Transportation Alternatives Committee Meeting

Barry Schiller would like you all to attend the upcoming Transportation Alternatives Meeting. I'm going to make it my personal mission to bug and cajole as many people as I can to show up--so beware! I'm coming for you!

Barry says: 

The Transportation Alternatives Committee meeting at 6:30pm on Thursday, July 24 at the DOA building. 
Though Sue and I are on the TAC to speak about this, they are used to us, so I urge others from the bike community to come and show support for Transportation Alternatives and bike programs, both on-road (part of complete streets, signage, lanes, sweeping, traffic safety enforcement...)  and off-road (e.g.  to get paths to the core cities & Narragansett Beach, make connections, Aquidneck...)   Remember, public comment is allowed at the start of the meeting and on any transportation topic at the end.
Please come to the meeting! 

Great Island Perfect Example of What's Wrong with RI Transportation.

Point Judith is currently a parking crater because of poor 
transportation and land use planning.
I'm interrupting the regularly scheduled reminiscences on my hometown to come back to the subject of Rhode Island, and talk about the lack of debate going on about the highway trust fund. We basically have two sides: the rightwing says "let it burn", and the "left" (if you can call it that) says "keep things the same". Both sides are being fiscally irresponsible, and both sides are being inequitable, so neither is really supporting the core ideals of right or left. The Rhode Island congressional delegation belongs to the "keep it the same" camp, and is pushing an effort to fund the highway trust fund so that we can continue to road build in much the same silly way that we always have. 

I give you Great Island Road, Narragansett.

Great Island Road is a local bridge to low density housing near Point Judith. The Rhode Island congressional delegation has been celebrating the work being done to fix the Great Island Road Bridge using federal highway trust fund money. To me, Great Island Road is emblematic of what's wrong with the trust fund.

First, this is a local road. It's as local as it gets. It serves a residential-only area, carrying no through traffic at all. There's no reason for federal funding to be supporting this. In general I would say some kind of tolling makes more sense for roads. On this one, I might even go as far as to say that property taxes are the best way to recover the cost of the bridge, because the users of the bridge are generally the same exact people as the owners and renters in the homes. But in any case, the cost of the bridge should be localized. Having used federal funds to fix this bridge, we should now find a way to recover that money through some kind of local charges, and pass that funding into better transit for the area.

Other roads and bridges around this area carry more traffic, but supporting them through the trust fund doesn't make sense either. Point Judith is now a huge parking crater due to the number of cars that come to it during the summer months, but in the fall and winter, and even into early spring, the Point is desolate. Route 66 of RIPTA runs to meet the ferry, but is very infrequent. Having a localized Route 66 along with tolling on the bridges would make sense as a way to pay the costs of the road infrastructure, reduce car use, and help to support more frequent transit. 

By a "localized" 66 I mean focused on South County. The 66 currently runs roughshod all over the state to get between Point Judith and Providence, but doesn't serve any particular point efficiently because it tries to serve everywhere--including many rural and exurban locations poorly suited for transit. It's long route also makes it impossible to run frequent service between denser points of interest. URI students have a notorious problem of getting into DUI related incidents, and I know from having worked on the Block Island Ferry as a bartender that a good number of the people getting off the boat are not in their best condition to drive. It makes more sense to have a ten minute frequency bus hitting only a few points--Peacedale, Wakefield, URI, and the train station--from Point Judith, rather than having a bus that snakes through parking lots, trying to carry service into West Greenwich and Warwick before going to Kennedy Plaza. Service to Providence would be better organized through the MBTA station at Kington, which should be the last stop for a viable 66. With frequency, this transfer won't be a problem.

Another important change should be putting better bike access onto Route 108. As a dauntless biker, I commuted each day along 108 to work, but many would not. The route is far too wide for its low usage during most of the year, and is only full of cars and congested in the summer due to poor transportation and land use planning. In the winter the existing Kingston Bike Path should be plowed and salted. 108 could certainly get protected bike lanes to help to remove many drivers from the road. The current excuse for not salting and plowing the Kingston Bike Path is that it would harm marshes, but this has the same ring to it that not putting bike racks at the Statehouse in order to protect the "historic character" of the sidewalks has. We plow and salt the large stroads we've built through this community, and the salt ends up in the wetlands through runoff. We should do what we can to make year-round biking comfortable.

I understand that the Tea Party's "let it burn" attitude toward the country is destructive, but the Democratic "stay the course" route on the highway trust fund isn't good enough. And Great Island Road should be an example of why. Rhode Island's delegation in Congress generally has the right positions on environmental concerns when they're specifically targeted, but somehow they continued to not understand the interactions of other things (like road spending) with these policies. There's an irony to Sen. Whitehouse's celebration in particular. Just as I pointed out in a previous post, the senator tells us each week to 'wake up' about climate change, and then is constantly rushing the door to support whatever road project he can. 

The appetite for cognitive dissonance is amazing.

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My Suburb.

I visited home recently, and I couldn't help but notice not only the differences between Philadelphia proper and Providence, but even the differences between my suburb of Upper Darby and Providence. I'm hoping that I've spent enough time complaining and cajoling Providence lawmakers to do things they won't do to try to throw my weight into an even more far-fetched task: getting UD to change. I think it would take very little to make my town bikeable. I'm hoping regular readers of the blog will bear with me through my posts about Upper Darby, and hopefully despite them not being at all about Rhode Island, they'll still be interesting.

One of the reasons I want to focus on Philadelphia again is that I actually feel like Philadelphia is a far better city to model ourselves after than either New York or Boston. I mean, clearly, New York has a far superior transit system, but in terms of walkability and bikeability, Philadelphia is much better--Philly has narrow streets, and New York has huge ones. Boston, too, I think, has a lot to offer, and is a beautiful city in many respects. You can find narrow streets in Boston, but despite that, there are quite a lot of highways and unnecessarily large roads, and I truly can't think of many places where I'd less enjoy biking around--Mayor Menino or no Mayor Menino. Boston and New York have such a pull on Providence, that they can make it seem like they're the true leaders on this stuff. And certainly, New York and Boston have made some small improvements. But I still hate biking in either one, even despite the fact that the leadership of Philadelphia sucks and is stalling on improving conditions for cyclists from where they are now, the advantages that already exist in its design have to be taken into account. 

Here's the clincher. I'm not going to compare Providence to Philadelphia proper. I'm challenging you to beat my suburb: Upper Darby. I figure this is a win-win for me. I've gotten bored of saying things that won't be listened to here, and I figure why not try to be ignored somewhere I'm more at home with? And this way, it's fair. Upper Darby's about half the population of Providence, but a bit denser. It's got better transit, but it's way behind on biking (no bike infrastructure at all, certainly no bike share on its way). So we're at a point where some competition could happen. Let's see where we go.

Here's my challenge to your Providence: if I can get Upper Darby to improve faster from my computer in Rhode Island than I can get Providence to change from within it, then that would be a major embarrassment, wouldn't it? And if I don't, eh. . . well, good for you! But either way, one of the places I've called home will win. I'm thinking this will spice things up.

Tina Fey, who is from Upper Darby, and went to my high school, has this to say about Boston:


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"We all really hate Los Angeles." 

(Vraiment, nous d├ętestons Los Angeles.)

--Ben Franklin, 1746, while sleeping with an elderly French woman wearing a basket on her head.*
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Day One: A Woonerf for Garrett Road


69th Street Station, near the Tower Theater, Upper Darby
A woonerf is a street that cars can drive on, but where bikes and pedestrians have the right of way. They don't just have the right of way in the sense of being able to cross, but also area allowed to walk down the middle of the street, or bike. Speeds are very low: 10-15 mph (this shouldn't be a problem, since many streets in UD have 15 mph speed limits signed). Woonerven can be accompanied by diverters to keep through-traffic low, or can have traffic calming devices on the street like additional street trees and plants to narrow the way. Garrett Road should get a woonerf parallel to it, because to do so would be easy and would have huge benefits for the town.

Garrett Road is the main street of Upper Darby, and runs through a variety of neighborhoods. It parallels the 101 & 102 trolleys, which go to Media and Sharon Hill from 69th Street. Connecting through many of the neighborhoods these trolleys run in is easy, because the streets in UD are gridded, and most are calm. But neighborhoods are cut off from each other by natural features like Naylor's Run Park, and that means merging onto major streets from time to time.

The Sharon Hill Trolley (102) from Bywood Avenue.
As American streets go, Garrett Road probably isn't that bad, but it does need a road diet. It has a variety of mixed-use and mixed density housing alongside it, lots of shops, schools, and other amenities. The walk score along parts of it is in the high 80s. One of the features that makes Garrett Road easy to be turned into a decent biking corridor is that it's built kind of like a boulevard. There's a major car street, the trolleys, and then a quieter parallel street. In the Bywood and Stonehurst neighborhoods, the parallel street is Bywood Avenue. In Drexel Park and Garrettford, it's Hillcrest Road.

A couple things need to change. At the eastern terminus of these streets, they become paired one-ways. On Garrett especially, this causes speeding. Bywood gets less speeding on its one-way, perhaps because it's narrower, but any cyclists going east and trying to avoid Garrett now have to merge back onto the road. UD officials should change these streets back into two-ways all the way.

Mixed use. a side street of Bywood. It gets quieter very quickly, but there are still beautiful high and low density housing types on the same street.

This corridor could get bike share. From 69th Street, there's the El, the 100 High Speed Line, the 101 & 102 trolleys, and buses going to every place in the region. That's a lot of people moving through this corridor. While there were only a few vacancies on 69th Street when I walked around, this corridor looks drab. One way to enliven it would be to use bike share to connect from 69th Street, and from targeted trolley stops on the 101 & 102. 

Market Street needs a road diet (admittedly this was taken in the morning on a Sunday, but this is too many lanes--and the lanes are each too wide!--hurting business. Learn from Center City.)
69th Street, and even more so Market Street, could get road diets. I saw that the UD Police have taken to giving out "Slow Down" lawn signs to neighbors all over the township. Why not make the road design reflect that? Again, speaking from a business perspective, 69th Street is a fairly lively place, but its success is entirely dependent on getting people off of transit to walk around and buy things. There's never going to be enough room for all the fast moving cars on Market to park, so why usher them in so quickly? 

Parking crater and main branch of 
UD library.
Parking crater for commuters near
prime location apartments.
I was really happy to see that there were only a couple of parking craters in the 69th shopping district, but all the ones I saw were directly adjacent to the 101 & 102 trolleys. Upper Darby should consider instituting a parking tax on these lots. It could use the revenue in any number of ways: it could lower taxes on nearby buildings, helping businesses grow and apartments and homes stay affordable. It could also use the money to clean up the streets. 69th Street was full of trash when I was there. Getting the shopping district to look like a place that matters would help to highlight all the cool restaurants and shops that actually exist there already. 

Trash!

The other challenge is that Naylor's Run Park and the Bonner/Prendie High School campuses blocks Bywood from connecting over to Hillcrest. This could be pretty easily fixed by running a pedestrian/bike bridge over Naylor's Run near its nearest entrance point on Beverly Road, and carrying a bike path across the Bonner/Prendie track to Winding Way. There's already a signal at that intersection to help people cross, and Winding Way immediately turns off into Hillcrest Road. Lansdowne Avenue, which inexplicably gets very wide and fast in UD, and which has been the site of many pedestrian deaths, should get a road diet.

Getting bike access through Naylor's Run and Bonner/Prendie makes sense too, because this park is the site of a proposed cross-county bike path from Yeadon to Radnor.

In Drexel Park and Garrettford, there's a great deal of mixed-use development due to the history of the trolleys, especially around the Waverly Theater, on Garrett Road itself, and on Burmont Road. With the gridded streets, and especially with the woonerven on Hillcrest and Bywood, getting to these businesses should be easy. This should also help children get to school at Garrettford and St. Andrew's. 

The Philly suburbs: My grandmother's block, the 1200 block of Roosevelt Drive, though far out of the walking distance of many trolley-takers, would be an appropriate extension of bike share. Nothing tremendous here, but note: apartments, different housing types, a corner store, a community building halfway up the block. This is also about quarter mile off of the (proposed) bike trail between Yeadon and Radnor. Keep in mind, in many parts of the country, this is what they mean by "the city".
This area is less dense than along Bywood, but I think bike share might still be able to work in limited places, perhaps at Lansdowne Avenue and Shadeland Avenue off the trolleys, and with hubs at the schools and shopping areas, and at DCMH Hospital.

Walk With Care: Indeed! (Westbrook Park, Springfield Road).
Another challenge is the beyond Garrettford, Garrett Road turns into N. Bishop going into Westbrook Park. Westbrook Park is really part of Clifton Heights, but it's part of the UD School District, and culturally feels like it's part of the township. Westbrook Park is strange, because it's above 10,000 people per square mile, but every possible awfulness has been unleashed by traffic engineers onto it, to make it as unwalkable and unbikeable as possible. I would try to approach this using an urban (or, shall we say, suburban?) triage:

*Getting this area bikeable makes a lot of sense, since it's the site of a proposed cross-county bike path by the Darby Creek. There's some surprisingly beautiful sites alongside the creek that no one will ever know about unless UD fixes bike and ped access.

*Westbrook Park has a poverty level above 10%, which is not high by any means compared to some communities, but is high enough to ask a question: is making this dense, potentially walkable area less accessible to people without cars such a great idea? 

*The N. Bishop highway-let can't be more than a quarter to a half mile long, depending on how you define where it begins. Why do we have this? The road needs a road diet, and could easily get protected biking and walking areas. It seems silly that someone living in Garrettford couldn't walk easily to Westbrook Park. I remember, in fact, that this was one of the few places in the region I occasionally asked for a ride to. Even though Clifton Heights has a trolley stop, Westbrook Park is an awkward place within the borough to get to.

This is my childhood house, which was not in Westbrook Park, but which is the same exact housing type (My neighborhood was more walkable and bikeable). Note, this is also more than a mile off the trolley, but is dense enough to support a modest bike share system.

*Bishop needs several crossings to make it walkable. I walked it the other day, and there's essentially nowhere safe to cross between the end of Garrett Road and Baltimore Pike. I think this must be an outlier within the inner suburbs, where usually walking is easy and comfortable. Signals should be timed to lower the speed of the road to 25 mph, but signage to let drivers know this could help to smooth traffic, and even improve drive times. I think this corridor is the only place in Upper Darby I can really think of there being traffic jams, and it's because the road design is something out of the 1950s, but with dense housing around it.

*Baltimore Pike is a nightmare, but it'd be hard to deal with right away. Over time, I think it could get medianized BRT. What's interesting about Baltimore Pike is that it goes from being a two-lane, very crossable road to a gigantic stroad right in this neighborhood. So one option would be to carry out road diets a half mile at a time, to accompany development. This is the way main streets used to be built: just a little at at time. Buildings like the currently open but dilapidated-looking Burlington Coat Factory could be hubs around which other buildings could be slowly in-filled. Do you remember when this corridor had the "Bazaar of All Nations"? Baltimore Pike is probably the ugliest and most dysfunctional thing in the Philly region, which is crazy since it's got transit coming at it from all directions to help it take on a better shape.

*Springfield Road has some businesses that could be walkable, and is also home to Westbrook Park Elementary School and Holy Cross Church. A bit farther down, Springfield Road has an on-street trolley (the 102). A road diet on this street to lower speeds, improved street trees, and wider sidewalks could help support these businesses.

Day Two: Can We Do Anything with Marshall Road? Tune In Next Time. . . 

Why Removing the Tenant Tax is Important

When Mayor Taveras vetoed an extremely modest proposal to lower the tenant tax, he framed the issue in a variety of ways which were intellectually dishonest (the mayor's veto may be overrided by City Council, so let your Councilperson know what you think about this issue).

Here's what the mayor had to say:

And I cannot in good conscience consent to an ordinance that reduces taxes for landlords who may not live in Providence on the back of homeowners who live in our city.

The mayor's position is dishonest because he understands that the landlords may or may not live in the city, but that certainly their tenants do. The political calculus has nothing to do with whether it's truly fair to have this tax structure, or whether it's good for the city, and everything to do with the calculus of who votes and who doesn't. Tenants, who are more likely to be from disempowered groups, are expected to be a less active voting block. He's framing an issue as if he's defending the powerless, but in reality he's doing the opposite.

He's also doing the classic Rhode Island thing, which is to act like anything not Rhode Island is suspect. Whether the landlord lives here or not really isn't relevant. They should pay more taxes if their building is worth more, not because they live in another city or state.

The proposal would have lowered the tenant tax, but the tenant tax should be eliminated entirely. It's wrong for the city to tax rented and owned buildings differently. It should instead tax buildings on the same basis across the board--a percentage based on the value of the building. An even more far-reaching measure would be to institute some kind of a land tax.

One proposal we've floated is to lower the tenant tax to 100% of the homeowner property tax, and tax parking to make the difference up. This would resolve the problem of renters taking on the burden of taxes to grant an unfair advantage to homeowners, and would also have the benefit of providing good land use incentives. It would also encourage infill of useful buildings, instead of parking, which would help grow our tax base. And it would obviously have huge environmental benefits.

Taveras' position is unacceptable, and tenants should get organized and demand change.


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Why Is the East Side's Zoning Tightening?

R-1 and R-1A is bad for the city.
The Re: Zoning process, which is attempting to bring the city's 1950's zoning code up to date, should be a major focus of interest for anyone interested in biking, walking, transit, or affordable housing. As we've pointed out with parking minimums and maximums, the Re: Zoning process is taking very tepid steps towards fixing the zoning code, but isn't going far enough. Another area where it needs improvement is in allowing more mixed-income development.

The new zoning code introduces a new category, R-1A, making a subcategory to an already troublesome R-1 zone. R-1 means "single family housing", and R-1A refers to subcategories of that which are on very large parcels of land. People under an R-1 designation cannot develop apartments and can't build multifamily housing. Under R-1A the designation goes even further, not allowing subdivision of larger mansion plots to build other homes within them.

Zoning an area for only single family housing is problematic. Remember that zoning an area to allow something other than single family housing does not mean that people are required to knock their houses down and build apartments. What it means is that if people choose to make such a transaction, they can. And zoning can be fine tuned to require things that we do like about our neighborhood (trees, walkable streets, good building materials, etc.) without having to throw the baby out with the bath water. Stated simply R-1 and R-1A are overly broad, and they capture way too much of the neighborhood without allowing any innovation in housing.

(Above) An un-zoned development in Washington DC was seen as disorderly to
the creators of zoning, while (Below) the 1931 strip mall--one of the first in the
US--was seen as an orderly use of zoning. (Greater Greater Washington)
The main reason that zoning codes like this were developed was to keep out working class people, and sometimes to codify racial distinctions. Around the turn of the last century, a movement was afoot to make every neighborhood of a certain "type". Besides creating segregation--literally a zoning code creates "segregation of uses" but you can also read segregation of class and race into that--the zoning code also harmed the natural life-cycle that people have with housing. For instance, when my grandparents got married, they moved into a small one bedroom apartment, saved their money, and eventually got a loan for a house nearby. As they've gotten older, their twin house allowed them to invite my uncle to live next to them when the previous owner decided to move, and that's helping them through a lot of aging issues. A neighborhood that only has single-family houses in it does not have the option to start out in an apartment, gradually expand to have children, and then downsize in old age. And that's one of the struggles of this strange car life we live in: many people's grandparents just have to go into a home when they can't take care of a house anymore. 

This is what R-1 and R-1A mean.

When we limit the growth of smaller homes, multifamily homes, apartments, and other non-single family uses, and especially when we don't even allow the subdivision of mansion plots for other single family homes, we're consciously limiting the potential for our tax base to grow, making housing more expensive, and encouraging that green field development will happen in what might have been a forest or farm somewhere else. It's time to get rid of the R-1 and R-1A categories entirely.

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Andy Cutler Calls for Mayoral Participation in Park(ing) Day


I'd like to echo Andy Cutler (@ourpvd, and @smallercitiesu) in calling on the mayoral candidates to participate in this year's Park(ing) Day. Last year's, debuted by AIAri, RIASLA, and Transport Providence, featured over thirty business, resident, governmental or student projects, making Providence's first celebration one of the best per capita demonstrations of support for parking reform in the country.

The Democratic, Republican, and independent candidates are invited not only to create parklets (and to check out the first ever temporary protected bike lane in the state on Broadway), but to bring with them anything they can to convince voters that they understand land use and its importance to urban success. I hope to hear from more campaigns soon. To sign up you can go to the Rhode Island ASLA page, here.


What are some issues the candidates should be able to answer?
*Can we tax parking in order to lower property taxes on new and existing buildings?
*Can we repurpose some street space to make protected bike lanes and bus lanes, to help create safe biking and real BRT?
*What are we going to do about the disastrous spending from the Statehouse on the Garrahy garage, and is there something we can do to stop it before it gets built?
*Can we meter parking better in order to mitigate the costs of roads and help to make parking available to customers at businesses?
*Can we up the ante on the Re: Zoning process to remove all parking minimums and impose some real parking maximums around major transit stops on the R-Line and streetcar, in order to make better use of transit and create more affordable housing (parking adds significantly to the cost of housing)?

It'd be great to hear more about these.

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A Parking Tax (And Property Tax Reduction)

One of the things I've brought to all of the mayoral candidates as a proposal has been a parking tax linked to property tax reduction. On street spaces should be metered, recovering revenue the city spends on streets, and parking lots should have a per-space tax. In Pittsburgh, the tax on parking is 40% of value, and it collects more money than resident income taxes for the city, and has resulted in good land use in the downtown.

Donald Shoup writes that the best price for an on-street parking spot is that which will get the spots well used, but leave some open--two or three spots per block is an 80-85% occupancy. There are few places that we have that type of occupancy even with free parking, although in some areas of the city like Thayer or Westminster, the city has or is soon going to be using metering to deal with demand.

When you don't have enough demand for your product, in a marketplace you try to adapt your product to other uses. So the city should experiment with removing some parking spots in order to create space for transit lanes and bike lanes, and in order to get the remaining spots to some very minimal price (maybe as low as $0.50 an hour). Other spots that are in high demand should be charged more money. We have a strong need to use parking lanes on some streets for non-car uses anyway, because in most places we have medium width streets that neither have the calm of colonial settlements nor the expansiveness of Midwestern or West Coast stroads.

Surface lots should be charged a higher tax than metered parking, because we don't want surface lots.

The tax cuts for homeowners and business owners should be in whatever proportion the city is able to collect money from parking. Part of the reason I think tax cuts make sense instead of funding a useful service like schools is that I'm concerned that we'll have politicians trying to create parking in order to charge for it and apply it to educational needs, which in the long-term would be craziness, but in the short-term might make sense to some people. I think if we put a reduction on property taxes in relation to a parking tax, then what will more likely happen is that people will be incentivized to develop buildings on their lots. Having an overall tax cut instead of tax stabilization only for new buildings makes more sense to me too, because it means that long-term residents and businesses aren't subsidizing the newcomers.

I hope people will contact the various campaigns to ask them to support a measure like this. Some of the campaigns have indicated to me privately that they think they could back this, but the more people they hear from on this issue, the more likely that promise is likely to come true.

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