Protected Bike Lanes & Gay Marriage

I often hear from city officials in Rhode Island that the changes I propose to them make sense, but that their hands are tied by RIDOT regulations. In practice, a lot of streets in cities are not controlled by the cities themselves, but by the state DOT, and that makes it harder to change the way they're designed. S. Main Street in Providence is controlled by the state, as is Westminster Street on the West Side, and Broad Street in Central Falls.

I think this is an understandable but lame excuse, and it's high time that we put it on its head.

There's a degree of truth to blaming RIDOT, which legally holds responsibility for the streets in question. "I might want to do exactly what you want," said an official, "but I can't. RIDOT won't let me." The reason I continue to put pressure on cities as an activist, rather than focusing my attention on an even more frustrating state process, is that I don't believe that change can come through the state. Cities will lead, or nothing will happen.

Seattle activists pushed SDOT towards permanent changes with tactical urbanism.

In many cases, RIDOT has moved slowly towards a less Neanderthal-like perspective on bike and pedestrian infrastructure. RIDOT officially allows cities to "consider" NACTO guidelines for street design instead of AASHTO ones, which opens the door to much better design. "Consider" doesn't mean anything in practice though. Many engineers working on behalf of RIDOT are used to what they're used to, and without forceful changes in policy, the same things continue to be built. The same city official I quoted earlier told me that for one project in his purview, RIDOT engineers arrived to the meeting unaware even of the terms of the debate. "They didn't even know what a protected bike lane was, or a sharrow." RIDOT engineers blocked additional street trees, saying it put them over budget, insisted that pedestrian bump-outs would harm street width, blocked bike lanes of any kind, an ultimately (reluctantly) gave in to sharrows on an arterial street. This is progress, I guess.

The best example I can think of of cities actively thumbing their noses at the authority of states is gay marriage. In many states, gay marriage continues to be illegal, and even more menacingly, in some states it's totally legal to fire people from jobs for being someplace on the queer/gender-queer spectrum. But where we have made progress on changing the culture around gay/bi/trans rights, it has been because activists and local officials took control of the situation and put opponents on the defensive.  Before California ever had gay marriage, mayors like Gavin Newsom started officiating weddings with full recognition that they would not be respected by state officials. But this had power. Possession is nine-tenths of the law.

Gay SF-ers stood in line to marry (illegally) in 2004.
City officials must do the same with transportation. It is an unacceptable excuse at this point in the game, with the stakes as high as they are, for cities to claim that they have to follow jurisdictional rules about who controls the street. Cities like Providence, Pawtucket, and Central Falls need to say, "We're putting this bike and pedestrian infrastructure in. You try to stop us." The state may very well respond in exactly that way, removing something that the community wants, but that will completely reset the debate. Now the state will have to explain why it is doing such an unacceptably stupid thing that goes against official USDOT policy. RIDOT leadership does not take initiative on these issues as they should, but my guess is that if someone put them in that awkward position, they might fold. Whenever a bureaucratic, opaque decision-making process exists to continue policies that are bad for the public, the best way to destroy the power of that process is to put the terms of the debate out in the open, where they look ridiculous.

Activists and advocates have an even greater responsibility to ignore state guidelines. I've had numerous friends in bike advocacy try to sit down and explain to me "how things work" after I've published an article calling for x, y, or z thing. I understand what these advocates are trying to say, but what they're actually doing (most likely without intending to) is policing the boundaries of their movement instead of putting their efforts into policing the state DOT. Mayors being willing to officiate unofficial gay marriages became an almost blasé way for them to show support for the LGBT community--a dog whistle. We need to make it so that people yawn at the idea of a mayor pushing back against a state DOT, and breaking protocol. And the only way we can truly do that is to speak as if our expectation is for mayors to do that. When advocates adopt the existing timetable that RIDOT uses to explain what's possible, they corral progress into tightly bordered, very limited areas.

Civil disobedience only works when a policy has latent support, but the support isn't strong or universal enough to warrant most people taking action on it. At that point, a minority has to step forward and declare that things have changed. If an issue is so unpopular that no one agrees with it but the small minority, the action will fail. But gay marriage was in 2004 what protected bike lanes are today: an issue that most people will not give the time of day to, but which most people will happily accept after the fact. It's our job as activists, as advocates, and ultimately, as allied local officials to ignore the timelines that have been put in our way, do what's appropriate for the community, and let the state respond. 


Central Falls Bikeway: "A Good Compromise"?

One of our commenters, Matt Moritz, who (until recently) has been the president of the RI Bicycle Coalition, said that the Central Falls bike route was "an okay compromise". I don't want to unduly pick on Matt personally, since he's a nice and upstanding person and an excellent asset to the community, but I do find very frequently that his comments take this form ("x thing that James thinks is inexcusable is actually as good as we can do, realistically" with a real emphasis on the "realistically" part). I find, in fact, that it's not just Matt who says things like this, but that this is the kind of thing that is said in organized bike culture in general. It made me crazy to hear some people in the organized biking community fawn over the new sharrows when they were unveiled in Providence, as if they were totally unaware of how ineffective and insulting they were.

I think this is the reason Rhode Island doesn't have better biking. We are shooting ourselves in the foot by not demanding more.

Compare and Contrast

I've arranged some Google Streetview photos of the Central Falls bike route, and some of Broad Street. I'd like readers to decide whether they think Central Falls made "an okay compromise" when they decided on their routing.

Now, as I said, there are some small sections of this route that are decent looking, like this block (although, again, though nice looking, I wouldn't say that this is anything special to bike on. Just a normal street--Note that this block has not been traffic calmed in any way):

But then pretty quickly, the route starts to look like this:

And this:

Oh yeah, that's what I like:

Bring me that 1970s orange. You know I like my surface parking lots. . . 

Mm mmm. . . 

Nothing like a creepy tunnel under the Amtrak train with a razor-wired jail facility on the other side to say Visit the Beautiful Blackstone Valley.

Central Falls is actually a really beautiful city. There's plenty that people could see of it if the designated East Coast Greenway route didn't roll people past the city's backside. And CF residents, the vast majority of which live out of range of this route, would be better served by one that goes on a major thoroughfare, like Broad Street or Dexter Street (probably both).

Is there even a contest between which of these two routes shows the world what is so amazing about Central Falls?

The best way for CF to address this is to put protected bike lanes right on Broad Street.

*These pictures are from Google Streetview, and are not necessarily in linear order of how they'd be approached on a bike trip, but you can also go to Google Maps and check out some of the visuals for yourself. It's about a half-mile long route.

The Central Falls Bike Route Sucks

I've been writing more about Central Falls and Pawtucket, and intended to cover this in a later post, but a reader comment came in:
"I have words about the route: East Coast Green Way showcasing the East Coast and you route it through INDUSTRIAL-PRISON (Pawtucket) [sic, Central Falls] and REFUSE COLLECTION (Woonsocket) [sic, actually Central Falls]? No one will want to visit your city!" 

This comment may be rude, but it's truthful*.   :-/

How should we judge a bike route?

*Does it take you someplace useful?
I think there should be bike access everywhere, and there are some things that a person could go to here, so for some people this might serve a purpose. But for the vast majority, this is a useless route. The river cuts off access from the eastern part of Pawtucket, and the railroad cuts off access to the rest of Central Falls. 

*Is the route easy to follow?
Looking at this on a map, it's really clear that because of what I said above in point #1, in a sense it's impossible to get lost on this route (it's all technically on High Street, a prime example of a Rhode Island Street that goes a million directions getting one name, while some other streets that are completely contiguous and straight get six). There is nowhere useful to branch off to, so where could you get lost? At the same time, for a new person on this route, or even someone who's taken a few times, the constant bends back and forth are disorienting. Imagine this from the perspective of a visitor: do you want to give this route your trust? The answer is no.

Does this route keep you safe from cars?
This route meets a very minimal standard of safety from cars. As we've pointed out in other posts, the literal chances that a person will be injured by a car on a bike are very small, although larger than the per capita chances that a person will be harmed while in a car. Nonetheless, this route does not create an environment where an unenthusiastic cyclist would feel protected from cars. Much of the route has sharrows on lanes that are too wide to slow traffic to 15 mph. Other points have non-separated painted bike lanes. Meh.

In addition, the section of Broad Street entering Valley Falls, where this route intersects with the bike path, is extremely hard to get across. When we consider the types of riders who ride bikes only on "Dutch style" facilities, i.e., those who ride on the bike path, this intersection does nothing to give a sense of safety from cars. From the perspective even of a more daring cyclist like myself, this route does very little too. 

Does this route give you a sense of social safety?
In other words, would you ride this at night? Or would you fear that someone might mug you? This route goes past a razor-wired prison complex, which does not breed a sense of social safety. Its isolation (see point #1) from more active places in Central Falls also means that at night, it's going to feel isolated. And while there are some nice points along this route (Chocolate Falls stand out), much of this northern stretch is ugly. 

What would a more sensible route be?
I'm of the opinion that especially in Central Falls, which is 1.3 miles square and around 20,000/square mile in population density, it makes sense to invest in protected bike lanes on all major avenues. However, if I was to choose the first place to put such an investment, Broad Street would be it.

Broad Street passes each of these tests:

*Useful? It's the heart of town, and also comes directly into Pawtucket's downtown. Bringing bicyclists here makes sense. They can stop and buy things, instead of being shunted away like an after-thought (I also think Dexter Street should get a protected bike lane, but its entrance into Pawtucket is a lot hairier than Broad Street's, so I think that route should come later, with funding. The Broad St. route could be done with plastic bollards or planters).
*Easy to follow? With appropriate planning in Pawtucket's downtown, one-ways can be narrowed to allow for two-way protected bike lanes (the Pawtucket Foundation calls for streets to be turned back to two-direction traffic, but I would favor an approach more like Pittsburgh's State Street, where two-way traffic was prioritized for bikes, with only one-way access for cars). Broad Street is a very straight, direct route, and is where the bike path entrance comes off of.
*Car safety? With adequate protected bike lanes in the parking lanes, Broad Street is a perfect fit.
*Social safety? Eyes on the street make this a great route. Broad Street is beautiful and active.

Mayor Diossa and his planning department have been aware of the need to address this since May. I initially felt sure that Central Falls was going to take a non-bureaucratic approach to this problem and fix it right away, but have since become convinced that it's been pushed to the back burner. It's time for Central Falls to step up and fix this. I wanted to work behind the scenes to try to improve CF, but I don't feel like anything is going to get done without a little tough love.


*Being from Pennsylvania as I am originally, I am aware that prisoners in that state are sometimes taken very far from their (often urban) homes and put into prisons hundreds of miles from where they live in the boonies of Pennsyltucky, where it's hard for anyone to visit them. The jail in question is actually not a "prison" but something more like a holding cell (Cranston has the only prison facility in the state), and in any case, Rhode Island doesn't have any locations that are hundreds of miles away. But I don't want anyone to think I'm unaware/unempathetic to the need to have safe routes to a jail facility. That said, this should not be the showcased route for the "East Coast Greenway". This is clearly the backside of the city of Central Falls, and it shouldn't be where people go when they're not trying to access that area intentionally.

Dealing with the S-Curve

The biggest obstacle to being a pedestrian or a bicyclist in Pawtucket/Central Falls is the S-curve, which divides up what might otherwise be contiguous neighborhoods in several directions. Pawtucket and Central Falls have a lot less industry than they did in the past, but I still see large trucks around loading and unloading, and keeping good access for those trucks is a bare minimum for supporting the economy of the area. So then the question is, where can we sacrifice truck access in order to create really great pedestrian and bike crossings? And where can we make smaller improvements to make being a pedestrian or bike something semi-tolerable, without ruining that truck access?

Pawtucket has a surprisingly large number of crossings over I-95, each on a spectrum of moderately okay to cross to completely horrible and deadly (most swing towards the latter end of the spectrum). There are no crossings that are great.

Low-hanging Fruit
The most appropriate thing to do in Pawtucket is to take routes that are somewhat bearable and make them much better, like an urban triage. 

The best way to cross I-95 from the south to the north is to go under it on the sharrow route through Providence. The cars on this route go way too fast passing me on the way to work, because this route hasn't really been designed with biking in mind. But the level of traffic is extremely low compared to other routes, and most of the route is pretty aesthetically nice.

This Google Streetview is from before the bike lanes were striped. Much of this route, which goes from Blackstone Blvd. along the river and up to Roosevelt Ave. does not have bike lanes, though, but sharrows. None of it has truly segregated bike facilities. This area should become Autoluwe.
I think it's unlikely that we can make the bike route car-free, but I think we can make this route Autoluwe, or what the Dutch call "almost car-free". Through traffic should be made difficult for cars on this route, with the idea of giving preference to bikes. Where that isn't possible, sections of this route should get protected bike lanes to allow bikers to ride completely separate from cars. Traffic calming should also be in place to make sure that cars do not speed around corners.

  • From Blackstone Blvd. to the bridge should get protected bike lanes (yellow). 
  • Under the bridge (green) should get a car blockade, allowing pedestrian and bike access. Beautification options could be considered as well, although this is a nice place already, and has activity due to people fishing (people could still park their cars to fish, but the Autoluwe design wouldn't allow this to be used as a through route).
  • On the other side of the bridge is Roosevelt Avenue, which is an important through route for cars. It should get protected bike lanes (this should be easy, because the road width is too wide, and because there is almost no parking, except for around the RIPTA station for buses). The sharrow route is currently against the curb through much of this section, meaning this could be accomplished by just adding some bollards.
  • I think Pawtucket should consider having the buses stop right in traffic, with the protected bike lane against the curb, but if this isn't possible, having a small mixed-traffic area would be a compromise that could work, especially if incorporated with other traffic calming. In particular, I think intersections in the downtown need bump-outs or protected intersections, and signals should be put to blinking red to encourage slower negotiation of intersections.
  • Through traffic for cars has a lot of alternate routes here, and at the moment, there aren't a lot of cars going this way anyway (as I said, the ones that do pass go too fast). The city of Pawtucket should not worry about NIMBY complaints, because this is a change that is going to make homes along this area more valuable and enjoyable to live in, whether people drive or not.
I think Cross Street/Central Avenue is a good candidate for an east-west route. Like the north-south route, I think blocking car access at places is necessary, but this can be accomplished using the Autoluwe techniques described above.

This section of Cross Street should become Autoluwe.

Cross Street itself is too narrow to get proper protected bike lanes, but is a great candidate for Autoluwe, because there are many alternative routes for cars and trucks. I suspect that this route is hard to make turns onto for trucks already, and that other, wider routes take more of that type of traffic. As you can see above, Cross Street is also really beautiful. One of the things that urban designer Jeff Speck identifies as important for a biking or walking route is that the route be visually interesting. This has a good "street-wall" that makes people feel comfortable. This block here could get blockaded to all but bikes and pedestrians, allowing access to local traffic for cars. Traffic speeds should be brought to 15 mph.

When Cross Street turns to Central Avenue, it becomes much wider. Here I would suggest adding protected bike lanes, and allowing car and truck through traffic. 

Yellow represents protected bike lanes, while green represents the Autoluwe portion of this route.
These changes are modest, and would cost very little. Activists in Seattle were able to put in bollards in the street overnight as a protest tactic that was eventually adopted permanently by the city to the route they were concerned with. The city of Pawtucket should take the necessary steps to create east-west and north-south routes for bikes right now, with an eye towards getting this implemented at the very latest by spring (doing it now, during the winter, would be even better).


Transport Providence is Coming Back

It's been since September that I've made a proper post, although I have been actively pushing the Providence parking tax over at RI Future and Eco RI News. 

I've been commuting through Pawtucket and Central Falls recently, and realized that there's a lot of ongoing work that needs to happen in these places that just isn't taking place. In May, Mayor Diossa of Central Falls met with some bike advocates and started in a hopeful direction with a new bike fix-it station in his city, but his administration has so far failed to follow-up on early expectations that that city would put protected bike lanes in. I offered several times to help the city plan and implement a protected bike lane, a project which I think could be completed in 90-days by any serious administration. The administration showed some interest at first, but even after I asked to do the project for free, they didn't follow through.

Pawtucket's planning bodies have been trying to set up a bike & pedestrian advisory commission, but each of the meetings has been cancelled. I am supposed to serve on that body, and I think Pawtucket needs to move more forcefully towards having a bikeable city if it wants people to stop calling it "the Bucket".

I was riding through Pawtucket recently, and realized that there's really very little of the city I've even been able to properly see, because so little of it is accessible by bike or foot. This is a major problem, not some kind of side-show issue that the city can deal with a little at a time. I haven't seen anything of Pawtucket in the triangle west of I-95 and south of Mineral Spring Avenue. For all I know, colonies of French mimes could live there, perfecting their craft speechlessly, but all the while thinking silent French thoughts. But chances are it's probably like the rest of Pawtucket. I just can't really reach it so easily. There are parts of Providence that might as well be foreign countries to me. But Pawtucket actually feels like it could be a fun place to spend time, if it didn't feel like the design of its roads were conspiring to kill me.

Changing this should not take a long time. The only reason it takes a long time is because we have bad priorities. It didn't take long in countries that really wanted to take action. The best of our politicians want to do something about this, but are content to do tiny little things. We need to expect more.

Now tell me, doesn't this look like someplace you'd like to hang out? It does to me. This street is too wide, but that could be fixed with bike lanes.
I take the sharrow route to work, and come to cross streets like Exchange in Pawtucket, and never tun up them, because I worry that if the designated bike route is so mediocre, the non-designated route must be worse. The last few days I went on little side-jaunts on my way home to see if I could edify myself a bit, but found the eastern part of Pawtucket completely confounding to get around in. The elephant in the room is the highway, which needs to be dealt with seriously. 

This is what that same beautiful block looks like a few hundred feet later, next to I-95. Note especially that you can't even take Exchange Street across the highway even if you're daunting enough to go across this. This is part of the reason I have barely scratched the surface of the eastern part of Pawtucket. Let's note how expensive this crappy intersection is: each of those signals, alone, must have cost $100,000. The road is too wide. There are all these complicated and ugly cement fixtures to pretend we care about pedestrians. And there's a vacuum sucking development away from here. Money well spent.

Pawtucket and Central Falls are important to me. My father-in-law, who lives in Central Mass, and whose parents now live in East Providence, grew up jumping around between Central Falls and Providence. For him, "going to the city" meant going to Pawtucket's downtown. I think that Central Falls and Pawtucket are two completely unappreciated areas of Rhode Island, and that they need some serious attention.

The attitude of piecemeal change is really lame. There's no other way to put it. We can't remove I-95 right now (although, hell, let's do it, if we ever get the chance. . . ) but we can certainly could close some of the crossings to cars, put protected bike lanes on others, implement road diets, move parking. The same things that piss me off about Providence continuing to run in place irk me even more deeply about Pawtucket. This is a place that needs bike infrastructure, and good pedestrian infrastructure. This is a place that could be great.

I'm not really sure whether anything I write really matters. Part of what stopped me from blogging for a while was the way that Providence treated Park(ing) Day. On the face of things, the mayor was extremely supportive, issuing praise in his weekly email. Several city departments took part. But on the other hand, the city charged us lots and lots of permitting money for the event, and then never enforced the no-parking zone, even though the parking that we paid for was unmetered. I got short shrift from city officials when I asked for commitments to fix this for future events, eventually cutting off discussion by saying that I wasn't the "official" Park(ing) Day representative, and that I should talk to the "real" Park(ing) Day organizers, and thank you so very much for your concerns. It's this gap between everyone wanting to appear at Bike to Work Day and actually seeing our cities take action to make our streets work that confounds me the most.

I walked away from the second Park(ing) Day feeling really ambivalent, and extremely burnt out. On the one hand, I knew that a lot of people loved what we did, including passing drivers, and businesses on Broadway. On the other hand, it felt to me like just one more example of banging my head against the wall and seeing very piecemeal, extremely slow, extremely tepid change.

I guess I'm back to bang my head against the wall again.


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.