The Humble Stop Sign

Interactive map with labels here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


86ing 6 & 10

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

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

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

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

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


2014-H 7560: New Housing Bubble, Rhode Island Style?

Can anyone think of any recent economic problems that resulted from inducing people to build large amounts of housing that wasn't needed? Bueller? Bueller?

(Oh good, me neither).

Rep. Jacquard introduces bill to spur home building
            STATE HOUSE – Rep. Robert B. Jacquard (D-Dist. 17, Cranston) has introduced legislation that he believes can help spur home construction in Rhode Island, which he knows is “an important aspect of improving our state’s stagnant economy.”
            The bill, 2014-H 7560, offers some fee-cutting and tax-saving incentives to promote home construction. According to records kept by the Rhode Island Builders’ Association, sales of homes recorded a slight increase in 2013 compared to the year before. While those sales figures were up compared to the significantly lower numbers for the eight years previous, they have still not rebounded to the numbers of the boom sales years of 2005 and earlier.
            “Building homes, purchasing homes is a vital driver of a good economy,” said Representative Jacquard. “It creates jobs, and generates taxes. It means greater purchases of goods and other services. It means the fulfillment of the American Dream, and the greater stability of a community.”
            According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, the construction of new housing is an “integral component of the economy.” From 1980 to 2007, the center’s “Housing Impact on the Economy” report said, residential construction contributed on average 4.5 percent to the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). During the boom years of 2004 to 206, it peaked at 6.3 percent of GDP. When the bubble began to burst in 2007, that plummeted to about 2.2 percent.
            The report also indicated that “new home construction is a major generator of American jobs,” with each new single-family home construction supporting 3.5 jobs and each new multi-family home building supporting 1.2 jobs.
            “Rhode Island government has been concentrating lately on enacting or revising laws to make the state a better place to run a business, and that’s a good thing,” said Representative Jacquard. “I think we should also offer encouragement to the home construction industry, because of the vial part it plays in the state’s economic health. I propose we do it with a few short-term monetary incentives that, while they will be a small drain on the state’s tax and fee intake, will mean a great deal more in the long term in regard to helping boost our economy.”
            The Jacquard bill proposes three amendments to the State Building Code:
            ** The permit fees assessed by each municipality would be reduced by 50 percent for a period of two years from the enactment of the legislation;
            ** There would be a 3.5 percent reduction in the sales tax imposed on lumber and building materials used in the construction of buildings or for making other improvements on land, for a two-year period following enactment;
            ** There would be a moratorium on the assessment and collection of impact fees currently established or proposed by cities and towns for new construction. The moratorium would be in place for a three-year period, beginning upon enactment.
            According to the National Association of Home Builders, the estimated one-year local impacts of building 100 single-family homes is $21.1 million in local income, $2.2 million in taxes and other revenue for local government and 324 local jobs. The local one-year impacts for construction of 100 rental apartments is $7.9 million in income, $827,000 in taxes and other revenue and 122 jobs. Even residential remodeling has a positive impact, with every $10 million spent on remodeling accounting for $6.9 million in income, $577,000 in taxes and other revenue and 78 jobs.
            “Houses build a life for a family, they build a community and they build the economy,” said Representative Jacquard. “I think we should enact laws to encourage this industry.”
            The Jacquard bill is before the House Committee on Finance. It is co-sponsored by Rep. William San Bento Jr. (D-Dist. 58, Pawtucket).

Temporarily lowering taxes on home building sounds suspiciously to me like trying to create a small-scale housing bubble. There are lots of policies we could change that would help to spur building in a better way. The biggest thing on my plate would be removing parking minimums statewide, so that developers can choose whether and how much parking to provide at a location, instead of being required to have it and having to tuck the price of it into housing. Parking minimums are essentially a tax on development to provide public parking. Another major fix would be making some drastic changes to spending policies on road infrastructure so that we don't induce sprawl away from town centers and cities, and can instead develop some infill. We've been reporting on the $46 Million boondoggle that RIDOT plans to add to Viaduct project--that money could definitely be better spent.

I'm very suspicious of anything that promises jobs as its raison d'etre. I like the rule of thumb that Rust Wire author and Streetsblog editor Angie Schmitt uses, which is that it would almost be impossible to imagine throwing around money through tax cuts or spending that wouldn't generate some kind of economic activity. The bigger question is, what kind? Why should a particular industry--in this case, home building--be favored over others? If there's a compelling public reason, then so be it. But "jobs" is not it.

I called Rep. Jacquard's office for comment, and no one I spoke to was authorized to speak on 2014-H7560. I certainly would welcome his comment, or the comment of supporters of this bill in the comments section, by Twitter at @transportpvd, or by email at

BRT Makes More Sense for I-95

The Minneapolis "Orange Line" is BRT 

Rhode Island stands with Michigan and Maine as one of three states with shrinking populations as of the last census.  Rhode Island also enjoys the ignoble honor of having the highest unemployment in the country. RIDOT takes neither of these metrics as feedback that might suggest the state should rein in its highway spending, having recently proposed spending an additional $46 Million to expand part of I-95 northbound in Providence, according to Barry Schiller. Schiller notes that the state is seeking $20 Million in federal TIGER grants to help pay for the project.

Schiller, a long-time voice for transit, reported on the news after hearing about it at a recent Transportation Advisory Committee meeting, where RIDOT announced a plan to widen I-95 North from about Broadway to the interstate’s connection with U.S. 146, an approximately 1 mile span. The connection with 146, which goes through northern Rhode Island and central Massachusetts to Worcester, is indeed a site of much congestion, but the extra $46 Million proposal to add two lanes of direct throughway parallel to the interstate where drivers can enter or exit doesn’t take into account any of the well-established evidence that road widening fails to meet decongestion needs. The change in configuration to this section of I-95 also takes into account “weaving” that occurs between exits, which is no doubt a valid concern, but adding lanes has not proven to be a productive solution to weaving.

To put the $46 Million in proper context, a recent bond to repave many of Providence’s streets came to $40 Million. I have criticized the bond for repaving on-street parking spots and then failing to meter them, and have been generally nonplussed with the sharrows that bicyclists got out of the deal, but $40 Million spent repaving many of the streets of our city seems a worthier thing to sink public investment into than a very short span of highway extension that will ultimately fail to improve congestion.

Instead of adding lanes, there are so many more imaginative things Rhode Island could do including BRT and rail expansion.

I-95 could be ripe for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). The corridor needs only five pilot stops: Pawtucket, North Main Street, the West Side/Downtown, the South Side, and Cranston (more stops could be added over time to induce greater transit-oriented development). These stops would be accessed through station payment into stairs and ramps to the center lanes of I-95, which would become separated rights-of-way. The configuration is not entirely unlike what T riders between Worcester and Boston experience, with some train stations positions alongside the Mass Pike. In the long-term, I’d like to see the stations beautified and given greater sound- and visual-separation from the highway, but in the immediate future the cost of walling off a right-of-way would not have to be done expensively.

A sixth and important stop could be added to the BRT route at “the Viaduct”, which is a gaping interchange with I-95 and U.S 6 & 10 that I hope will someday disappear, revealing more of the Woonasquatucket River for development, park space, and multimodal travel. The Viaduct is in fact the origin of the $46 Million plan, as RIDOT officials appear to be taking the opportunity they have to maintain the aging interchange as an excuse to expand around it.

How could BRT change the interaction that I-95 has with Rhode Island? Many native Rhode Islanders derisively refer Pawtucket, a small rust-belt city, as “the Bucket”, but as a transplant I’ve found it to be quite beautiful. I-95 cuts through Pawtucket with a locally famed S-curve, which was the city’s attempt to save as many architectural gems as it could when the interstate was built. Nonetheless, I-95 divides Pawtucket even more roughly than it does Providence. Finding a way to convert one of the worst things about the city into a positive would be incredible for economic development there.

Transit advocates raise important concerns about BRT. Although I-95 goes through the downtowns of Pawtucket and Providence, Jef Nickerson of Greater City Providence questions whether BRT would require people to walk through unpleasant quarters of the two cities and sit by a loud highway in order to get use out of the route. Nickerson also cites the potential to develop a Pawtucket station on the T between Providence and Boston, a possibility that seems increasingly likely. In my mind this would clearly be a good thing, although I see the two routes serving somewhat different purposes. The BRT would be a high-frequency route between stations at mile or half-mile intervals. The T, on the other hand, would serve as a more infrequent route for commuters between the major centers of Providence and Boston (Nickerson brought up a really good counterpoint to this in an email exchange, though, saying that he would recommend the T use smaller but more frequent rolling stock for the route if it got infill stations). I also agree with Nickerson’s assessment that the areas served by BRT are at present fairly unpleasant, but I wonder if that’s a virtue in disguise—offering the possibility of transit-oriented development along these corridors.

I also think, at root, the reason I propose BRT on I-95 is that removing I-95 is one of the few worthy projects that the Northeast could take up that even I don’t see as remotely likely to happen in my lifetime. Having lived for a long time in Philadelphia, I know of a few El stops that pop up between either side of I-95. They’re not pleasant, and though the neighborhoods around these stops (Spring Garden, Girard) are improving, there’s no doubt that the highway’s raised shadow has its way with Philly just as harshly as it does with Providence. But BRT seems like a way to envision some kind of new transportation within the shell of the old. 

An even better example would be Minneapolis' interurban BRT Orange Line, which was added to I-35W as a way for commuters to get in and out of the city. The line uses the exact same configuration of center lane stations with rights of ways that I describe as being needed for a Cranston-Providence-Pawtucket line.

Providence is currently looking at a TIGER grant proposal for the Providence Streetcar, which as yet will have a right of way on only a small portion of its routing, and have a 12-minute peak/20-minute off-peak frequency, making walking a faster option to get from the central business district to either end of the route for many permutations of travel. While I view the streetcar with a lot of ambivalence, I think that it could be improved by greater frequency, and by having the route intersect with other long-distance routes. Some streetcar stops are expected to get public financing for parking garages, something that it’s pretty clear Providence already has far too many (map by GCPVD) of. Even from a drivers’ perspective it makes no sense.The idea that suburbanites will drive into the city most of the way and then jump onto the streetcar for the last leg of their journey seems laughable to me, but I could definitely see a critical mass of Cranstonites (Cranstoners? Cranstonians?) getting on a BRT that pulsed with a last-mile streetcar into downtown. BRT should be developed by combining money for the I-95 expansion with money that has been proposed for the parking garages, in order to add more robust transit options for Rhode Islanders in a central part of the state’s population density. Alongside improvements to downtown short-distance travel by streetcar, and the additional capacity offered by a commuter T, BRT could help to revitalize Rhode Island, with a much better return on investment than this wasteful highway boondoggle.

Rhode Island, a state smaller than some U.S. metro areas, and with a population density the second highest in the country, has much of its population located along an even narrower band on either side of the Narragansett Bay. Its principal cities—Providence, Pawtucket, Newport, Central Falls, and Woonsocket—are no Boston or New York, but they have walkability and density that many places in the country would die for. It’s hard to think of a state in which effective transit and biking would be easier to implement. It’s also hard to think of a state that does more to piss away its advantages on wasteful spending.


In Service to the Service Road

Screen shot 2014-04-05 at 8.31.35 AM

First published at RI Future.

There was a fun online graphic survey at the New York Times a while ago which asked a series of questions and then placed participants on a map, showing the exact city or cities whence they came (my partner Rachel’s friend from college, for instance, had grown up in Texas and moved to North Jersey in elementary school, and the survey was able to pinpoint both that he was a New Yorker and that he had grown up in the Lone Star State based on different aspects of his speech. Rachel was placed appropriately between Wuhstahh and Prahhvidince as a native of Central Mass with a dad from Central Falls, while my Philly patois must have come through to the NY Times, because it placed me there).
Transportation figures heavily into our dialects. For instance, I grew up saying “traffic circle” but people around the country call those things rotaries, traffic circuses, roundabouts, and all manner of other things. My favorite transportation-related question from the survey was the one that asked you what you call the stretch of road that’s next to a highway, for the purpose of entering the highway. While New England calls these things “service roads”, Philadelphia doesn’t have a term at all. It’s not that we don’t have them, it’s just that they’re not named.
As you may know, RIDOT is planning an expansion of I-95 to help motorists bypass directly to 146 past the traffic that collects around the mall. The whole project, which stretches only a mile, will cost a projected $46 Million, which in context is more than the whole repaving bond amounted to for Providence. There are a whole lot of reasons why this project doesn’t make sense, and I’m in the process of writing more on that question. Right now I want to back off of the project itself and focus on a bigger-picture question, which is how the idea of a “service road” influences our chances of fighting for a more livable Providence.
The Vine Street Expressway in Philadelphia strikes me as a good example to visit for contrast.
For much of its eastern length since the Rizzo days, Vine Street is essentially the “service road” on either side of its expressway namesake. It’s not a great place to walk or bike, and the expressway creates a rough boundary between Center City and North Philly which especially around Chinatown has resulted in dilapidation and squalor. If you asked a Philadelphian what they would call this part of Vine Street though, my tongue-in-cheek guess is they’d say “It’s the part of Vine Street that Frank Rizzo fucked up” rather than having a term like “Service Road 8″ for it.
What does Vine Street have that differs it from a service road?
  • Sidewalks
  • Parking Lanes (you can’t see them here, but go on google and scroll around, you’ll see there are parked cars). This brings Vine Street to an unusually wide two lanes of traffic in each direction–rather expansive in Center City Philadelphia terms, but modest compared to the three lanes of speedway next to the West Side and Downcity Providence.
  • A bicyclist (way in the back)
  • Of course someone from South Philly has wandered away from Broad Street to park their car on the sidewalk
  • Trees (and even some large ones, which would perhaps be seen as immobile hazards for cars by some highly-trained traffic engineer). And the trees are on both sides, creating a sound buffer to the highway
  • Murals that don’t look like they were commissioned to fifth graders
  • There are traffic signals at every block, and as far as my visual investigation of the Google Streetview and my memory of living in Philly can tell, there are no “beg buttons” on the walk signals.
  • There are even trolley tracks (unused, but with a bus route that might go back to trolley someday) at the next intersection.
  • The lanes do not appear to me to be 12′ wide, as on Service Road 7, suggesting that perhaps cars are expected to act like they’re in a neighborhood until after they get on the highway.
This, friends, is a street. Not a great street–I’d like to reemphasize that this is a rough area with a lot wrong with it, and not someplace that you’d want to replicate by any means. But this is a street nonetheless.
The service road, on the other hand, will sometimes attain the name of some obscure local municipal or sports figure as a means of trying to tidy itself up, but will mostly be known by a number. And truly, the number tells you what it is much more honestly than the name of the celebrity could. When I first encountered Service Road 7, I assumed it was kind of like Vine Street–not a great place to bike, for sure, not a great place to be a pedestrian, but a street of sorts that someone like me–a person in the 1% of cyclists who are willing to bike in most any conditions–could use. Whoa! Was I wrong! Service Road 7 is a stroad (video explaining term).
The term “service road” is not destiny. We are not required to think in the way the word suggests we think. But having a word like service road does oblige us to think of certain distinctions that might remain unstated and below the surface in a place without the term. This is kind of how a German, with the feminine word for bridge, eine Brücke, will often use a feminine voice when asked by a researcher to anthropomorphize the feature, while a Spanish-speaker, saying el puente–masculine–will use a male voice to personify the crossing (does this affect how Germans or Spaniards build bridges? Researchers still don’t know, but that’s a crazy thought, isn’t it?). It’s not that these speakers can’t understand that bridges are in fact objects without set gender identities. But the first thing they think of when they use the word is the gender they’ve been taught to assign to these objects.
Mayor Rizzo (video), who helped push through the Vine Street Expressway, was an old school boss mayor (video) like Richard Daley of Chicago, having come up as the chief of police in a repressive city in spasms of racism  and injustice. Rizzo would make Buddy Cianci look like a paper tiger. The Toronto Sun recently cited Rizzo in order to give a favorable comparison to their coke-addled leader,Rob Ford, saying:
Then there was Frank Rizzo, mayor of Philadelphia in the 1970s, an autocratic leader accused by the city’s blacks of discriminating against them, who, in his 1975 re-election campaign infamously told a reporter: ‘Just wait, after November you’ll have a front row seat, because I’m going to make Attila the Hun look like a faggot.’
So let’s not make Ford a bigger deal than he is — a failed, largely powerless mayor who deserves to be soundly defeated in next year’s election.
Ah, I feel proud. There’s someone more embarrassing than Rob Ford.
The shadow of Rizzo’s time in office lays over Philadelphia in ways that are much deeper than this highway. Yet Rizzo got push back by the community around the Vine Street Expressway that helped shape the project. One major community success was that Vine Street got an expressway and South Street did not, saving things like the Magic Garden, which otherwise would have gotten the bulldozer. The Wikipedia article on the Vine Street Expressway notes several other changes due to environmental, historic, and neighborhood concerns which required changing the route, reducing the scope of the project, and adding transit improvements alongside it. Though we all talk about hating the service roads in Providence, somehow I can’t see a successful campaign by a community to change the nature of a service road in the same way that I can see a campaign to push back about a street, because the term service road says that its purpose is only to move cars quickly, and nothing else. Can you see a successful campaign to put bike lanes on Service Road 7?
The service roads are a piece of Providence’s landscape that more than any others diminish it. We need to start to recognize them for what they are: temporary mistakes to be corrected, rather than natural features of the landscape to be built upon and expanded. The city I grew up around, I think I’ve adequately explained, was no place of soaring progressive vision. But sometimes, I suspect, our words affect the way that we envision even the worst of ideas. If the people of Philadelphia, Providence, or any city were approached with a discussion about expanding a piece of infrastructure that was part of a highway, they would naturally consider that proposal differently than if they were asked to bring a highway onto their front street. In a way, I suspect that having these service roads as a cognitive frame disarms us from objecting to their role in the landscape: they may suck for anyone not barreling out of the city in a car, but c’mon, that’s what they’re for. As much as I dislike Vine Street and the legacy of the mayor who messed it up, I have to recognize that there are some major things that are different about it than our New England service roads.


The Difference Between a Street & a Road

Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns blog talks about the difference between a street and a road. The talk includes interesting historical facts about Spain that I didn't know, too.

I think this really helps to explain why we can't afford a car-oriented society anymore, in economic terms.


Widening I-95?

I just want the non-Twitter folks to know about this. Via Barry Schillar on the Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition list I found out that RIDOT is planning some wondrous surprises for us along I-95:
FYI:  As we heard, there are no bike projects in the TIGER grant applications.  Last night we heard that RIDOT is applying for a $20 million grant to widen I-95 North from about the Broadway exit to Route 146 as part of the Providence Viaduct replacement ([total] extra cost about $46 million), 
These plans are not final as far as I know, and we can certainly rally to stop them.

The cost for the two bus hubs proposed was by contrast, $1.5 Million. 

[F]or a $1.5 million planning grant for the 2 new proposed RIPTA bus hubs (at the [RR] station and Garrahy Court House) though that will also require legislative and voter approval of bonds.
The best short-term solution I've heard to deal with traffic on I-95 came from Streetsblog writer and Newport native Stephen Miller, who tweeted that the best solution would be to have a congestion fee for the urban span of I-95, in order to encourage transit use among those who can. I also have long wanted to envision taking the center lane in each direction away from I-95 for Bus Rapid Transit with five stops at Cranston, the South Side, Downtown/West Side, North Main, and Pawtucket. I think a second lane from each side would have to be taken for ramps and staircases to enter the BRT. Setting up this new infrastructure would also cost a lot, but would provide a great deal more capacity.

There's also a counterintuitive trend with highways that finds that when highways are added, the new capacity only affects traffic congestion for a few years before things go back to their stasis. One way of thinking about this is to imagine the commuter to Boston on I-95 or on the T. I used to either carpool or take the train, and even though the train cost me money while the carpool was free, and even though there was no discernible environmental difference between taking one or the other, the traffic alone made me prefer the T. If you add lanes, people immediately feel the sense that there's more free capacity for them to use, and that would lead some of the people who hate traffic like I do to drive instead of take the train, until all the capacity was eaten. Because traffic congestion is not linear, it only takes a small difference in volume of cars (maybe 10%) to add huge differences in how slow everyone is going.

If you have ideas about this, tweet them to us at @transportpvd or email us at