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.