Private Car Use & Downtown Providence

Land clearances in preparation for I-195 are apparent in this late 1950s photo of Providence, which as yet did not include an I-95 (from the dissertation).
Sam Coren, a Cranston-native who is seeking a Master's of History degree at Rhode Island College, sent me the abstract of his dissertation, which charts the disruption private car use (and the planning associated with such use) on Downtown Providence. From the opening abstract:
The first Downtown Providence master plan was published in 1959, a second in 1974, and a third in 1979; followed by several major plans and development projects in the eighties and nineties. The plans differed over the years in both style and scope, but there was a broad continuity of essential purpose among them—namely, to catalyze renewal of the downtown district. The plan authors likewise agreed (despite temporal, perceptual and ideological differences) on the principal cause of the Downtown’s troubles: namely, the rise of private car use and the drastic spatial transformations that followed. Thus, the record suggests that in the case of Downtown Providence there was a consistent correlation over time between transportation challenges—especially the spatial demands of private car use—and the will to plan, even in cases where the stated goals of individual master plans were not solely transportation-related.
 This looks like it'll be a great read (although I admit I've only glanced over it so far). Check it out


Different Kinds of #610Boulevards

I've been surprised at how much of a consensus there seems to be across the state to rethink Rt. 6/10. So now it's time to take things to another level. Let's discuss some of our options.

These are by no means exhaustive, but:

The No-Car Option
In the 19th Century, what is now Wissihickon Park in Philadelphia was a major mill site. The entire Wissihickon Creek was dammed up and down it, effluent from manufacturing was sent down the river. A great deal of development grew up either side of the canyon that came down from the neighborhoods to meet the water.

After the mills left, the area sat in disarray for a while. Then a movement grew to make the place a park. Today, it's hard to imagine what it once was.

Within earshot of this seven mile woods are very dense neighborhoods. The R6, R7, and R8 trains, and many bus lines, run parallel to the park. Through the middle is "Forbidden Drive" which was once a road, but which is now a stone dust path. 

Now, it's true that in the 19th Century, the types of roads people had imagined hadn't gotten as huge as Rt. 6/10. But we should look to the case of the "Disappearing Traffic" and realize that removing capacity to drive will be much more positive than it's intuitive to think.

The "No Car Option" is not as binary as it seems. I would propose that Rt. 6 stay a surface road, and that Rt. 10 get a no-car finish. Rt. 10 currently empties effluent from rainstorms directly into Roger Williams Park. Wouldn't it be great if Providence got a version of Wissihickon instead? The great thing about this kind of park is that although there are volunteer organizations that maintain aspects of it, much of the planting involves putting a few trees in and letting them go ferrel over decades. The Wissihickon Creek as as close to a full grown forest as you can imagine, but is at no point more than a half mile from dense rowhouses and commuter trains.

The Transitway opened during the Bicentennial Celebration, but the brickway
idea was left as asphalt with fast buses on it. Mixed traffic was restored in 
the '00s.
Bus Rapid Transit is a real option for the corridor. Again I have a Philadelphia example, and just want to bring up some questions.

The Chestnut Street Transitway was a flop. It flopped because it was designed differently than Edmund Bacon (Kevin Bacon's father--six degrees of Kevin Bacon! Check Bacon out defying the city in his 90s and skating illegally in Love Park--which he created. "Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! My whole damn life has been worth it, just for this moment!") had intended for it to be designed. Bacon wanted a walkway from the Delaware River to the Schuylkill River up Chestnut Street. The whole thing would be lined with brickways and trees, and be like a European capital's finest streets.

Where the project failed was that it became a Transitway instead of a walkway. Arguably, the need for high-speed buses along this route was kind of low to begin with; it's one block from a parallel subway/el system. Reportedly, pedestrians who felt lulled by the Transitway would walk into the street feeling like they were on a pedestrian mall, and get hit by buses--in Philadelphia people are genuinely used to cars going 15-20 mph, and the buses were going faster than that--surprise! 

When you read accounts of the Transitway in the Philadelphia Inquirer archives, the biggest complaints people have are not that cars disappeared from the street, but that the buses and pedestrians didn't mix well. The consensus is that the thing just never got to be the pedestrian experience people wanted. Lots of pedestrians used the street, but the fast-moving buses were not comfortable surroundings. Bacon himself described the project as a failure--but the failure was failing to think of the pedestrian. 

So how do we best design BRT to have a rapid component and also have a pedestrian feel? In 6/10's case, I think we have an advantage: space. Chestnut Street is one of Philadelphia's 17th Century thoroughfares, while the 6/10 bed would give space for very wide walkways to accommodate pedestrian activity. 

Streets for cars would still cross this boulevard, but would not be a part of it. But one can also imagine a boulevard with room for two car lanes in this set up. (I did not use precise measurements here--this is very rough).

In a BRT model, we could or could not consider cars. A Wissihickon-type park would be really nice, but of course BRT would require development. So BRT would mean to a great extent giving up the kind of woodsy experience that one would get in the woods. But it could mean stuff like this:


Vermont: The Church Street ped mall in Burlington has a bus mall as part of it, which works really well--although unlike the Philadelphia Transitway, buses meet perpendicularly to the ped mall on one block only, rather than coming down it.

Although some ped malls have not been successful in the U.S., the Burlington one was so successful that it has been gradually expanded. Having natural places from which people can walk to get to the mall matters. One can recall the failed Westminster Street ped mall of the 1970s in Providence--the mall was surrounded on three sides by major roads, and the design had cut off Westminster from crossing naturally into the West Side, where a pedestrian might be expected to walk if they were going to go without a car. Any design should avoid these pitfalls.
The Car Monster

While some cars may or may not have a role in the boulevard, we definitely don't want something like a car monster. That's what Cleveland is planning. The proposed Opportunity Corridor would knock down buildings and create a huge stroad nightmare through a city already plagued by cars.

Ugh, Cleveland.

I'd like to go on record saying that while parts of the 6/10 Boulevard should probably get cars, there should be no more than two lanes on any part of the boulevard for auto traffic. Why? Because we need two more for buses, and we need space for pedestrians, bikes, and development. Some of our most successful Providence streets are two lanes: Broadway and Hope St. come to mind. Cleveland and ODOT describe the Opportunity Corridor as a type of boulevard, because that's now the language that people like. Avoiding a RIDOT-led "Opportunity Corridor: Providence Edition" is something that should be high on our list, because what we want in our city is something more meaningfully different from the car-centric model.


Let's Bring #610boulevard to Prime-Time

The proposal for a 6/10 boulevard is getting important traction, but still hasn't made it to prime time TV or radio. If you think the #610boulevard is important, make your voice heard to your local media--whatever that is--so that we can get this discussion going outside of the blog-o-sphere and Twitter.

Getting It Wrong on Tolls
Are you "singled out" if I give you $2 (instead of $4) for every $1 you pay? 

Yes--for a large subsidy. 
The media has done a good job of reporting on the cost of trucking to our bridges, but has made the classic "false balance" mistake of bad journalism. Much like the New York Times' recent mistake to refer to climate deniers at Pope Francis' encyclical announcement as "climate skeptics", the attempt to balance arguments by offering the position that trucking is being "specially singled out" is omnipresent and objectively false. If you cause three-quarters of a problem, pay for 20% of it, and are being asked to pay double that, then the end result is that you're still getting away with paying less than $0.50 on the dollar for what you use. Journalists need to start stating that facts, and not creating a false debate.

Burying the Lede on 6/10
We've got multiple Republicans and Democrats from very different vantage points talking very publicly on Twitter, and in Statehouse Committee meetings, about the need to address 6/10 creatively through a boulevard. Yet this is not part of what we discuss. How can we move forward without all the most important information?

@TransportPVD @NBC10_Cierra @NBC10 @RhodeIslandGOP We believe boulevard design should be studied! Sounds good.
— Patricia Morgan (@repmorgan) June 15, 2015

How often do you go to the store and haggle over prices without looking at what you're buying? This is the central question that irks me about the toll debate. I have a growing calm and faith much of the time that rethinking Routes 6 & 10 is at least happening, and that not only is it happening, but it's happening in a broad and bipartisan way. But I'm also really bothered by the disinterest of the Fourth Estate in this issue. We we're very lucky to find ourselves on a variety of independent media with strong readerships like Eco RI News, RI Future, and GCPVD. Ian Donnis of RINPR featured us as item #10 on his "Things to Know" list at "On Politics". And even TV anchor Ted Nesi tweeted our idea out to his many Twitter readers. But what about discussing it on actual radio or TV shows? I'm really concerned that this is being left to eggheads on Twitter to read about in 140 characters (fingers pointed at myself there, too) and not making its way to the general public that may get its news primarily in snippets of radio on TV. I know that that's where my immediate family get their news from.

Do you feel like our transportation system is getting too complicated, without
resolving your mobility needs?
A False Link Between Tolls & Endless Debt
Where I've agreed with the Republican caucus has been in their concern over debt, but that's about as far as the agreement has gone (debt is a hallmark of the "suburban ponzi scheme" that Strong Towns blog talks about). As Director Alviti has correctly pointed out, since Rhode Island is #50 in the country for the state of its bridges, and threatens to have as many as 40% of its bridges in structural delinquency within a decade's time, the cost of pushing off action is much higher than the financing cost of fixing the bridges. 

Alviti describes this as having a hinge that is broken on a door, and financing to pay the five or ten dollars to fix it now, or waiting until the door falls off in order to avoid the financing cost. This is true up to a point. The other truth is that we have too many doors. We've got doors on the ceiling, and doors on the floor. We don't have enough windows, and our roof is falling in. But we've gotta' fix them doors. So yeah, we're in a huge mess of debt service because of unsustainable spending. But that's not connected inextricably to tolls on trucks. Trucks have to pay because they cause the damage. We're only incidentally connecting the equity and fiscal sustainability issue of truck tolling to bonding in this instance. We should be trying to reduce the amount of borrowing we do and also pay for what borrowing we do equitably.

So the media needs to stop having this repetitive discussion just of financing. There's a middle ground to be had between where the RI GOP is--in questioning $200 million of debt service for $700 million in projects--and where Governor Raimondo apparently is--which is just going forward with that plan and not questioning the need to rethink our road system. In order to address the cost of these projects in any real way, we have to talk turkey about the projects themselves. Can we cut costs in half on the 6/10 Connector by making it a boulevard, like Toronto is poised to do? Can we greatly increase the environmental sustainability of that route, and its development potential, the way that San Francisco, New York, or Portland Oregon have? These are not questions for after the toll discussion. These questions are in the thick of it. We can't decide to do one thing or the other, fiscally, until we decide what the end goals are, at least in broad strokes.


The Devious Populism of Sam Zurier

Zurier's district is the only one in Providence
that became less friendly to multi-family housing
than it had been before the recent zoning overhaul.
Institutional racism at play.
Sam Zurier, councilman for the Summit, Wayland and Blackstone neighborhoods, has made fighting multi-family housing a pet cause, and his finesse for the topic is unmatched. Zurier presents his activism as progressive, and because the issue is convoluted and hard for most people to understand, he mostly gets away with it.

Zurier wrote this week about his brave efforts to keep a higher rate on "non-resident" rental properties on his blog, using the frame of the Providence Student Union's bus pass victory to add glimmer to what otherwise would be plain ol' NIMBYism:

Last Friday, I was told the City Council leadership was working with the administration to find around $2 million in additional revenues and/or savings to fund a tax cut for nonresident landlords.  On Monday, they announced they had found almost $1.9 million in savings.  In response, I joined the Providence Student Union in asking why there was money for landlord tax relief, but no money to expand the student bus pass program.  On Thursday afternoon, the Mayor and City Council leadership announced the landlord tax cut would be reduced by $680,000 to fund the bus passes, leaving $1.2 million in tax cuts for the nonresident landlords. 
On Thursday night, the Finance Committee reviewed the revised budget for final consideration and recommendation to the City Council.  The new budget included the $1.2 million tax cut for landlords.  At the hearing, I suggested alternatives to this tax cut.  The premise of the tax cut was that nonresident landlords had seen their tax rate rise to 75% above the homeowner’s rate, and they wished to reduce the differential to 70%.  I asked the Committee to consider data the Internal Auditor reviewed that demonstrated that although the differential between homeowner’s and nonresident landlord’s tax rates increased from 70% to 75% in 2013, the differential in taxes paidbetween the two classes of taxpayers declined from 27% to 23% that year because of the revaluation.  I suggested that a $1.2 million tax cut for nonresident landlords would send the wrong message to the General Assembly, where the City is currently asking for a $2.5 million increase in unrestricted State aid.
There's absolutely no disputing that finding a budget item to swap in order to pay for student bus passes is a good thing (although I've pointed out many times that bus passes are a more expensive and less adequate way to address student transportation than quality biking infrastructure). Zurier also names a number of other important goals that the city should fund, and many of them (like better funding libraries) have significant merit. What we should focus on here though is the deviousness of presenting a special tax on "non-resident" landlords as a type of Robin Hood tax. What it is in reality is a tax on renters, who are as a group less likely to have access to wealth than those who own homes.

Zurier is skilled at this. For instance, who can really argue with hating on landlords (I can't)?
The owner-occupant frame works because a large number of Americans own homes, and because a person who owns several homes but rents them sounds mercenary and selfish. We as a culture don't think clearly about the wealth gap, and address it. Instead we think of whether something is 'commercial' as a proxy for that conversation. A tax on people who apparently own more homes than the one they live in just sounds reasonable. But think of it this way:

Owner occupant A: owns one house, worth $1.5 million
Landlord B: owns ten houses, each worth $150,000, but all are rented out.

Who's richer?

This is Problem #1 with Zurier's argument: it's like "which weighs more, a pound of feathers or a pound of bricks?" They both own $1.5 million worth of stuff. The answer is both are rich. But the landlord is taxed higher. No problem: people who rent often need to rent for one reason or another--so the landlord can pass this tax on to whoever rents.

Zurier says that this fact doesn't matter, because if you corrected it, the landlord certainly wouldn't pass on the savings. And as someone who has had some real assholes as landlords (as well as a few nice people too) I can say that this frame emotively resonates with me. Problem #2 with Zurier's populist claim is that the savings for tenants are not based on individual kindly landlords passing on tax cuts. They're based on the potential for increased rental development, which in competing with existing landlords would eventually force their hand to be competitive with rental prices.

Which brings us to Problem #3; Zurier worked really closely with the Providence Planning Dept. to make sure that his ward was the only one in Providence that became more restrictive to multi-family housing. Zurier also prominently worked against the subdivision of the Granoff mansion (the frame for the fight was historic "preservation" and maintaining the "character" of the neighborhood, but the proposal would have preserved the mansion in its grandeur, and simply let the hoi peloi who don't own mansions live in sections of it). All the idealism that is placed behind NIMBY ideas like this, that somehow people are preserving something good about Providence, ignores the fact that it's the main tool of exclusivity, classism, and racism. And making it so that beautiful historic buildings that were developed for the mega-rich can't be subdivided even for the sort-of rich or upper-middle-class means that the chances that such buildings will continuously be maintained is lessened. It also means preserving the East Side as some kind of museum to suburban sprawl instead of allowing it to gradually densify the way that historic Providence did through all of its best years.

No new multi-family housing? No competition with landlords. No affordable housing options. No chance that a tax cut to landlords would ever be passed on. A neat, tight little circle, this is.

So, again, I congratulate the Providence Student Union. But I really don't like this frame that PSU has allowed Zurier to use on its behalf. Working for housing equity is important, and Sam Zurier is square on the wrong side of the issues that matter for housing equity. And no matter how you slice it, that's not progressive.


Contact Speaker Mattiello

Should truckers pay less, and expect more? No. But so far, Speaker Mattiello has embraced a plan that makes that exactly how it will work in our state.

This photo is stolen straight from the pages of Strong Towns blog. Please check them out, as they do great work.

We've got five days to turn his opinion around.

Please read more at RI's Future. You can contact Speaker Mattiello here.



The 6/10 Connector: set to take 4 out of 7 proposed toll dollars: do we need it?
Lots of places around the country are still struggling with the culture-warring that can surround attempts to move beyond a car-oriented society. Even though there are solid equity and environmental reasons to be urbanist, left-leaning groups will sometimes misunderstand important housing, parking, or congestion management policies as too capitalist. The right in America has often married itself to (shall we say?) a certain demographic as well: attempts to block zoning deregulation often come from far-right fears of people of color or poor people, even though upzoning and removal of parking minimums are often far more market-based approaches to town or city development than our current arrangements.

So isn't it nice when we can find a respite from the bickering? Perhaps Rhode Island (or, as it is officially called, "The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations") can be the place for that.

Harbor Drive, Portland, Oregon: a model for what could be on 6/10?
I consider myself firmly footed on the left. The first presidential candidate I voted for (in a completely inconsequential Pennsylvania primary) was Dennis Kucinich. I think I see myself most likely voting for Bernie Sanders or Fmr. Governor Chafee (ironic?). But I am really genuinely impressed by some of the smart questions that some Republicans are raising in Rhode Island about the need to reform our transportation system.

The proposal to remove an urban highway along 6/10 has gotten strong encouragement by Rep. Art B. Handy (D-Cranston), whose politics, like mine, are centered in the left. Nonetheless, I'm impressed by Handy's forward-thinking championing of this bill, since Rt. 10 is a direct highway to Cranston. Suburban neighborhoods like Cranston will actually see their commute times improve if a boulevard is in place--but who would be surprised if a politician didn't want to be the first out there to take that stance?

It looks like Rt. 6/10's potential to become a boulevard instead of an urban highway blight is pretty bipartisan in Rhode Island:
Rep. Dan Reilly's (R-Portsmouth) comments mirror similar ones by Minority Leader Brian C. Newberry (R-N. Smithfield and Burrilleville). Newberry stated at last night's Finance Committee meeting that 6/10 had been a burden on Providence's Olneyville neighborhood, and asked Director Alviti of RIDOT if removal was in consideration (Alviti has said all options are on the table).

That these rural-district Republicans can grasp the destruction of urban highways and look to the betterment of the entire state is part of what makes Rhode Island a great place.
Harbor Drive, Portland, Oregon (as a highway).

Providence is in the top-ten for highway lane-miles per capita (by the way, hat-tip to Next STL for that stat. We're #8 to St. Louis' #2 spot). The fact that Providence is the only northeastern city to make it to that list is also a big determinant of why Rhode Island is #50 for bridge condition in the country. We can't afford the level of infrastructure we have for the number of people it supports. The urban highway blight that litters our landscape has also been a major problem for development, environmental management, and other important concerns in our state. Smart Republicans (who I might disagree with on many other things) are asking questions like why we should have to bond all the time in order to keep up our infrastructure. Morgan's overall tone of attacking bus lanes as the main problem is not one I share, obviously, but I do share her worry that bus lanes as part of a raised highway will become like the failed Wickford Junction station:
The answer to Morgan's question is that we should not pay an arm and a leg to expand a harmful highway in order to add bus lanes, but we should redevelop that highway as a boulevard with bus lanes, so that development can form close to the bus right-of-way and encourage actual ridership. If we don't do that, then she's probably right to expect failure.
Smart liberals know that urban highways hurt poor people and the environment. Smart conservatives know bad transportation decision-making hurts business and taxpayers. Smart politicians work across party lines to fix problems that are common to their diverse constituencies.


UNITE-HERE 217 Endorses 6/10 Boulevard

June 2, 2015

Dear Chairman and Honorable Members of the Finance Committee,

I write to you on behalf of our approximately 1,300 members who live and work in Rhode Island.

Many of our members rely on RIPTA to transport them to and from work.  Specifically many of our members live in Providence, especially South Providence, and work downtown.  As RIPTA services improve, we expect more and more members to ride public transportation instead of parking downtown.  This benefits all of us in many different ways.  RIPTA is an asset that we should be continually improving to the benefit of both urban and suburban Rhode Island communities.

I urge you to support policy that increases RIPTA usage in dense, urban areas. The proposal for a surface boulevard in place of a highway would allow increased housing development, better bicycle and pedestrian amenities, and cost less than a highway would. All of these are factors that explain our support for rethinking the design of the 6/10 Connector.

We look forward to talking more with state and city officials working on this project.

Thank you for your consideration,

Jenna Karlin

Vice President and RI Director