On Helmets and Dooring

Broadway bike lane, Providence.
It's taken me a week to follow-up on Bike-to-Work Day, but there was a set of bullet points sent out by the City of Providence that I wanted to go over. From GoLocalProv:

The City of Providence encourages all bicycle commuters to take the following safety measures when biking to work: 
·         Have your bike checked over by your local bike shop
·         Always wear a helmet

·         Ride in the right-most lane that goes in the direction that you are traveling
·         Obey all stop signs, traffic lights and lane markings
·         Look before you change lanes or signal a turn; indicate your intention, then act
·         Be visible and predictable at all times; wear bright clothing and signal turns
If any advice was offered to drivers, the GoLocalProv people edited it out. But my guess is that no advice was offered in the first place.

Many of these bullet points are arguably good advice, say, if given by a friend, but feel like inappropriate advice given by a city. Let's take a prominent lightening rod: should we wear helmets? There's mixed evidence on helmets. Some studies have said that they reduce head injuries very significantly, while others have been unable to repeat the same results. Moreover, some advocates of helmet-less biking have pointed out that very few of the serious injuries on bikes are due to head injuries. You'll see this in action when a journalist covers someone whose legs were run over by a truck, i.e., "The cyclist bled from his legs and died. He was not wearing a helmet." And Dutch cyclists have been very vocal that Americans should stop promoting helmets, because they're nearly completely absent from biking in the Netherlands. 

Dutch don't wear helmets.

I've always been a helmet wearer. In the one instance where I was in a serious collision on my bike, having a helmet seemed to have been helpful, because the helmet broke (as it's designed to do) but my head did not. I also broke my collarbone clear through in that crash, and had to get two (luckily Medicaid-covered) surgeries (Medicaid covered me in a by-gone pre-Obama era because I was unable to work as a dishwasher and janitor, my jobs at the time, while my collarbone healed).

Here's where I get into the role of government and the role of friends. The reason I got into a crash was that I was talking to my friend Thomas, who was riding behind me on his cruiser without a helmet. Thomas was making me really nervous, and I told him as much. I turned my head just enough to talk to him, and when I turned it back a person had swung their door open right in front of me. I had no time to stop. I hit the door, went over the handlebars, and landed half-sprawled in the trolley tracks on Philadelphia's Baltimore Avenue. Adrenaline is an amazing thing. I not only immediately got up (thinking, urgently, "GOTTA' GET OUT OF THE TROLLEY TRACKS") but picked up my bike with my broken collarbone and carried it to the sidewalk. Pacing around, someone told me I ought to sit down. When I tried to get up again to pace some more, I realized I couldn't lift myself off the ground with my arms anymore.

The driver was a real jerk and blamed me for the crash. The Philadelphia Police were also jerks. I went to the precinct after getting out of the hospital and asked for the police report, and the officer played runaround with me and refused to give it to me. Another officer came out later, and urging me to leave, told me that the officer was friends with the driver who had doored me. Pennsylvania law is actually very clear that dooring is the responsibility of the driver, so there wasn't any question that he was responsible. But eventually I let the situation go, because there was Medicaid to cover my surgeries.

I share this because this incident forms one of the kernels of why I hate door-zone bike lanes so much. If I had been doored at a time when a trolley was coming by, I'd not be telling you this. If a delivery truck had been passing through, I wouldn't be telling you this.

Baltimore Ave., Philadelphia.
In Providence, traffic moves much faster than in Philadelphia. The Broadway bike lane feels like a death trap to me, because the traffic is moving around 30 mph or greater, except during brief periods of traffic jams (Philadelphia traffic averages around 15-20 mph). I have never understood people's willingness to settle for such a lousy piece of infrastructure on Broadway, because it's truly not good enough. It doesn't make me--a seasoned bike rider--feel safe. But it especially is unlikely to get small children, elderly people, or disabled people biking. Send me a photo if you ever seen a child with training wheels in the Broadway bike lane. You never will see it.

So, the appropriate role of a mayor is to fix things like this. The appropriate role of a friend is to counsel the wearing of helmets. The mayor has gotten far more praise than he deserves for riding his bike everyday. Don't get me wrong, it's a great thing, and I applaud it for as far as it goes. But Jorge Elorza has the power in his position to fight for institutional changes to our streets, and has so far failed to follow up on that promise. He can take the city SUV everywhere for all I'm concerned, so long as he turns this around.

But one thing I don't want to see his administration doing is putting out silly bullet points telling people to wear helmets, not putting out similar bullet points for drivers (who, after all, are the responsible parties controlling the huge, fast-moving machines), and not putting enough effort to infrastructure improvement.


Central Falls Bike-to-School Photos

Friday was Central Falls first-ever Bike-to-School Day. Our principal, Heather Dos Santos, rode her bike from East Providence, through Providence and Pawtucket, and finally to Calcutt (the first leg of her journey, to the Pawtucket border, was on two flat tires with a loose wheel that was rubbing against the frame!). We fixed the bike up, and she was off on her way. Our vice principal, Meghan Baker-Hollibaugh, joined us on the East Side and continued biking with us. 

Several staff members expressed interest in the biking day, but many live farther away than would be realistic to be bike commuters. One staff member reported that she plans to start biking to school on good weather days as soon as her move is complete from Exeter to Lincoln. 

More than thirty students biked, out of around five hundred, for a biking rate of 6%. This is far behind the Netherlands, where 95% of students bike, but was a big jump for Central Falls, which usually has only one or two students biking, tops. Central Falls is extremely dense and small in footprint, has a low-income population, and is almost completely flat, but has no biking infrastructure at all to meet its population's needs.

Students listed the reasons they don't normally bike:
*My parents won't allow it: many parents do not allow students to bike because of fears related to traffic or social safety--all of the students but one, among those who biked, said that their parents had worried about them biking, asked them not to bike at one point or another, or warned them to not be hit by a car. Most students I saw biked on the sidewalk, which is pretty typical for adults and children in Central Falls. RIDOT controls many of Central Falls' arterials, and historically has removed parking to widen travel lanes on them for faster car throughput (Dexter St., for instance, once had parking on both sides of the street, and only has it on one side now, but is 'not wide enough' for bike lanes, according to RIDOT. RIDOT owns several parking lots along Dexter, a holdover from when the state DOT knocked buildings down for parking in the 1980s, said CF director of planning, Steve Larrick). Larrick, would like to see the city be able to explored protected bike lanes but is concerned that RIDOT will stand in the way.
*My bike will get stolen: while parents worry about cars, students are worried that their bikes will be stolen. Students are not usually allowed to take bikes into the building, but were allowed to do so on Friday. Students overwhelmingly reported that they would change their biking habits if they were allowed to do that everyday. The Bike-to-School Day fundraiser bought three bike racks for the school, but if an equal number of kids biked everyday, it would only be bike parking for 20% of students.
*Kid stuff: it was notable that 20%+ of fifth graders biked, a handful of sixth graders did, and no seventh or eighth graders biked at all. Certainly as students encounter themselves as budding adults, they take cues about what normal transportation is. The fifth grade class I subbed for played a game on Friday where they chose who they were going to marry, what job they were going to have, what house or apartment they'd live in, and what car they'd own. When I pushed back that I didn't own a car and asked whether a person could grow up and take the bus or bike, the students said that cars were part of being an adult.
*I don't have a bike: while we only interviewed students who had biked, those who did not sometimes reported not having a bike when they spoke to me the day before. Some students also reported just not having ever learned to bike.
We had a great breakfast available for all the students and staff who biked, and were joined by Mayor James Diossa. Transport Providence will be partnering with the city to do studies of city- and state-owned streets, and will make recommendations to the mayor on how to proceed in making Central Falls a bike-friendly place. Here are some photos from the day (all photo credits, Rachel Playe):


What We Can (and Can't) Learn from Philly Biking

I am a Philly native, and I was very happy to see my home city getting attention from Streetfilms. Among cities of 1,000,000 or more, Philadelphia is number one in the U.S. for biking. I often feel that if I had grown up in a different metro area, I'd be a totally different person in terms of my thoughts about transportation. For one, I would have definitely learned to drive by now. I wouldn't have all these childhood experiences of visiting Center City and seeing streets that I could touch both sides of with my outstretched, child-sized arms. Philadelphia--and even its suburbs, to a lesser extent--has given me lessons about how things should be built. 

Some of these lessons were obvious even at a time when I had lived only in the Philly area--everyone is aware that a four-foot street is extraordinarily narrow, no matter where they're from. But some of the lessons are things that only became apparent to me in opposition to places like Providence where they aren't implemented. 

Check out Streetfilms' jawn here (I can't embed because it's not on Youtube yet).

Here's what to take from the Streetfilms visit to Philadelphia:

In Philadelphia, the four-way stop sign is the default setup for any intersection, and that goes for the suburbs too. In Rhode Island, we have a lot of stop signs that only operate in one direction, and to me this doesn't even make sense in its own terms. A four-way stop means "come to a full stop, look both ways, and then go". A stop sign only in one direction means "yield while the other cars speed past you". Providence should implement four-way stops at intersections like Olney & Camp, because crossing the street can be a real challenge. This also goes for intersections where I've suggested that the city should default lights to flashing red. Some have suggested that Providence use flashing yellow for priority streets, with intersecting streets as flashing red, based on past experience where the city did this at night. To me, a flashing red/yellow setup is much like a two-way stop--it's a softer, but still clear, way of telling traffic on one street that it doesn't have to yield to people crossing.

Philadelphia actually has narrow streets. Providence does not have narrow streets. Yes, our streets are not Los Angeles or Chicago size. But people should look at Philadelphia's streets and see that we have no right to claim that ours are narrow. Even streets that we regularly call narrow and colonial, like Benefit St., are much wider than Philadelphia's streets. This should make sense to us, because Benefit St. is so named because it was widened "for the benefit of all" in the 19th C. There are no 18th C. streets in Providence, and only a handful in Newport.

One-ways are not always bad. The vast majority of Philadelphia's streets are one-way, but they are also one-lane one-way streets. Often, streets that we treat as two-way, like the lower part of Thayer, could continue to operate as one-way streets by adding parking to the opposite side of the street. While many of my proposals for arterial streets call for the removal of some street parking to add protected bike lanes, I would add parking to other streets and increase the number of one-ways in neighborhoods that are gridded (basically, the East Side). There's a lot of chic talk about removing one-ways, and while it always makes sense to remove a double- or triple-one-way street's extra lanes, there are other ways to use those lanes besides two-way traffic, like bus lanes or protected bike lanes.

Philadelphia is a slacker city, bike-wise. Philadelphia does not have the infrastructure it should have. It's slacking. The city is lucky to have features like narrow streets and dense, rowhouse-style housing, because it does not give it the same opportunity to be car-oriented as other cities have had. But we should definitely not take that to mean that infrastructure is not needed, Philadelphia's biking rate is high for the U.S., but very low in international terms. It's also augmented by poverty, and by the fact that Pennsylvania gives the middle finger to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, resulting in worse transit than otherwise would be the case, in a way that even Rhode Island does not do to its cities (Rhode Island does have very poor transit funding, but it also has a different context than Philadelphia--it's shameful that Philadelphia's transit is not better than it is, for its density and size, and this is a result of the "Pennsyltucky" politics of the middle of the state being put against the cities at either end). 

Traffic speeds matter, but so do traffic volumes. Philadelphia's default speed is 20 mph, and citizens don't really notice this as being out of the ordinary. But the traffic volumes on streets are often quite high. @Philambulator on Twitter has been promoting the idea of bike boulevards in Philadelphia, using a synonymous term "filtered permeability" to describe the occasional blockades to through-traffic that bike boulevards use (in the Netherlands, this concept also goes under the term "Autoluwe" or "car-lite"). Philadelphia should implement Philambulator's ideas, and Providence should look to use those ideas where it's possible for us. One thing to be aware of is that Providence is not a gridded city, except in certain limited sections, and so our struggle for biking excellence will require a lot more protected bike lanes on major arterials that connect neighborhoods than Philadelphia's will. So, we should be careful not to follow a false model for our city's context: we can't push all the bikes to side streets here. 

My dream is to see Philadelphia achieve its destiny as a world biking city, but my goal as a Providence resident is to see us surpass Philadelphia. We are not as dense as Philly, but we're a much smaller-footprint city, and we should be able to kick Philly's butt if we put our minds to it.

Uncoupling Housing from Parking

from CityLab
In addition to a tax on surface lots, the revenue of which should go to lowering property taxes in the city, Providence should be careful to uncouple the price of housing from parking.

The City of Providence removed parking requirements in a small part of the city, but retains them in much of the city (there are also modest parking maximums now in some select places, but those parking maximums are not strict enough to have stopped the development of a huge new surface lot on N. Main St.). Parking requirements add to the cost of housing or commercial development by making the entry fee to the market the provision of expensive storage space for people's cars. Of course, without parking minimums, some developers might choose to add parking anyway, but the parking minimum requires it.

The City of Philadelphia has a tax on commercial lots, which is something that I support for Providence. It also offers an exemption from the parking tax for any parking that is included in the cost of rent. Only residential parking that has a separate charge is taxed:

Exclusions from the Parking Tax

If you operate a parking lot/garage for a building with residences who do not pay an additional fee for parking, then no parking tax will be due.  However, if any additional fee is charged for parking, then parking tax is due on that amount.
This is the confluence of one good idea (a parking tax) with one bad idea (residential parking minimums). Say, for instance, that the provision of a parking spot costs me $200/month. What Philadelphia is saying is that a landlord must pay an additional charge for offering parking a la carte. So, instead of paying $600/month for a room and $200/for parking (if used), all my tenants will likely pay $800/month, flat. 

If anything, it would make sense to do quite the opposite: if you offer garage parking that is separate from rental costs, no parking tax should be paid (tax would, of course, be paid on any lot). If you operate parking that is included in rent, then an additional tax should be put on that, as a disincentive from coupling parking to rent. Research by Donald Shoup shows that over the past several decades, places where the price of parking was decoupled from the price of housing had more affordable housing costs, better business environments, and less solo driving per capita.

I'm not aware of any cities that return the parking tax revenue to their citizens, although this is the model for Donald Shoup's "right price" parking meter program. Shoup's meter program has been successfully implemented in many cities. Providence citizens should work hard to make sure that 100% of parking lot tax revenue goes back to taxpayers just like the meter rate under Shoup would. This would create an active constituency for the parking tax, and keep the city from considering parking a cash-cow. Our end goal is less parking, a more healthy transit, biking, and walking environment, and a city that can survive climate change and housing affordability problems.


Don't Spend a Dime in North Smithfield

N. Smithfield
Update: There is a group biking up from Providence to attend next week's Town Council meeting, Monday, May 18th, 6:45. Rachel and I will also be bringing a car-share up, and have three other seats available. Please contact molly@greenway.org for bike options, and transportprovidence@gmail.com for car-share options.

. . . until they fix this:

Citing an ongoing feud over fees to use Woonsocket's wastewater treatment plant, North Smithfield Town Council President Robert Boucher cast one of two deciding votes to delay planned progress on the Blackstone River Bikeway that was slated to bring the trail through part of Woonsocket and North Smithfield, and up to the Massachusetts state line. 
According to those involved with the project, the state Department of Transportation has set aside $2.5 million to extend the segment of the bike path that runs from the edge of Cold Spring Park in Woonsocket across the Blackstone River into North Smithfield's Meadows Park over the next year. 
Once complete, the bikeway is expected to offer cyclists a 48-mile dedicated path from Providence to Worcester, Mass.
The way that funding works for these projects is that they're fully shovel-ready at 90% planning stage, and then they can apply money to get the work done. You can't go back and change a detail about the project and still be at 90%. So even though you might think that Woonsocket could just avoid this easement and try a different route, it doesn't work that way.

A source from Rhode Island Bike Coalition stated that the project will be delayed by eight years if this funding is lost.

The meeting to decide whether N. Smithfield's 12,000 inhabitants would give the finger to a million people in Rhode Island was tonight, but it was cancelled wasn't cancelled, but the discussion topic of the bike path was put off. The next meeting is the 18th.

Please contact these Town Council members, and politely but firmly let them know that if you so much as need to buy a bottle of water you'll pedal or drive your way to the next town, if they follow through on this spiteful decision (me, I'll spend my money in Woonsocket).

Robert Paul Boucher, President
(508) 633-9130 cell

Kimberly Alves

Roseanne Nadeau 

You should thank this Council member because she's on our side, and sent me an email saying so.

Paul Zwolenski, Vice President


Here's how I phrased my email this morning:


I'd like to encourage the N. Smithfield Town Council to change course on its announced plans to block the Woonsocket Bike Path. The consequences of blocking the path this week would be to hold it up for eight years, because of the vicissitudes of funding.

We are bringing this issue to the attention of our readership, which not only includes our 1,000+ Twitter followers, but also several publications within the region and nationally in which our work is cross-published. We hope the Town Council will make the right decision.

Moreover, we hope the Council will recognize that this bike path is an economic development and health policy tool for its own citizens, and that many N. Smithfield residents themselves will be disappointed not to have it.

Thank you.

James Kennedy

A Pawtucket Parent on Sharrows

Providence/Pawtucket line.
I was biking home this afternoon from a stress-filled day at work, when I encountered one of those odd things that could only give someone like me amusement. Surreptitiously,  I rolled around on my bike, expecting to get "caught" being a transportation weirdo in public.

"It's not that photogenic," said a voice. I was suddenly aware that my weirdness was on display.

"Oh, err, sorry. I have a transportation blog, so this stuff is gold. Is this your doing?"

"Why yes. What's your blog called?"

This is how I met Stephano (or Stefano? Sorry, I didn't ask...). The thing I was looking at was the little flourescent creature Stephano put in the street to slow traffic.

It's truly amazing what you can do with a cell phone. I never had a computer growing up, nor even when I was in college, and sometimes I have to reflect on how far the technology can allow you to propel an idea--unplanned, without lighting or gadgets, caught totally unawares--it's absurd.

Here's what Stephano had to say about the sharrows on Pleasant Street, in Pawtucket, just off the Blackstone "bikeway" (if the video doesn't load, try here).


I've written about this stretch of road before. I also did another video interview with Hugo Bruggemann about the stretch of Blackstone Blvd. just south of here.

Video about Hugo Bruggemann's "Better Boulevard" idea.

You'll note in the map that Hope Street carries traffic past this area, so there isn't much traffic volume on this street--but every car on Pleasant comes by at 30 mph or faster. Because the neighboring streets are gridded to Hope, there's every reason to just close Pleasant St. to cars from Alfred Stone Road up to the Blackstone Academy Charter School. Hope Street (which becomes East Ave. in Pawtucket) should also get protected bike lanes on one side of the street, but preserve parking for businesses on the other side.

Subjectively (and possibly objectively) dangerous curve. Despite the great width, just beyond here is where the bike lane ends and the sharrows begin.
Closing this section of street is important. The stretch I videoed was relatively straight, but around the curve onto Alfred Stone Road, cars speed up around me everyday to pass on a blind curve. The do the very same thing going towards the school on the northern curve to the rest of Pleasant Street (which is a blinder curve that the map would reveal). This is, no doubt, because drivers are being considerate in their minds, but it makes biking uncomfortable, and could probably cause an objective danger of a head-on collision if two drivers decide to do the same thing at once. 

In the Netherlands, this is called Autoluwe, or "car-lite". On the West Coast of the U.S. (though with somewhat diminished quality), it's called a "bike boulevard".

Beautiful--and, as the picture shows--desolate. The cars that come through here are few compared to other streets, but fast.
This street has painted bike lanes now, which isn't shown in the picture, but Autoluwe/bike-boulevard design would be better for this type of street.
The span of Taft St. passing under the Grace St. and I-95 bridges should also be "car-lite", allowing cars to come into the street to park or visit houses or the Seekonk River for fishing, but not allowing through-traffic to downtown Pawtucket. Sometimes this section under the bridge is already closed for events, and making the area around the bridge nice for biking, sitting, or walking could be a great quality-of-life improvement for residents, who will no doubt love the new, safe place for their kids.

Let's make Stephano and Hugo's kids safer, and invite this area to thrive.


Consumers Don't Pay the Parking Tax, Garages Do.

I was happy that reader Andrew Fenelon (a demographer who you should never challenge on the population of any town or city--no really) sent me this, but I realized how important it was only after reading beyond the headline:
Yes, it's great that cities around the country have parking taxes, and greater still that some are actively raising theirs. But the coolest part of all is who pays. Stealing a block-quote from the article:
In the short run, a change in the parking tax has no impact on the parking rates paid by the consumer. Consequently, the parking facility operator pays the entire amount of a parking tax increase. Parking facility operators face the same short run problem every day—how to maximize revenue. 
In other words, parking operators are already charging as much as they can and the price consumers pay is determined by the number of spaces and the demand for parking, not by the level of taxes. The level of taxation and the other costs of operating a facility do not affect the price charged or the number of spaces available unless the costs are so great that the operator shuts down the facility. 
In the long run the story is quite different. An increase in parking taxes discourages the rejuvenation of aging facilities, the replacement of facilities lost to development, and the construction of additional facilities. Thus higher parking taxes will decrease the long-run supply of parking, will increase the cost to the public of parking, and will decrease profits to owners of parking facilities. 
Further, should an additional parking facility be required, a higher parking tax implies that the facility will require larger subsidies to develop than it would in the absence of the parking tax increase.
The article goes into a lot of detail on who pays the parking tax, giving case studies, and talking about its affect on land-use and transportation. 

What's awesome about the idea that consumers don't pay more is that it removes a huge constituency from the column of anti-parking tax and puts them in, at the very least, the neutral category. When parking is offered in the non-competitive market that it is, owners of garages and lots are already getting the highest price they possibly can to still maintain customers. Joe Paolino's crocodile tears for the secretaries of the world is even shallower than it appeared at first glance.

Some time ago, I did an analysis of who I thought might pay the parking lot tax at RI Future, and argued that the price could go either way, but was more likely to be swallowed by owners of lots due to inelasticity. It's really a sweet feeling when a hypothesis I grounded in educated conjecture is backed by applied studies of the real world and shown to be true.

Now, it's important to note that many cities tax parking without some kind of dividend. The proposal for a Providence parking lot tax returns 100% of its revenues as lower property taxes. So there's already  plenty of reason to feel that even the non-resident consumer would get a fair shake in return for a higher parking fee if there was one--cheaper (or better) goods at the business they visit in return for more expensive parking. But this is better still. The parking lot/garage owner is caught in the middle and swallows the costs, consumers who park pay the same, and businesses get a tax cut, all while incentivizing infill.