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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.