Open Letter: Why City Council Should Defeat Councilwoman Ryan's Proposed Housing Limits

Hello Councilwoman Ryan et. al.,

I respectfully write to you to oppose your proposition of limiting student housing within your district. I am neither a student nor an Elmhurst resident, though I live in Mt. Hope which is also a student-dominated neighborhood. The concerns I bring through my blog Transport Providence have to do with land use and transportation issues, and I see your proposition as causing a lot of negative side effects.

Leave it to me to write a dry letter and accompany it with a
flamboyant picture, but this image just captures the sentiment
too (damn?) well.
With respect to the core problem, which as stated in the Projo article seems to be students having loud parties, I think that it's very reasonable for City Council to find arrangements to limit noise, and if existing noise ordinances are not working, to find creative measures to address that problem. I work early in the morning as a substitute teacher, and though I have not yet had any particular problems with partiers on my block, I know that if I had to deal with that problem, I would be very upset. The issue of binge drinking, whether real or perceived, is also a concern, and I would join you in trying to find active solutions to that problem.

Limiting student housing has a number of ill effects. It increases the cost of housing and potentially puts certain housing out of reach of students or other people. It causes students, who may or may not make noise, to face increased debt, as student debt is not only taken on for tuition but also for housing costs. At a transportation level, it spreads people out and makes it more likely that they will need a car, causing increased congestion, pollution, and parking difficulties. It also means that areas that may be very well built to accommodate transit, like Elmhurst, have a reduction in density (density, for instance, increases the viability of transit frequency not linearly, as one might expect, but exponentially, meaning a small downward adjustment in density can decimate the viability of useful transit in a neighborhood). That density is both what allows frequent transit, and is also a key component to business life and community life in the districts where it exists. Imagine, for instance, the difference in activity level on Thayer St. when students leave the East Side, and all the money that would be lost to that business district if students were dispersed.

On the flip side, having students face higher costs for housing also means that those students may outbid lower income families who need high density housing, worsening gentrification, without any of the ascendant benefits to the economy that tend to come from more natural patterns of gentrification. While many of us would probably welcome the revitalization of neighborhoods, this would actually have the opposite effect.

At a civil liberties level, I think it is a violation for the city to be creating definitions of "types" of residents. There may or may not be a clear way to define a student, but why should the city have the right to subject students to different treatment than anyone else? In buildings that may have five bedrooms, would council find it reasonable to kick a family out that has three children? Or even two? The answer is that if council were to treat students similarly to other groups of people, those families would have to move. There's no safety justification for that, so there can't be any safety justification for doing it for students either.

In addition, I think defining what counts as a student may be trickier than expected. Would City Council, for instance, push a family out of its home if it went over the occupancy limit but one parent decided to go back to school? If that doesn't fit the core idea of what people think of as students--I'm assuming, here, loud twenty-somethings--then would City Council set up an ordinance based on age? Would such an ordinance withstand legal challenge? The entire concept feels murky, and strikes me as putting the city at great risk of litigation.

As someone who is no longer student age, I nonetheless remember the burden of these types of laws every time I pay a student loan payment. I fear for the future economic and ecological viability of Providence as well. I will do my very best to mobilize people around me to oppose any limits on student housing. I urge you to approach the valid noise and drinking problems your residents have identified in another way.

Thank you.

James Kennedy

cc: City Council of Providence, Planning Dept. of Providence, Mayor's Office of Providence


Check out the RI Future article outlining the ten councilpersons who voted for exclusionary zoning (Thank you to Dan McGowen for the data for that post, from Twitter). A second vote next Thursday is needed to pass this measure, and unless it stays at ten yes votes, the mayor will need to sign it into law.

I reached out to Brett Smiley and Evan England of the Mayor's office, and Brett wrote me this morning to say that he is talking within the administration to figure out what the mayor's position is. I will update further when I find out.

We need to change just one Council vote, and get a mayoral veto, but I'm hopeful we can change more than one Council vote.


Day of the Dead: A Call for Submissions

Celebrate All Saints Day/Day of the Dead!

On November 1st, Transport Providence and local marching band Extraordinary Rendition will be co-organizing an All Saints Day/Dia de los Muertos funeral march for the 6/10 Connector. If you've been following, you may know that talks with RIDOT and Providence City Hall have already proceeded for some months, and RIDOT has said it is not financially interested in replacing the highway with another highway, but will instead pursue some kind of boulevard. There's still a lot of organizing to do to make sure that that boulevard is people-oriented instead of just another stroad. This is an open call for submissions of moveable art, puppets, music, dancing, or any other creative endeavors to help the march. We want to build community excitement around the idea of a new Providence that values non-car transportation options.

The march will start at 12 noon at the Statehouse, and proceed behind the mall and along Harris Avenue to Olneyville Square. It will take the style of a New Orleans funeral march. 

Tag line: "We'll miss you, 6/10. Um, but not that much."


Venga Celebrar El Día de los Muertos!

1 Noviembre, el blog Transport Providence y el grupo musical "Extraordinary Rendition" va a organizar una camina funeral por la autopista "6/10 Connector". Quizás usted ha visto, un discurso entre el Departimiento de Transportación del Estado Rhode Island (RIDOT), la ciudad de Providence, y la communidad ha resultado en una decisión que la autopista se convertirse en un tipo de bulevar. Hay muchos activismo para crear un bulevar que es orientado a communidades y el ambiente en vez de el traffico, entonces la lucha no ha finido. Pedimos presentaciones de la communidad (la arte, las marionetas, la música, los baille, y otros) para la camina. Queremos crear entusiasmo entre la communidad para la idea de un nuevo Providence que valora opciones de transportación en vez de conducir alrededor.

La camina comenzará al mediodía de 1 Noviembre 2015 al Statehouse, y continuará a Olneyville via Harris Avenue. Este es una obra en el estilo de una camina funeral de New Orleans.

Nuestra consigna: Te echarámos de menos, 6/10, pero no mucho.

P.S. If you speak better Spanish than I do, then correct any grammatical errors or spelling errors you see. I do apologize in advance to speakers of Spanish for probably butchering your beautiful language, but I'm trying to make an increased effort to reach out to the entire community instead of just my (probably?) largely English-speaking readership.

Jazzing Up Newport Biking

Bari Freeman, executive director of Bike Newport, and Valerie Larkin, a technology specialist with the Navy and volunteer for Bike Newport, explain why so few bikes come to Newport Jazz Fest compared with the Folk Fest that happens each year the week before.

The Folk Fest is notably bike-oriented, and the Jazz Fest does all of the same encouragements that the Folk Fest does, but to less impressive results. Because the demographics of the audiences are different, the results are different. 

But there's a way to fix that. . . 

Thank you to Bari Freeman and Valerie Larkin for their time, and to Rachel Playe for help in editing this.


Define Robust.

RI Bike has posted the full letter from the Bike and Pedestrian Advisory Commission addressing Mayor Elorza's administration with its priorities for improved bike and ped mobility in Providence. All of the goals are well thought out, and you can check out the full text either at RI Bike's website or at GCPVD.

I want to draw attention to one section on biking:

Focus on near-term improvements to four key areas that have emerged as clear priorities for improved bicycle infrastructure: 
a better connection between Downtown and the Washington Secondary bike path in Cranston; 
improvements to North Main Street, Canal Street, Olney Street, and Doyle Avenue to better connect the east side of Providence and Pawtucket to Downtown; 
more robust bicycle infrastructure on Elmwood Avenue, Broad Street, and Prairie Avenue to better connect South Providence to Downtown and Roger Williams Park; 
and improvements to Pleasant Valley Parkway, Oakland Avenue, and Dean Street to improve this important connection between the north-west sector of the city and the existing bike lanes on Broadway.
One word in particular stands out: robust. The BPAC is asking for connections from many parts of the city to Downtown, and the commissioners certainly have a clear idea of what they mean by that. The term "robust" though, is intentionally or unintentionally a kind of dog-whistle, though. Previous administrations at the state and city level have chosen to deal with biking through ineffective tools like signage, sharrows, or door-zone bike lanes. Each of these failed tools should be considered out-of-date and sub-par. It's clear that the BPAC's letter is attempting to usher in a new way, but one thing we don't want to allow is for the word "robust" to become watered down because of a lack of clarity about what it means upfront. 

So what do we think the word "robust" should mean? Biking solutions should follow one of two major paths:

Protected Bike Lanes are physically separated lanes for bikes, with appropriate treatments at intersections to avoid turning conflicts. These are most appropriate for arterials, and every arterial should have one.

Bike Boulevards are side streets where physical measures have changed the flow of through-traffic. Some streets may use speed bumps, bump outs, chicanes, diagonal diverters, or filtered permeability systems. 

Tweet us photos of a street you ride on, or of a street you'd like to ride on but feel too afraid to use. Tell us which of these you'd like to see applied to it @transportpvd.


"Beg Buttons Got to Go" says BPAC Chair, in Mayoral Advisement.

I spoke to Eric Weis, Chair of the Providence Bike and Pedestrian Commission (BPAC), during a bike ride he co-led to the new extension of the Washington Secondary Trail, and asked Weis to comment on the lackluster recommendations that came out in the Olneyville Road Safety Assessment authored by engineering firm VHB. The BPAC offers non-binding advisement to the mayor on issues related to pedestrian and bicycle safety, and the RSA touches on many of those issues.
Original image from GCPVD.

Weis said that several of the stakeholders who met with VHB to discuss pedestrian and bike safety improvements were clear to the firm that implementing automatic pedestrian phases into signaling loops was a top priority.

Not only local voices were at the meetings, said Weis. 

"Two individuals from USDOT told VHB that it was standard practice to remove beg buttons." 

Weis, in his role as Chair of the BPAC, also echoed the DOT officials' call at the meeting.

Other concerns that have been raised by community advocates include the reccomendation to increase the number of cars accomodated through Olneyville, a lack of clear vision around transit and biking in a community where nearly 50% of households own no car. While cities around the world have used filtered permeability systems to lower traffic volume, or even declared some central squares car-free, the VHB safety document recommended a move in the opposite direction.

The Trestle Trail, a path through Coventry extending the Washington Secondary
Trail almost to Connecticut, can be reached through Silver Lake or Olneyville,
but only along very dangerous and uncomfortable city streets. Many residents 
in these neighborhoods do not own cars.
Weis' tour Saturday of the new Trestle Trail in West Coventry was joined by approximately thirty people, along a completely car-free right-of-way opened by RIDOT and Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. The tour began in much less pleasant environs, through Downtown, the West End, and Silver Lake, through heavily trafficked streets.

Weis spoke to me for another 2014 article outlining the challenges to connecting to the bike path, in presenting many of the same concerns with Olneyville traffic safety. Weis said that an orifice at the end of his digestive tract tightened in response to the stress of Olneyville streets due to their proximity to the defunct urban highways, Rt. 6 & 10.

Weis hopes for a new future for Providence under Mayor Elorza, saying he knows the mayor is someone trying to do the right things. 

"The mayor cares about communities" said Weis. 

Asked if he had any recommendations for the mayor, in an email Weis said:

The Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission recently sent a letter to Mayor Elorza advising that our city phase out use of pedestrian crossing push buttons (aka beg buttons) citywide, with a special focus on school zones, commercial districts, and the areas around recreation centers. We hope that the Mayor will accept this recommendation, which would override the recommendation made in the Olneyville Road Safety Assessment to continue their use.

Weis was unequivocal. "Beg buttons got to go."


Honk! Honk!

It's a good reminder sometimes that the reason drivers are so out of line in Providence is not that they're evil, but because they're on poorly designed streets. Hell if anyone ever stops like this for me on S. Water St., but they probably don't see me as well as a whole line of Canadian Geese.

To that end, I have a technology recommendation, which is unusual for me (where can you find the "coolest clipless shoes" or the "finest carbon fiber" reviews? Not here. I hate that shit. . . ). I have these battery-lit LED Christmas lights strung up on my bike, and they've proven a great improvement for my mental health. I suggest you get some (they're like $20 for a two-wheel set) and go riding at night. It'll make a true believer of you about how street design rather than people's personalities is the fontline of all driving mistakes.

I was riding home along S. Water St. the other night, from Waterfire no less, and the lights gave me a great thing. Here's what was said to me out the car windows:

Driver 1 (whizzing by too fast): Great lights!
Driver 2 (also whizzing by too fast, then speeding up even more): Get on the fucking sidewalk! 
Driver 3 (yep, too fast): Your bike is awesome!
Driver 4 Yeah!

What do we learn here (mind you, with a very anecdotal sample size)? 3 out of 4 drivers like bikes on the road and will hang out their window in order to say so if there's a good reason. The last 25% are aggressive, awful people. The actual numbers are probably different, you know, but let's just say that this proves the wisdom that most people are nice. At minimum it also shows that no amount of being nice will make you behave on a road that makes you feel like you're not speeding when you are. And here's why I say you should get some lights (or perhaps a Canadian goose) to tie onto your bike: you will be a lot happier as a person knowing that the struggle in life is changing how the road is built than you will be if you think your struggle is with people.

Until we have roads that constrict bad driving, good drivers will go way too fast, and bad drivers will act like they own the road. It just takes that one person yelling out the window to ruin a whole ride, and for most people that will be the last they ever get on a bicycle. But on S. Water St. I encounter someone yelling at me 100% of the time. At least one person out of that line of people always yells. It's just that usually it's during the day so I don't get the positive reinforcement along with it (I do get the universal speeding).

Honk! Honk! Protected bike lanes! Build 'em!


Olneyville Road Safety Assessment

The Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition has an update on the "Road Safety Assessment" or "RSA" (not to be confused with the "Royal Society of the Arts" RSA).

Here is the report, quoted in full, with my thoughts in bold. I have a Twitter update from RI Bike saying that they are trying to find a way to put up the full report, which is a large PDF. Obviously my thoughts are conditional and are subject to change as I see more detail, but I'm interpreting this as best I can with what's here.

On April 2nd and 3rd 2015, a Pedestrian and Bicycle Roadway Safety Assessment (RSA) was performed by engineering firm VHB in conjunction with a multidisciplinary team comprised of safety, traffic, and highway engineers, local enforcement, and local community organizations. The objective of the RSA was to identify issues and potential near and longer term solutions focusing on pedestrian and bicycle safety. Below are the recommendations VHB put forward based on the assessment.
VHB is the author of the Bike Master Plan, of which we have been critical. Several of the engineers at VHB are cyclists, but they tend to push "vehicular cycling" which is an outdated and dangerous way of dealing with cycling. I am also suspicious of the control that VHB continues to get over bike projects because of the fact that VHB is in a "third party" auditing position for the state over contracts, when in fact many of the contracts go to VHB. Not to put too florid of a point on it, but the parading that VHB does as a bike-oriented planning group really bothers me, because nothing they've planned so far has ever been very bike- (or pedestrian- or transit-) oriented.

Immediately (within the next 6 months)
  • Pedestrian – Provide signing and striping enhancements, coupled with an educational campaign  and additional enforcement, to encourage use of crosswalks and push buttons . Review the pedestrian signal wiring and equipment so they are working properly. 
Since re-wiring is to happen anyway as part of this plan, Mayor Elorza should push to have this plan modified so that push buttons are removed from the intersections entirely, as promised in his mayoral campaign. 

  • Bicycles – Improve area signage and pavement striping related to bicycle use and partner with community groups to develop a plan to raise safety awareness for bicyclists. 
You cannot "raise safety awareness" around bicycling. You can only improve safety and comfort in a meaningful way with infrastructure and enforcement changes. 

There is no bike striping in Olneyville Square, so I would like to know what this refers to. Signage does not work, and should be rejected by the city.

  • Autos – Implement signal retiming and restriping to improve capacity and progression throughout the corridor. 
Translation of "Improve capacity and progression through the corridor": Increase speed and volume of traffic. This is at direct odds with any goals related to bikes, transit, or walking.  Cities in America that are serious about pedestrian and bike safety have timed signals not for vehicle throughput, but for modest speeds. Philadelphia makes a point to set many of its signals to 20 mph on major corridors like Chestnut or Walnut Street.

  • Transit – Restripe to provide bus pull-offs/lanes.
This is not a transit improvement, but an improvement to aid throughput of cars.

In the Near Term (between 6 months and 2 years)
  • Pedestrians – Provide minor infrastructure improvements and pedestrian crossing technologies to better define pedestrian crossings for both pedestrians and vehicles.
Because this is vague I am going to withhold comment.

  • Bicycles – Provide on-street bicycle facilities within Olneyville Square including connections to the Broadway bike lanes, East Coast Greenway, and Woonasquatucket River Greenway.
This is also vague, though hopeful. The only facilities that are appropriate for a high-volume (and sometimes high speed) area like Olneyville Square are protected bike lanes. The other thing to add is that the buffered bike lane on Broadway leading into the square, though overall a good improvement, still has the parking signs next to it, and does not have any bollards to keep vehicles out, so our blog has received many community complaints about the bike lanes being blocked by cars. Adding bollards needs to be part of this plan.

  • Autos – Provide minor infrastructure improvements to improve capacity and progression throughout the corridor.
This is vague, but again, "improve capacity and progression throughout the corridor" means increase the number of vehicles that can move through the corridor. This is not a goal we support, but it is typical of VHB's work.

  • Transit – Implement modifications to transit facilities to match up with pedestrian activity.
This is extremely vague. 

In the Long Term (beyond 2 years)
  • Pedestrians – Provide transportation options for vehicles to travel through and around the square, offering an opportunity to incorporate “complete streets” to benefit the diversity of users including bicycles, pedestrians, motorists, and transit riders.
This is vague. One option that needs to be strongly explored is removing cars completely from the square itself, and using a 6/10 Boulevard to allow cars to bypass the area. The key here is that allowing cars to bypass does not mean setting up bypass roads for high volume traffic, as American planners tend to do. The most important ways to enter and exit Olneyville Square should be without a car, but Olneyville Square itself should be considered for a car-free zone.

I would bet money that this is not what the above passage in VHB's report means, but that's what it should mean if we're being serious. Jef Nickerson did a lot of imaginings on a "Re-Booted" Olneyville Square, and people should look to that for inspiration, as well as following the 6/10 Boulevard plans as they unfold.

  • Bicycles – Provide off-road bicycle facilities within Olneyville Square including connections to the Broadway bike lanes, East Coast Greenway, and Woonasquatucket River Greenway. 
This is great. My caution here is that people should not interpret this as meaning that there's a new energy to put extra bike routes in until specifically shown that that's what this means. There is an on-going plan to put some kind of a protected bike lane along the Woonasquatucket River behind the Mall. That should not stand in for real access to Olneyville Square from other directions.

  • Autos – Provide transportation options for vehicles to travel through and around the square through enhanced circulation within the corridor for local traffic as well as offering additional freeway connections for transient vehicle to by-pass the square.
Translation of "enhanced circulation": moving more vehicles. We should abandon any notion of moving more vehicles, and should instead be constricting the capacity for private vehicles, in line with everything we know about induced demand. Just a reminder that Olneyville is a neighborhood where nearly half the households own no car at all, and another quarter or so of households are one-car households. So there is no community-oriented reason to see cars as the central way of getting to the square.

  • Transit – Consider providing separated right-of ways or technologies to allow transit to by-pass congestion in the square.
I support separated bus lanes, and I would like to see more emphasis on this. The 6/10 Boulevard makes sense as one of the corridors for this to happen.

A key detail to keep in mind is that bus routes are not like magic lines on a map. The length of a line can be deceiving, as Jarrett Walker points out on Human Transit quite often. The frequency of the route and the pedestrian interface, as well as a stern commitment to not trying to increase road capacity for cars, and continuing to reform land use to reduce parking craters are all central to making sure that a bus route is successful. So let's continue planning rights-of-way for buses, looking at an MBTA stop in Olneyville, and making sure that we're not just overlaying bus lanes onto a pedestrian-unfriendly corridor full of parking lots.