#EntranceRampRI: S. Water Street

S. Water Street is a mess. 

I ride my bike here often, in order to take advantage of the fabled "P-wiggle". S. Water Street is a best-of-bad-options place to ride your bike, because the double one-way configuration, wide lanes, and back-facing buildings ensure that motorists see this as a cut-through. But it should be the doorstep of the city--right next to the river and within walking distance of both downtown and Brown/RISD. It's a vital connection for anyone seeking jobs from other neighborhoods.
Two badly-designed bike features have been added to this street. The first is an ambiguous path which is more like a sidewalk. I was pretty sure that the wide sidewalk next to the water wasn't intended to be a path at all, until recently. Then, it appears that RIDOT continued to pave an asphalt strip in the middle of the sidewalk, which wiggles across the intersection with Point Street and on to the "path" to India Point Park.

The Non-Path Path
I hate this non-path "path" because it appears out of nowhere, with no meaningful transition to get cyclists to it from Memorial. It puts cars on a fast pace rushing through intersections, whether with Memorial or Point Street, instead of using proper design and putting cyclists at a priority. I especially hate the wiggle-through at the Point St. intersection, because it's reminiscent of the L-shaped crosswalks that already are the norm for pedestrians at many intersections--instead of being able to cross from anywhere to anywhere, pedestrians have to wait two cycles to cross, and the same now for bicyclists. The appropriate way to move bicycles through a complex intersection is to stop all car traffic and have an all-green signal, but this configuration requires cyclists to cross two light cycles, all while paying attention for turning vehicles. 

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EntranceRampRI is a hashtag for missed connections to great paths in Rhode Island: "like a highway without an entrance ramp". S. Water Street is one such missed connection to downtown, to the East Side, and to the East Bay Bike Path.

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It's garbage. I want to flip my shit when I see it. It's just garbage. It especially angers me because the agency that does much of the work for RIDOT statewide, VHB, spent a bunch of its time lobbying against real infrastructure when it wrote the Providence Bike Master Plan, and the central argument of their engineer was that protected bike lanes would cause crashes at intersections, and yet here you, right out in front, a piece of infrastructure poorly designed for intersections (I did not try to research whether VHB worked on this particular project).

The Door-Zone Death Trap
As if to raise doubts again about the status of this path (is it a badly designed sidewalk, a badly designed path?) either RIDOT or the city has recently added a door-zone bike lane to the street on the right side of the double one-way. Door-zone bike lanes are not my fave, but this one is narrower than usual, so as to maximize dooring. Perhaps we're not being told to bike on the sidewalk after all, but we might as well be getting that message.

Get on the Fucking Sidewalk!
No lie, when I go down S. Water, it is a 90% likelihood that someone will yell either "get on the fucking sidewalk" or "get out of the fucking street" by the time I reach the back of Wild Colonial Tavern (I can go, "One-Mississippi, Two-Mississippi, Three-And-- "Go-Fuck-Yerself-Bicyclist!"). I think the timing is not a coincidence. The little curve keeps me on par with the cars for just a second, and as soon as the drivers get past that obstacle, they ready themselves for multi-tasking: rolling down the window and yelling at people they don't know. From there it's a straight-shot, and the drivers might as well be on the Autobahn (although, without trying too hard, I've caught many a driver at the light, which is as good an argument as any to redesign this stroad--drivers aren't even getting places at the fast pace they think they are). 

No Congestion, No Excuses
Because there is no congestion on S. Water, but lots of delays at lights, the solution ought to be to lower the speed limit to 20 mph, take a travel lane away, make a two-way protected bike lane, and over time, decorate the edge of that protected bike lane with greenery as budgeting allows. The protected bike lane itself should just be a weekend project for DPW or RIDOT. I'm at a point where I feel strongly that it's the mayor's job to call RIDOT publicly out on these things. As I've said before, mayors have nothing to lose in making this an open fight.


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On Deodorant.

I've wanted to write something addressing the cultural norms we have around activity and body odor for some time, but I've veered off from it, probably because the topic feels so taboo. I sort of expect the reaction to this article to be mostly negative: a collective "Oh, I figured he'd think that." Or perhaps a few accolades of approval, but from the quarters of society that are already kind of on the fringes (with me). But onward, I charge! When else have I let a concern for public opinion affect anything written here?

You may or may not believe this if you've sat next to me during a meeting (haha!), but I'm among that most fastidious window of people who shower and change their clothes many times a day (in the winter, it's at least twice; summertime is more like three to four times a day). When I get to work in the morning, the first thing I do after putting my bike away is to go to a private bathroom and undress, washing in the sink like a homeless person lest I offend someone from the general pool of employees who haven't been on a bike since childhood. 

Like my home, my work is un-air conditioned, which means that this effort is really just to stem back the tide of sweat. 

I work with middle school students, which means on the one hand I'm very lucky to work with adults who mostly are out-of-sight out-of-mind throughout the day.  Teachers tend towards the progressive end of the spectrum, so though most of the time I merely pass to talk with a coworker in the hallway, even during larger occasions the conversation about biking is more positive than negative. There's a (completely undeserved) reverence for me biking four miles to work, which (sadly, for now) is completely countercultural and foreign to the vast majority of people I work with.

Nonetheless, the students themselves are merciless, especially beyond seventh grade. Odd though it is, I think middle school students are a kind of canary in the mine. They show us the unpolished views that the culture at large sells itself. Those of us who are lucky enough to go off to college and be among slash-jeaned professors and hipsters may have more libertine views of public presentation, but in middle school you're actually seeing a fairly full cross-section of opinion. And that opinion is manufactured consent of the first order: it may be true that we have a general expectation species-wide for cleanliness, but middle- and high-school students are ground zero for a culture war that is all about television and internet advertisements. These kids have harsh views, and those views are turned inwards and outwards, all at once.

It's not just about exercise. American culture at large is incredibly finicky, as demonstrated through the unpolished realities of my students. For middle school students, any scent is a sign for alarm. A whiff of curry from an unfortunate teacher's lunch? This may cause a fifteen minute strike, during which students refuse to enter the room until a copious (and rather noxious) amount of chemical spray is cascaded into the air. A bit of roasted cauliflower, or perhaps even the wrong type of garlic tomato sauce on something as banal as spaghetti? We're in for it! Body odor is almost beyond the point.

I'm not making a full-on appeal for slovenliness, but in general I think we need to make realism about presentation a part of cultural change.

We're used to air conditioning. In my view, this is something New England is going to have to ween itself off of (the reason people used to vacation here, in fact, was because New England was considered moderate and comfortable in summertime--which frankly, climate change notwithstanding, it still is). It's actually not that hot here. But it is hot enough that people sweat a bit, and we should re-accustom ourselves with the idea that sweat is a part of life, to be managed rather than eradicated.

We're used to being chauffeured everywhere in little autonomous vehicles--also air conditioned--and to be able to park where we wish within two feet of our destination. That is something we cannot count on. 

Increasingly, we cannot count on the idea that the climate itself will be comfortable. But that, in turn, is caused by our attempts to pretend that there is no weather at all around us.

For that matter, though I certainly make the effort when I feel I must, the appliances that we know use the most energy in our homes are those dealing with heat: dryers, irons, and such. I'm open to the idea that I should iron my shirt for a funeral or a wedding, but basically most things outside of that window are totally ridiculous to me. In practice, I know what I've got to do to get along and I do it. But we're in trouble if the only way we can envision adaptation is through new technologies. Some of what we have to do is just be simple: hang our laundry, and don't iron it.

I know that people are excited at the idea that every place should have a shower room ready for its biking employees. I think to some extent this is something that will happen, but I also think that a greater extent it's a pipe dream. When we get to a point that 30-50% of employees are biking to work, and that a good bit of the balance is taken by walking either directly to work or to work through the intermediary of transit, we reach a point where everyone is going to want a shower in a tiny window of arrival time, at great expense (in terms of plumbing, not the water itself). Can we really expect this? My school has one bubbler that works properly (maybe a few others that can be counted on occasionally), and yet we're expecting the school district to take on new plumbing systems to provide for this?

And I think of the way that cycling countries deal with work arrivals. It seems to me that the benefit of good cycling cultures is that one can arrive in a suit on one's bike. I assume this means that people are somewhat attuned to the idea that the be-suited person may have a bead (or two) of sweat on their lapels? 

In the end, what I'm arguing for is not a return to filth. European cultures, in particular, were once known for their complete disregard for personal hygiene, and many of the steps we've taken away from that attitude (flossing, brushing our teeth, showering, washing hands, and so on) are vital to our culture. But we can also take a good thing to far. At the outset of this essay, I think I admitted that I'm rather a bit more concerned with cleanliness than most. But it seems to me that our culture's attitude towards this, like it's attitude towards just about every other thing, is based on a finite situation in which we have an unusual grasp of resources to pretend we don't live in a real world. When reality comes crashing down again, it's going to be an adjustment.

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#EntranceRampRI: East Bay Bike Path


The East Bay Bike Path is the premiere bike facility in the state. Some local bike advocates asked me to design a map showing changes that could be made to facilitate safer crossings on the EBBP. Intersections are often the most important detail to look at for bike infrastructure.

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#EntranceRampRI is a hashtag for small bike improvements to the "bike highways" of Rhode Island. Our state has a large number of bike paths, but the connections to core cities remain a problem. Other EntranceRampRI pieces include Woonsocket and Valley Falls/Central Falls

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Not only is safety an issue, but giving bicycles crossing priority is an added encouragement to longer-distance commuters, who may be able to do the trip from Bristol to Providence if allowed a straight-shot, but may not be willing to do the stop-and-go. This follows practice in the Netherlands, or even closer to home, Philadelphia.

There are more improvements that could be added that I didn't put on the map. Warren, for instance, has a stub of a bike path that it should connect to its main bike path, especially because the stub connects several schools to downtown, but that would require building a bridge. The improvements on the map fall into a few major categories, all of them much cheaper and faster to implement than that:
*Changing the direction of stop signs: in this case, stop signs don't even need to be procured, the staff-hours just have to be put into redirecting how they face in the ground. 
*Adding bump-outs: There are only a few sets of these, but they are in places that involve high levels of turning conflict. In the past this conflict has been handled by having bicyclists stop and wait. The approach I take is to have bicyclists have priority at intersections. 
*Speed tables: I did not put these at all intersections, but only those that seemed like they needed them. 
*I also added one diverter in East Providence, to keep out through traffic on a street that mostly doesn't see any. 
*I added one additional signal--probably by far the most pricey addition in this plan--to allow people to cross Memorial Boulevard to Lyons Ave.
Check Out the Map

I should be noted that the default behavior of drivers along this bike path is to be appropriately deferential to people on the path. The purpose of speed tables is to take care of the small number of drivers who do not show that care. On certain streets, like a few in the downtown of Warren, even drivers showing great care might be confused by the sudden appearance of a bike path. I'm surprised at how often drivers seem to stumble upon it, despite the fact that this is the busiest part of the path. These high-traffic locations should be high-priority, because they have the most potential for crashes, as well as the most positive potential for saving time to commuters (bicyclists easily outnumber cars on this section).

All of these improvements, except the signal addition at Lyons Ave. should be super cheap to accomplish, and should be done within the year as routine maintenance. The DPWs of E. Providence, Barrington, Warren, and Bristol should take them on, but if they for some reason did not agree, the changes are cheap enough that I think all but the signal could be crowd-funded.

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Sea Level to Rise Faster Than Expected--Change It!

James Hanson
James Hansen
According to The Daily Beast:
James Hansen, the former NASA scientist whose congressional testimony put global warming on the world’s agenda a quarter-century ago, is now warning that humanity could confront “sea level rise of several meters” before the end of the century unless greenhouse gas emissions are slashed much faster than currently contemplated. This roughly 10 feet of sea level rise—well beyond previous estimates—would render coastal cities such as New York, London, and Shanghai uninhabitable.  “Parts of [our coastal cities] would still be sticking above the water,” Hansen says, “but you couldn’t live there.” 
This apocalyptic scenario illustrates why the goal of limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius is not the safe “guardrail” most politicians and media coverage imply it is, argue Hansen and 16 colleagues in a blockbuster study they are publishing this week in the peer-reviewed journal Atmospheric Physics and Chemistry. On the contrary, a 2 C future would be “highly dangerous.”
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Hansen too is confident that the world “could actually come in well under 2 degrees, if we make the price of fossil fuels honest.” 
That means making the market price of gasoline and other products derived from fossil fuels reflect the enormous costs that burning those fuels currently externalizes onto society as a whole. Economists from left to right have advocated achieving this by putting a rising fee or tax on fossil fuels. This would give businesses, governments, and other consumers an incentive to shift to non-carbon fuels such as solar, wind, nuclear, and, best of all, increased energy efficiency. (The cheapest and cleanest fuel is the fuel you don’t burn in the first place.)
The City of Providence could start at the local level to put a price on carbon by passing a parking tax, and putting all of the money back into lower property taxes. Our city sits very close to sea level, and even in and pre-climate-change era, was subject to the severe mood swings of nature, as in the 1938 Hurricane. We have a lot of faith that the Hurricane Barrier will save us from all things, but if the sea level rises ten feet, that means a totally different load on the barrier, all the time. I'm not an engineer, but I know that ten feet of water at baseline is different than ten feet of water every couple decades.

Despite the dumb title that Ed Achorn chose for the linked article above, a parking tax would not be "shifting the tax burden to commuters" but would actually shift the burden to parking lot owners, because numerous studies have shown that parking is an inelastic and non-competitive resource in cities--essentially, parking lot owners are taking you for as much as they can already. A parking tax would make parking less profitable, and encourage different investment choices by lot owners.

Or we could wait to see what see level rise does. . .


Wallum Lake in Parking Dispute

Police and local residents report that a number of disputes have arisen over parking at Wallum Lake during holidays. Some of this is just the usual laundry list of local tempests in a teapot combined with a dash of disaster porn around the fistfights that result, but there is also a legitimate problem to be resolved, and it's a lesson in why even some rural locations can't expect their entire mode-share to be met by cars.
DOUGLAS - Long-simmering tensions between local officials and the state Department of Conservation and Recreation are nearing the boiling point after the past two weekends brought disturbances to town from Douglas State Forest visitors. At issue are unruly crowds who cause trouble while waiting for the parking lot at Wallum Lake Recreation Area to reopen after it reaches capacity. 
"Somebody is going to get hurt," Police Chief Patrick T. Foley said in an interview Tuesday. "To me, we've pretty much been held hostage by DCR on this."
The solution to the parking disputes is higher parking prices, added bus service, and improved biking facilities. But it's amazing to the see the back-flips people do to avoid doing what would work.

In the Netherlands, rural areas frequently have high mode-shares of biking, though not as high as in urban areas. The rural village of Assen reports 40% of trips being taken by bike. Transit would also clearly provide not only a way to resolve the parking issues, but also to provide better access to people who cannot or choose not to own cars, and people with disabilities.

Read more here about the Wallum Lake parking issues, as reported from the Worcester Telegraph. 

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God is in the Details

The Loma Prieta earthquake damaged the Embarcadero and the Central Artery
in San Francisco, and both were removed.
I'm not trying to get mystical on you here. This is a direct quote from RIDOT Dir. Peter Alviti. Alviti was referring to how the science of traffic engineering will determine what the demand is for the 6/10 Boulevard, and the number of lanes will be set accordingly.

I've met Alviti twice, and I've found him smart, open, cordial, and just about everything he's said, in principle at least, has been acceptable to me. But as the director says himself, "God is in the details". Alviti has indicated that the current brand of traffic engineering we have is more open to multimodalism than in the past, and that's true. But we should be cautious not to celebrate until we know how multimodal we will be.

Driver counts are a poor way of deciding how many lanes there are going to be, because the counts inherently treat a highly elastic number as if it has predictive power, when in reality the predictive power comes only from how we decide to build roads. 

To see extreme examples of this, look to roads that have disappeared without adding any new capacity--no boulevard, no bikeway, and no BRT or rail. Roadways like the West Side Highway, the Embarcadero, and the Central Artery have collapsed entirely--their capacity went to zero, overnight--and despite these collapses having come without any planning to accommodate the loss of lanes, there were no traffic apocalypses. The West Side Highway is a stronger example than people realize. In the 70s and 80s, New York's subway was full of crime (real and perceived) and vigilantism, fires, derailments, and service shutdowns. We think of the collapse of the West Side Highway as unrepresentative because we paint a picture of New York today and overlay it inappropriately over that period. How was there no traffic jam? Did people take the bike-share system (didn't exist). Did they take the subway (scary!). Did they walk (on the West Side?!!!). Perhaps they used their own bike to get around (much of Manhattan banned bikes from its streets, so they'd be breaking the law).

S. Koreans celebrating Buddha's Birthday along Cheongyecheon, one of several
removed highways in Seoul.
I'm not sure if there is a god in traffic engineering, and if there is one, I dare not predict that god's plurality or monotheism, gender, or other attributes. But one thing is sure: true traffic engineering is Buddhist in nature. Life is suffering, and one cannot escape the suffering. One can only flow with it, and use the capacity of human nature to move positively through it.

The problem with setting an expectation of how many cars there will be based on how many cars there are is that it doesn't take this Buddhist view. People will divert to transit or bikes, to carpooling, or to single-driver car use based on the conditions they're given. There is suffering (traffic) that people are willing to take on, and they will grow to accept the container of that suffering. 

The 6/10 Connector is six lanes along Federal Hill. Will we put six boulevard lanes down, plus two BRT lanes, and expect people to cross all that to take the BRT? I'm very concerned that the "science" that Alviti speaks of so enigmatically may refer to such a plan. Will we put only four down (that would make at least slightly more sense, since Memorial has four lanes)? Why not put down three--two lanes and a turning lane--like we suggested? Two lanes with a turning lane is shown to be as effective as four lanes in carrying traffic without any diversion to other modes (in other words, the congestion reduction of four-to-three-lane conversions doesn't come from people suddenly taking transit or changing trip times, as in a highway collapse, but simply happens because because of a better organization of existing vehicles). Much of the congestion we experience on four lane roads is from vehicles slowing down for turns, while much of the speeding we experience is from people jockeying to pass each other for no reason. Getting turning vehicles from both sides onto a shared center lane gets that congestion out of the way without the speeding that four lanes would bring. I'm in no way committed to this in stone, but I think it may be possible to even get rid of signals on a three-lane road, except for signals to mark the BRT crossings at turns. This would reduce traffic congestion even further, because narrower, signal-free roads can carry traffic slowly (safely!) but steadily (quickly!) to its destination.

People only have a certain appetite for traffic, and their driving changes accordingly. People only have a certain appetite for pedestrian danger, and their transit riding changes accordingly. 

The Katy Freeway in Houston Texas gives a remarkable example of the opposite of the West Side Highway. The Katy Freeway was eight lanes to begin with, which is larger than any freeway we have in Providence. TxDOT expanded it to what Rick Perry called "twenty-three lanes of freedom". The cost was unbelievable. The benefit, according to an early Houston Chronicle article, was ten minutes of reduced travel time. But by a few years later, the demand to drive--from sprawl, from people changing modes, and people just taking more trips to eat up the new road capacity--grew to the point that now trips are slower than they were with eight lanes. The expansion was like adding a new fifteen lane highway, but it could not meet people's demands. Life is suffering.

Sidharta Gautama found suffering and enlightenment after a prolonged experience of being shielded from it. It turns out that sheltering oneself from reality does not bring happiness. The daze we've been in through the latter part of the 20th Century is a similar delusion. We must wake up, see the reality, and act accordingly. God is in the details.

I have updated this article for clarity. Thanks for your patience, as some of the things I write on the fly don't make much sense when I go back and read them a second time. :-)

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6/10 Connections, Instead of a 6/10 Connector.


Here's a map imagining the additional connections by transit, bike, foot, and car that could exist with a 6/10 Boulevard.

Here's my legend:

Green equals park space, bike space, or pedestrian space. 
Purple is driving space.
Red is transit space.
Yellow polygons are places I think have additional development potential (although I could have put a lot more).
I used sky blue for the river to represent where Waterfire West could happen.

Intense colors indicate things that already exist (although I may have made changes to them--you'll note, for instance, that some "purple" areas are currently roads, but become something else, and are thus demarcated as what they are rather than what they'll be in the color scheme) while pastels indicate things that don't exist yet at all. I marked the current streetcar path as a dark red rather than a pink even though it's not built, because it's considered a sure thing.

You can look it over in detail, with labels and all here.

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