Thank you.

Thank you everyone for your work on Park(ing) Day, and for the support that you all have given over time to Transport Providence. For a variety of personal reasons, I am going to retire the blog.

Yesterday someone said, apropos of nothing, that art is the result of crippling self-doubt and incredible narcissism. I would like to hope that in the time that I've been on this blog, that I've both a) had a bigger effect that I think I do when I'm in my crippling self-doubt, and b) not been too narcissistic as to think I've had more of an effect than I did. 

I hope that to whatever extend that this blog was a useful thing, that its void encourages others to step in and take its place.

Thanks again.


Do We Want the Statehouse Lawn Back?

Park(ing) Day will again be coming to the Statehouse, thanks to Reps. Art Handy and Lisa Tomasso, and so I thought a little reflection was needed on the situation around the parking expansion at the Statehouse.

The capital city of Brazil, Brasilia, is known as a place of expansive parks and green spaces. It was built in 1960, moving the capital away from Rio de Janeiro. Like Washington, DC, it was a regional compromise attempting to move the center of government out of centers of cultural power and into more neutral territory. Even more than Washington, DC, it focused itself around monumental beauty.

The problem with Brasilia is that all that grass looks really great from a plane, and really is useless to get around in on a day-to-day basis. Brasilia is beautiful only from the outside, while from within it feels atomizing and lonely. People drive more. When people walk, it feels unnatural. It's not just the distances, but also the fact that if you do find yourself walking in a place like this, there are fewer people around. It feels dangerous and unwelcoming at worst, eccentric at best.

Our own state capital has lost some of its green space in the last year to parking lots at great expense. In the paper-scissors-rock of life, parking lots definitely lose to green space, and it's a real shame to have lost some plant life to asphalt. But the bigger question begs: moving forward, is our demand that we want the green space back, or should we ask for something else? In one of the earliest articles of this blog, cross-posted on Greater City Providence, the suggestion was to gradually grow larger and larger gardens on the Statehouse lots through the Lots of Hope program. But maybe what is needed is some more urban infill.

Rep. Art Handy (D- Cranston, and Chair of the Environmental Committee) made a nice parklet last year at the Statehouse, and this year he'll be joined by another representative, Rep. Lisa Tomasso (D- Coventry). The big challenge that always comes up with these parklets at the Statehouse parking lot is that the location feels isolated. Rep. Handy did an astounding job with the help of Joedega, Recycle-a-Bike, and Like No Udder in making a welcoming space that state workers came out to enjoy. But getting other people to cross town from even as close as the rest of downtown is a challenge--posed not by absolute distance, but by the feeling that big expanses of grass aren't the place to be walking around in.

Venice: everything's close together.

Our state capital is not as spaciously designed as Brasilia, for sure, but the concept behind the turn of the 20th Century Statehouse lawn was definitely the beginnings of the City Beautiful movement, which brought us things like the Ben Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, and the National Mall in DC. These spaces have great beauty. But try walking around in them! Why do we marvel so much at Rocky climbing the Art Museum steps in Philly? Because, damn, he had to cross traffic. 

The state already has legislation on the books that requires it to reduce the number of state employees who use cars as their means of transportation to get to work, and yet it does not enforce these laws. Free parking is part of the problem. The other part is that even if an employee could take the bus to work in the morning, they might feel inclined to drive instead so that they could access a greater array of lunch options. What's nice about the parklets at the Statehouse is that they bring some options to people. The state should take this as a lesson, and think about building infill on the parking lots, gradually reducing the number of parking spots while greatly expanding the number of businesses or residences nearby. This will help support transit frequency, and will also make it less necessary to take transit midday for things like lunch runs.

We're the Renaissance City, right? Well, this is what the Renaissance looks like: there's lots of places to walk. Lots of buildings. Everything is close together. 

What does a successful green space look like? It's important to ask this, because I'm not saying that we have to destroy all the grass and trees and pave over everything. 

A successful green space is one that has active uses around it. Think of Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, or the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. We should model the green space around the Statehouse on successful, active spaces, and use infill to create this action. We have a state capital building that's next to a train station, so let's make use of that fact.


Car-free Ikea!

Can we get one of these in the I-195 Land? Maybe with some apartments above it?

The I-195 Commission has asked for "tweaks" to a Carpionato Group proposal for a large development with underground parking. Didn't we pony up over $40 Million in state funds in order to get this parking situation under control? I didn't think it was just to add to supply.

It needs more than tweaks! No new parking!

Of course, we've been burned before. . . 


Going Down!

Older buildings, like The Superman Building in Providence, once sported only
a few group elevators, and stairs for the intrepid.
I heard Sam "Gridlock" Schwartz say once that having everyone drive to work alone makes about as much sense as giving everyone their own personal elevator.

I got thinking about this the other day, and I would like to extend the metaphor.

Imagine a world where the dominant way to get places is in a private elevator. What would such a world be like?

At first, there would appear to be a shortage of elevators--many buildings having been built without them even in mind--so cities would require a ratio of one elevator for every person. First generation buildings under this policy would be built with huge central columns of elevator shafts, thousands deep, while the newest buildings would have one and half or even two elevators per person, in case someone might come to visit. Reformers would harken to the days when only one elevator was required for every two people, but wouldn't get very far implementing their plans.

Housing at the top of buildings would be sought after for the clean air it offered away from the street, and because of government-backed loans to add additions to the tops of buildings. Ground floors would be excluded from such loans. 

Environmentally-inclined persons might invite a coworker to take their elevator with them to the ground floor, where they worked, but this would be rare. 

The poor, unable to afford their own elevators, would take crowded group elevators. The funding for these would be sparse, and sometimes an elevator would be too full and would pass people by entirely. In some cities, group elevators would not exist.

Committeemen on finance panels in state governments would ensure that elevator shafts were built to where their great-aunts lived, though these relatives might be the only person on their floors. The routes would take Wonkavatoresque dips and turns to get to the great aunts' apartments.

At first, a financing system would be devised to pay for the expansive elevator programs, but over time the legacy costs would grow, and as elevators needed replacing their riders would begin to complain that they were being overtaxed for their maintenance, and that too many slackers were taking the group elevators. Elevators would break down, ensuing in embarrassingly predictable sit coms that delayed people's normal lives but reminded them of the importance of connections to strangers in a way they hadn't thought about for years. 

Whole cities would be abandoned and new ones built to escape the costs. The new cities would have so many elevators that some would complain that it was hard to walk from office to office on the same floor, but engineers designing the cities would point to overcrowded hallways as evidence that they were needed.

Architects would question the ban on ground floors. Doesn't a region based on higher floors need ground floors? What about the old days when buildings were at a human scale? Talking heads would call these architects elitists. Regional planners in the most forward-thinking cities would suggest that maybe a better solution to elevator shortages would be to build shorter buildings that required fewer trips to the top and bottom, but would only allow pilot projects to be built in very circumscribed areas. 

The cost of lower floors, artificially banned, would skyrocket. A movement of wealthy individuals would take over all ground-floor space, and soon fourth and fifth floor walk-ups would cost an arm and a leg.

Active-risers would decide that stairs were the thing, but their numbers would be few and far between. Affluent stair-climbers, especially, would have access to stairs taking them to their refurbished offices on the ground levels of buildings. Less affluent members of society would have to jump from building to building to get to work. Safety statistics would downplay the workers who fell in the process. Media accounts of active-rising would focus on the spandexed few who lived close to work, and occasionally to some wild-eyed athletes who climbed fifty stories once a week, but would not visibly demonstrate an awareness of these less fortunate active commuters.

Activists would chant against the construction of new buildings with ground floors attached to stairs and group elevators. The right would claim these new buildings were a war on solo elevatoring, while the left would claim the new buildings were going to price more people out of their floors. 

As the world faced energy crises, a lack of affordable housing, rising taxes and cuts to services, existential challenges to the environment, and a decaying stock of elevatorless buildings, dealing with the roots of the problem would grind to a halt.


Blackstone Boulevard Plan Requires Reform on Butler

I've been meeting with decision-makers about the Blackstone Boulevard proposal put forward by Hugo Bruggeman. The pushback I've gotten has been that in the morning and evening rush hours, there is a backup of vehicles on the southern end of Blackstone Boulevard near its connection to Butler.

To reemphasize, the interesting part of the Blackstone Boulevard slow zone proposal is that it does not remove any capacity for cars. It takes a two-lane road and moves the order of lanes around, so that north- and south-bound traffic face each other on the same side of the street. The other side of the boulevard becomes a 15 mph "slow zone" or woonerf, not unlike what already exists on Commonwealth Avenue in Newton, Mass. In a sense, the slow zone proposal adds car capacity, since now drivers would be allowed everywhere. It just gives priority to cyclists and pedestrians on one side of the street by slowing traffic and preventing through-traffic on that side. Nonetheless, some people view this proposal as somehow harmful to drivers, and claims about congestion are key to this argument.

I've encountered Blackstone as a zone for speeding far more than congestion, and I think a degree of backup on streets is a normal part of living in a city, but nonetheless I think that congestion can be addressed on Blackstone Boulevard. It just takes looking at what causes it.

Butler, which is essentially an extension of Blackstone Boulevard, is a two-lane road for its entire length, except at its intersections with Waterman and Angell Streets, each of which gets a turning lane. Both of these intersections get traffic lights. These are the only traffic lights joined by one other traffic light at Pitman Street on the Butler/Blackstone length. This is where the congestion happens.

The way to fix congestion at these intersections is to make them blinking red lights, and to take away the turning lane. A turning lane typically doubles the capacity of the street to take vehicles, but also allows those vehicles to act in less safe ways towards pedestrians. These two intersections of Butler with Angell and Waterman are some of the ugliest places to cross a street as a pedestrian on the East Side. Removing the signals, or making them blinking red lights will restore capacity for vehicles by allowing drivers to stop, look around them, and continue, rather than being stacked at a traffic light.

Author Jeff Speck cites a study of Philadelphia streets where traffic lights were removed in place of stop signs, and the result was a two-thirds reduction in pedestrian injuries (Persaud et. al.: “Crash Reductions related to Traffic Signal Removal in Philadelphia” (1997)). The logic behind this change is clear if one thinks about it. Cyclists know it firsthand: a fast-moving car can pass at two to three times the speed of a bike and be caught at the same light as the cyclist. This can sometimes happen several times. The speed of the vehicles between lights matters much less than the wait time they have at lights. A kind of tortoise and the hare, writ large.

I haven't yet been able to get ahold of the Philadelphia study to read it myself, but this is consistent with what Speck talks about in his study of large, Midwestern "stroads" he's redesigned. In those cases, he's often taken four lane or wider roads and reduced them to two lanes, added traffic calming, and removed signals. The travel times have greatly improved for drivers, while the walking experience has improved for everyone else. Slow and steady wins the race.

The Butler project really matters because I'm told by a source within City Council that the city is already looking at retiming the signals here to improve traffic flow. These changes could affect the way the street works for pedestrians, making it even worse than it is, and may not necessarily help drivers in the way is intended. Instead of retiming signals, the city would do better to experiment with turning the signals to blinking red, obstructing the turning lanes, and allowing drivers to flow through the intersection. This will reduce crashes, and help drive times.


Part 2: Providence Sustainability Plan: Transportation

If you missed the recommendations on land use, please read them in Part 1.

Just as in the last recommendations, we're focusing on things we would change. There are many good things in the plan, so the focus on what's wrong with it isn't meant to tank the whole thing, but to point out what could be improved. 

Kennedy Plaza
The RIPTA Riders' Alliance, which I am not a part of, launched a well-attended protest of the construction at Kennedy Plaza, and critiques have also been put forward in The Projo and elsewhere. I don't agree with some of the critiques, but I think the amount of contention around this issue should bring the city to put some greater effort to making the changes at KP a positive rather than a negative for transit users.

One of the criticisms I very much disagree with is the point of view that the berths should stay at Kennedy Plaza. RIPTA really needs to eliminate many of its redundant routes and create more frequent ones, along with new ones that interact with those on a grid. That means in the long run that there really should only be two buses going through Kennedy Plaza: the R-Line, and whatever east-west version of the R-Line pops up (see a good explanation of this on Jarrett Walker's Human Transit Blog, where he explains the importance of frequency and transfers, which are aided by focusing on a grid of simplified routes instead of a hub-and-spoke system). Additionally, it may make sense to have some of the longer distance buses like the 54, 60, and 66 come to Kennedy Plaza. But most of the other buses really shouldn't exist at all. RIPTA and the city should work to resolve the issue of bus berth capacity by working to simplify and add frequency to their system.

The city should also resolve the RIPTA Riders' concerns about people being able to Washington Street and Burnside Park safely by doing a tip-top shoveling and salting job in the park during snow storms, and by making Washington Street car-free from Dorrance to Exchange Street. The city should also invite more active uses along Kennedy Plaza, which it has already started to do. This will truly make the square easier to use for everyone. The best part about closing a street to car traffic is that it doesn't cost anything to try out, and can be easily reversed if it doesn't work.

A Modern Streetcar
Places that care about transit do not build streetcars without rights-of-way, and many cities simply build Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). In some cities around the world, streetcars are being built that mix cars and transit for a few blocks, but keep them separate for the vast majority of their journey. The current streetcar plan doesn't do this at all, so it's hard to see it as a "modern" streetcar.

Another important feature of good transit is frequency, and the proposed 12-minute peak time for the streetcar does not provide that, allowing walking to compete with transit (the 20-minute off-peak frequency is even worse). If it will cost the city less money to provide a high frequency bus with a right-of-way, it should pursue that instead.

The debate about whether streetcars are really the answer to our transit problems is best articulated by transit expert Jarrett Walker, and the city should read up.

A Bump in the Road for Complete Streets
The complete streets section doesn't include much in the way of protected bike infrastructure, but does talk about bump-outs. Bump-outs are obviously a good feature, but the city should have a rubric of some kind to consider where they're appropriate, and where features like pedestrian islands next to protected bike lanes would be better. My own personal ambition for Hope Street, for instance, would be to see the bump-outs there torn out. On a lot of streets it makes more sense to have these protected bike lanes next to some kind of pedestrian island, which in its own right can act as a refuge for pedestrians, and help to establish the same traffic calming goals as bump-outs. 

The R-Line
The R-Line is a meagre step forward, but it could be more exciting if it became real BRT. The city announced in its report that it expects a 12% improvement in travel times because of improvements to the R-Line. Compare that to real BRT with rights-of-way in Buenos Aires, where the commute times for all users dropped to under twenty minutes from a starting point of almost an hour. We can do better than 12% (by the way, it took Buenos Aires six months to produce this result).

*The buses should be able not only to extend to green lights, as they can (a great improvement!), but also to instigate green lights.
*The buses should have rights-of-way, and they should be against the medians whenever possible, since this creates fewer interferences with other users.
*The buses should get station payment: if users pay to get into a little building or hut, then when the bus comes up they can just jump on without delay. RIPTA should consider implementing station payment at its busiest stops first, and gradually bringing it to the whole R-Line.
*The R-Line also needs better land use regulations, and certain of these zoning regulations should have no variance process at all. Parking maximums, for instance, should be absolute and unbending. The parking maximums for the overlay around the R-Line cover a really large area but with very weak regulation. Stronger regulation in smaller parcels nearest the stops would be better, gradually becoming more lax farther from stops.
*Parts of the R-Line route should exclude cars entirely, for instance from Washington Street to the train station, and from Charles Street to Olney. I've suggested that in the first case, the street be made into two bus lanes and one very wide bidirectional protected bike lane, with room for additional trees. In the second case, Charles and Randall Streets should be used as detours for cars going north--this adds only 1/10th of a mile journey, and allows for the tree lines part of N. Main nearest Benefit Street to begin a transformation into an active public space.
*In addition, walkability needs to be considered a top priority along the R-Line. Please remove all the slipways, introduce some of those bump-outs the report talks about, etc.

The city identifies a goal of buying more fuel-efficient vehicles. Let me suggest instead that the city scrap this goal, take care of the vehicles it has, and instead focus on reducing its fleet of vehicles. It should replace as many cars with bicycles as possible. Let's set a goal of 50% of police on foot or bike by the end of the next administration. This will save on fuel, maintenance, and other costs related to the vehicles, allow police to have a better interaction with neighborhoods, and make policing of car-related offenses a more natural priority for police. Obviously some vehicles are needed, and those should be prioritized for situations where they're necessary.

The city also recommends working to accommodate electric vehicles. The plan is vague about exactly what support is needed. I would strike this from the plan if it involves laying out any taxpayer money at all (if it's simply a matter of reforming bureaucratic barriers, then fine). Electric vehicles are all the rage, but they do not reduce greenhouse emissions an iota unless they're run completely off of green energy, and they leave completely unresolved all the other issues--land use, crashes, age/disability access, etc.--associated with cars. It's really not a very high priority to support them.

Changing as many intersections to stop signs as possible would be a good goal to set out for the city, and is not mentioned. Stop signs cost a few hundred dollars and have no operational costs. Traffic signals cost six figures and four figures yearly to operate. Two-lane corridors in Providence such as Broadway and Hope Street would be good places to do this. Stop signs reduce injuries for all users to a truly impressive degree by increasing attentiveness and reducing speeding, but they also counterintuitively improve congestion, since most of that is caused by deadlock at intersections. Hope Street is one place that should have no traffic signals. The city should study this for all two-lane arterials.

Bike Providence
Naturally, the city's job is to articulate what it does as a success, but the bike plan was not a success, and needs serious improvement. The Providence Phoenix ran an excellent article articulating many of the problems with the plan. The city needs to implement protected bike lanes on all arterial streets, and should abandon using sharrows unless they're accompanied by traffic calming that brings speeds to 15-20 mph.

It's Six or Half a Billion to Me.
The 6/10 Connector is a state project, but the city could have a serious voice in calling for RIDOT to consider removal of Routes 6 & 10 within the city, to be replaced by a multimodal boulevard with transit lanes, park space, a bike path, and places to develop housing and commercial space. The city should put this on its radar and get started. The "Connector", which connects the two routes, is going to cost $500 Million to replace, and each of the many substandard bridges along the route will cost quite a pretty penny alongside that.


Providence's Sustainability Report

These are some of my land use recommendations to improve the Providence Sustainability Report.

A word that's missing. Density is mentioned twice in the whole report, but in neither case does it relate to future land use policy. The report refers to the benefit our city has from its historic density making it walkable, and talks about how density and nearness to Boston and New York are advantages in its food system. Although coded language about housing diversity opens the door to talking about more density in our city, it's really not broached directly. This may have been a political choice to keep people who don't like urban development from kvetching. I'm going to kvetch from the other direction. Density needs to be a goal. A lot of what the city can do best to encourage density is get out of the way.

One of these things is not like the other. The report makes a lot of strides towards improving parking policy, but also has some problems:
Did you spot it? Removing parking requirements, good. More payment options, good. Municipal parking? Puke face. The city has too much parking. The last thing we need is to develop more, which we appear poised to do with the new, expensive, Garrahy Garage. 

You have seen a map of the downtown, right?

Also, the city needs to remove all parking minimums, and the new zoning process is only removing some. It also needs to have effective parking maximums around major transit lines, but the parking maximums off of the R-Line, for instance, are really weak.

The city should not try to artificially preserve farmland in the city. The rubric question asks:

We shouldn't have any land zoned specifically for agriculture in the city. Note that I'm not saying we shouldn't have any farms in the city, I'm saying that we shouldn't have any zoned category for particular plots to be agriculture now and forever. The best practice for the city in terms of sustainability is to allow development on urban farms if the owners of the farmland want to allow it, and the development is urban in nature. So, if the choice is between a parking lot with a strip mall or an urban farm, the choice is pretty clear. But, then again, if the choice is between a parking lot with a strip mall and anything.... you get the drift.... I have three chickens in my backyard, and Rachel and I pay our $25 a year to the neighborhood association to have a community garden plot, and we value both, but there's no reason the city has to stand in the way of, say, an apartment building in order to preference that.

This requirement feels to me like someone who is enthusiastic about urban farming as a use of vacant land got too enthusiastic.

Which brings us to:
The city should not require any acreage to be used for green space. The rubric prompt states it this way:

I couldn't help but think of a famous passage from The Death and Life of American Cities:

In New York's East Harlem there is a housing project with a conspicuous rectangular lawn which became an object of hatred to the project tenants. Asocial worker frequently at the project was astonished by how often the subject of the lawn came up, usually gratuitously as far as she could see, and how much the tenants despised it and urged that it be done away with. When she asked why, the usual answer was, "What good is it?" or "Who wants it? "Finally one day a tenant more articulate than the others made this pronouncement: "Nobody cared what we wanted when they built this place. They threw our houses down and pushed us here and pushed our friends somewhere else. We don't have a place around here to get a cup of coffee or a newspaper even, or borrow fifty cents. Nobody cared what we need. But the big men come and look at that grass and say, 'Isn't it wonderful! Now the poor have everything!'"
I very much think the city should encourage the planting of street trees, and should maintain active and well-maintained parks. However, this prompt suggests that the approval process for a building would expect 10% of the acreage for that building to be green space, and that's a bad idea. Does the Superman Building have 10% of its acreage dedicated to green space? How about City Hall? The historic department stores on Westminster Street? No. By all means, I wouldn't say we should prevent green space, but I really think that the preference for it creeps in as a cultural bias leftover from urban renewal.

In some parts of the city, where land isn't expensive, adding green space may not be very expensive, and developers will likely do it without a prompt. What concerns me to about this is that for this to be here as a rubric question suggests it's there for the situations where developers might normally opt to use their whole plot for buildings, i.e., on expensive downtown land. Making 10% of land be green space means 10% fewer apartments, which means more expensive housing.

I think this requirement also irks me because the city is only taking meek steps towards reforming its parking situation, but apparently has no problem putting green space requirements on buildings. I mean, if we get to a point in our development where we can talk about green roofs and so on, I support figuring out a strategic plan to make that more common. But the first thing to go before anything else should be parking lots, and yes, where possible, garages. Remember, a lot of buildings in the city only take up a tenth of an acre, and might have several apartments and retail or office space. That 10% is a whole building if applied to an acre of land. If that land is seated where a really tall building can go, then it's an even bigger effect.

The city should avoid Community Benefits Agreements for development. The prompt puts it this way:

Our goal should be to develop housing and other building stock. Although we definitely should have some zoning rules to encourage things like walkability, frontage to the street, minimization (or, better, elimination in some places) of parking, etc., we shouldn't institutionalize allowing neighbors to object to buildings and then use their leverage to get CBAs, which are essentially a bribe. This is one of the ways that rich people actually cause housing prices to go up and to gentrify poor people out of neighborhoods: they decide they like the way things are and try by all means to prevent others from moving in. Many people intuitively (including me, if you had talked to me a few years ago) have the feeling that new buildings will "price neighbors out", and so CBAs are often presented as a kind of compromise between the gentrification of the new building and the community benefits that can offset that. In reality, CBAs will make gentrification worse.

Should the community be able to engage with a developer about issues that genuinely affect community health? Yes, of course. We don't have this here, but in many states there are community fights over proximity to fracking, and community input has been one of the few ways that people have been able to make in-roads against the dangers of that process to water quality. If a builder shows up deciding to put a hazardous materials plant next to a school, or something of this gravity, then of course people should have a say in that decision. The problem I have is not that communities should have a voice in these weighty, important questions, it's that this sustainability guide appears to pervert that in order to allow single-family residences to demand something of new apartments in order for them to be built, or for annoyed condo dwellers to block a new building that might obstruct their view of the sunset. 

These are some of my thoughts about the land use issues in the Sustainability Report.