be done with temporary materials such as plastic bollards or paint.
Broadway and Westminster are already on the list to get repaving work done for the summer, according to a conversation I had with the city's parking department. The repaving makes temporary changes to parking difficult, said the city, but it also makes putting in changes to painted lines on the street extra easy. We should take this opportunity to re-think our streets.

If you bike on the West Side, please help push these plans forward!


Updated Waterman & Angell plan

Green=bikeway or pedestrian mall, Red=stop signs/blinking red lights, Yellow=uncontrolled pedestrian crossings w/ bumpouts or islands. Interactive map with labels here
I came up with a plan to slow traffic along Waterman and Angell streets using more stop signs, and converting traffic signals into blinking red lights. I like that plan still because it helps traffic flow at a slow and steady speed, making it safer to be a pedestrian or bicyclist. It's a plan highly recommended by both Chuck Marohn and Jeff Speck, neither of whom I agree with 100% of the time, but both of which I think have many good ideas. 

But our friend David Hembrow in the Netherlands said NOT GOOD ENOUGH! David has been kind enough to be tough and push us for better, so he came down hard on my original East Side plan, saying that I should put protected bike lanes the whole way up Waterman and Angell Streets. In response I came up with a different plan. The new map is here.

On the original map, I wasn't sure if we could really swing changing Gano to a blinking red*. So I went out and visited the site today. Here's some video.


The first thing I can say is thank goodness this runner didn't think I was a creep and smack me. She went about her business waiting for traffic to pass and then crossed her merry way (a few other runners came along as well, but the video was too big to export from my cell phone without shortening it).

You'll note there are a lot of cars. But then in between there are gaps without any. This is from the other traffic signals, not from the one at this intersection necessarily. The cars stack at the red light a few blocks away, and then when the green releases them to go they put pedal to the metal and go as fast as they can. So making the signals along this whole corridor into blinking reds would mean that drivers would have to take caution and move slowly through the intersection, but it would also mean there'd be a steady flow, and this stacking would not occur. You wouldn't have total ebbs and flows. Also, reducing the lanes to one on Angell and one on Waterman, with the protected bike lanes will also have an effect of making many more people choose biking. And remember, these two lane streets bottleneck at Brown, just where so many of these people are going and coming from, so the two lanes don't really offer as much mobility as they might seem to offer at first glance.

Protected bike lanes going up Waterman's hill would actually add (legal) parking, even though some spots would be lost through the Brown campus. I want to use the left side of the street, not the right, in order to keep continuity with the rest of the bikeway. But nonetheless, using parked cars to protected a left-side bike lane would give them something they sometimes pilfer but don't legitimately have at the moment:

These cars were doing 30-35 mph.


The original color system I used was green=let's do it immediately, yellow=very soon, red=not sure if this would work. I abandoned that color system. Green now means a bikeway or parklet, yellow refers to uncontrolled (no stop sign or signal) pedestrian crossings, and red refers to pedestrian crossings that are either blinking red or stop signs. 


The Humble Stop Sign

Interactive map with labels here

The more I ride around certain parts of Providence, the more I feel that shared space would work in many of them. Maybe that sounds like a shocking thing coming from me, who is always pushing protected bike lanes. I'm not giving up on the idea that protected bike lanes are the best thing for major thoroughfares like Hope Street, Westminster, Broadway, S. Main, etc. But there are certain streets where I think getting protected bike lanes might be more work than it's worth.

The key to shared space, for me is getting areas to 15 mph, which is a speed that is safe and practical for bicyclists, poses virtually no hazard to pedestrians, and makes it possible to have all uses on roads without protected bike lanes. 

It's clear what non-drivers get from this, but what do drivers get in return? Getting streets to 15 mph may be more achievable if we can reduce signalization, because signalized streets have relatively high peak speeds (podcast) while performing at poor average speeds. I picked out a corridor near Brown to show an example because Thayer Street is clearly ground zero for places that could benefit from this kind of treatment in the Capital City.

A newly installed traffic signal can cost six-figures, and the electricity consumed by the traffic signal can run more than $1,000 a year. Turning the signal off will force drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists to make eye contact with each other and move slowly through the intersection in a way that works for everyone. As a middle ground I would suggest moving to blinking red lights for many signals, and adding stop signs to create shorter blocks.

I've made a map of my ideas. Green is things I think can be done immediately with little to no funding. Yellow requires some planning or funding to be done, or more process due to being a larger project. Red are the things I think should be looked at, but which I'm not certain would work (I'd love to get feedback on these ideas).

Some people don't think that stop signs are a good idea, because they're enthralled with the example of Drachte, Netherlands, which did away with all of its signals. Personally, I wouldn't mind us taking things as far as this at some point, but I feel like stop signs are a really low-cost investment that's easily reversible. People also rightly point out that we have way too many signs on our streets such that some of them are ignored outright--visual noise that no one can process. I think stop signs are the one sign that people really do pay attention to, and are a counterpoint to that. I find that not having stop signs at intersections makes people here treat those junctions as if they can speed right through them, and the long blocks that result give them plenty of time to reach dangerous speeds. This is definitely moving towards a less signalized system overall.

Drivers already go effectively quite slow along much of the green shared-space corridor I'm suggesting, and will actually be gaining from not having signalization. But cyclists and pedestrians will also gain, because they'll be able to to cross with priority. And drivers, less impatient, will not jump to the highest speed possible when they see green, but will instead flow at a slower but steadier pace. The protected bike lanes on either side, which are in yellow, give drivers the ability to get up to 25 mph, but also give cyclists separate dedicated space in return. The overall experience is such that the slow area only takes up a very small part of the journey, but has no elongated stops.


86ing 6 & 10

The Viaduct could reduce its footprint if 6 & 10 were removed.

John Norquist said the I-195 project is a good example of the opportunities that a city can avail itself of when a freeway disappears, but noted that removal of urban highways is always better than relocation.

'The highway is a rural piece of technology,' he said. 'Look at Boston. It’s got several beltways around it. The Big Dig, which everyone hates, was actually as much a waste of money as people say it was, because it just took all this land and ran I-93 under it for no reason. There’s a hierarchy of roads: interstates for long-distance travel, boulevards to connect parts of a city or town, and smaller streets. I-93 has no business carrying through-traffic right under an urban core when there are plenty of belt roadways for taking it around it.

'It’s hard, because the general public doesn’t always understand road design. When I helped remove the Park East Freeway in Milwaukee, the right-wing talk shows had a field day coming up with excuses for why it had to stay. Traffic would go through the roof, they said. Businesses would die. The neighborhood was really too dangerous because of gang activity to drive directly through. They came up with every racist, vile thing they could say. Of course, the reason the neighborhood was blighted was because of the freeway.'

The rest of the article, with interviews of  the Norquist, NYC DOT's Sam Schwartz, East Coast Greenway's Eric Weis, Birchwood Design Group's Art Eddy, and Olneyville Housing Corporation's Frank Shea, is at EcoRI News.