The Right Institution for the Right Tool

I'm not going to masquerade as an expert on gun control, which I am not.

But here's what I do know, and this speaks to why I think it's silly that everyone is so fixated on whether the gunman in Florida was or was not a Muslim, and what role radical Islam, or even radical ideology in a more general sense, has to do with gun violence: it's hard to change people's beliefs, and much easier to make changes to institutions. This seems really clear to me because of my work in transportation: the tools we have, and the institutions that govern those tools' use, are both way more important than what we think or believe about something.

I guess what originally got me thinking about this was the fact that more Americans are killed each year by cars than by guns (though that number is merging, and guns may come out on top soon). For some on the right, this is a statistic that undermines the seriousness of the gun problem in this country, but it's really more a statistic that speaks to how bad the car problem is. So, in America, we have two tools that we haven't figured the institutions out for: cars and guns. Other countries have done very admirably with these.

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Road deaths per 100,000 people.

 Netherlands3.4



 United States10.6




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America had a better safety record than the Netherlands in the 1970s, because Dutch people were being killed left and right on roads that had been made more car-friendly and less bike-friendly. The Dutch woke up to their problem, and although American car safety has improved, Dutch safety has improved much faster. You are now many times more likely to be killed or injured on a bike in the United States, despite the fact that a paltry number of people actually ride bikes for any purpose in the United States (the percentage of commuters hovers around 1% in the U.S.; versus more than 30% of all trips in the Netherlands, and around 50-60% of trips taken in Dutch cities).

You can try to change this by handing out flyers for biking, and you can try to find all the people who radical beliefs or mental illness that might kill you. These are approaches that assume you can catch something about individual people and change it or block it. 

But that doesn't work. The better way to fix the problem is to fix the institutions that govern the tools we use. In the U.S., we can't figure out how to deal with cars, or with guns. And our denial about those problems means that we keep throwing everything else at the problem.

The debate over whether the gunman in Florida was a Muslim or not a Muslim is silly, for reasons that go beyond the terms of the debate itself. It seems clear to me that a lot of people's fixation on him being Muslim is about their reticence about Islam. It should go without saying that the vast majority of Muslim people are no more homophobic than your Aunt Judy, and that we're in no place as a culture to judge other religious or cultural identities about something that we just started figuring out ourselves. And just because a culture has homophobic institutions does not mean that it's okay for us to pre-judge all its members. I grew up Catholic, and I have not molested (knock on wood!) an altar boy or punched a chemistry student while in a tight black-and-white collar yet (I haven't even colluded with Nazis!). Rachel has not marched in a Palestinian field and pushed people aside to build a settlement. Obviously the gunman had some relationship to a radical, twisted version of Islam, however much that might not reflect the views of most Muslims, but lots of people have twisted, radical views related to all sorts of things. Even if we all agreed that the problem now was "radical Islam", the problem tomorrow will be something else. 
Even if the room had been full of other people with guns, no one could have taken him down without also creating a confusing bloodbath of friendly-fire and accidental recrimination. 

And while we're on the subject of strange cultural others, and whether this is something that has to do with the unique nature of the Dutch people versus some quality of their institutions, check this out: in the United States, we receive immigrants from countries that bike more than we do, and then convince people not to bike. In the Netherlands, people immigrate from places that do not bike, yet the biking rate of immigrants to the Netherlands is almost as high as that of natives-- making it one of the highest rates in the world

In the U.S. we do a similar thing with guns. We have made it so normal and intuitive for someone to get a tool of death and wreak havoc that it has become a normal, daily part of the culture for something horrific to happen. 

The Intercept wrote an interesting piece on how false positives in the FBI Terror Watch List can negatively impact people. Do we want to gradually police people's beliefs, trying to predict who is a criminal beforehand? Or should we just make it harder to carry out violence crimes in the instance that someone should decide to do so? This is the list we talk about using to govern who can and cannot have assault weapons. I've got a better plan: no one can have assault weapons. There you go! Instead of setting ourselves up to make complex, impossible decisions about who is or is not likely to someday be a criminal, we could just make it so that people who want to be criminal find it harder to commit crimes. Just like instead of trying to personally convince everyone that buses are way cool (TM) and that bikes are the way to go (copyright) we could build some bike lanes and get our land use and parking policies aligned, and get the bus routes to make sense.

Fix the tools, fix the institutions that revolve around the tools, and you fix the problem. You can't change human nature, but you can fit our institutions to that nature.

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Zugzwang

Zugzwang is a German word which is used in the game of chess. It describes a position where both players are in a technical draw at the given move, but the player to move first will weaken their position. There are probably countless positions like this, but the most common is two kings in opposition, each with a pawn they're defending. Kings can, of course, not touch one another (the player to have his/her king move forward and "touch" the other kind would put him/herself in check). The kings form a wall of three squares that can't be penetrated by the other king.

But of course, if it's your move, and your best move is to move your king, or your pawns are also opposing each other and can't move, the only thing you can do is move backwards, and that lets the other player advance. 

I don't know exactly why I opened up with this. I mean, part of me knows, but part of me thinks it's terribly evasive way to talk about the feelings I'm having. A very old relative of mine is currently sick with pneumonia and likely to die in the next few weeks. I think that the impending death has made me think a lot about our place on this Earth, and what the purpose of our lives is. Where I think this horribly dry, intellectual, emotionally-evasive anecdote fits in is that I'm stripped bare and feeling really depressed. It's hard for me to grasp at the feeling of forward motion that I think usually propels most of us through daily life. It feels like nothing's especially wrong-- like I'm in a kind of stasis, or draw-- but that anything I do could lead to disaster. It's an irrational thought, but it's how I feel.

As if to make this situation worse, I've started in on some assigned reading for the upcoming graduate courses I'm taking for my Masters of Teaching. We've been assigned The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It's a book that lots of people have recommended to me over the years, and it's proving in many ways to be a good book, but it's not an easy book to feel if your emotional footing is compromised. I'm writing this from Rachel's parents house, and I don't have the book handy, so I won't quote directly, but there's a passage in it about the false generosity of people who have been given advantages and give those advantages back to the community in some way. There's another passage I read, which struck me hard, which was talking about land reform, and how many that want land reform at the time Paulo Freire was writing wanted it not to live in some kind of idealized equality or community but in order to get their own piece of being bosses over other people. And both of these passages strike me as being true, and at the same time depressing. I kind of think Freire must have been very smart, and also very, very mentally ill. And I think this quality is often the quality of lots of good people: it's said that Martin Luther King, for instance, suffered deeply from depression his whole life, so much so that at the age of 13 he jumped out his bedroom window and tried to kill himself. I think Freire is striking at a very depressing thought about human nature, which is that we try to make things better in some way, and a new form of change happens, and there's forever a new process going on around us where we improve something but the balance of good and evil catches up to us. Freire adds to this the deus ex machina Marxism, where someone else might add a different god-in-the-machine. But the bigger point is that it strikes at this kind of stasis, or balance, which is hard to emotionally untangle. I feel like the questions that this book asks are valid, at some level, but I also think that a functional person has to move away from such big questions and just try to capture one piece of something and live. And I wonder how anyone could possibly view the world in such a broad way and function, longterm.

At points in his long discussion, you come to the place where you feel like your sense of causation is challenged. Again, I can't quote, but just pulling from feelings I got reading the text, it felt to me like if what he was saying about human nature was carried to its logical conclusion, it would undermine our sense of being moral or immoral creatures at all. After all, who can't trace backwards from their actions and find other causes outside of themselves that have brought them to where they are? Can you really think of any bad thing or good thing you've ever done that isn't in some sense outside of yourself?

I wrote about my Aunt (really a great aunt-- my grandmother's older sister) before. She's always been one of my most pleasant relatives to be around. She never says an ill word about anyone. She's full of energy and zest, and even after she got into her nineties, and started to go downhill, you could take her for a much younger woman. At just shy of 97, her imminent passing should not be upsetting to me. She, for one, has chosen it. She's had pneumonia a couple times in the past year, and having struggled against it, decided that now is her time, and that she'll go with the flow. She's remarkably optimistic, feeling, as she said to relatives of mine who visited her, that she's had a long and productive life, has shared love with many people, and is totally comfortable with it's closing. As a typical add-on, she told my sister, "I'm pretty sure that Obama guy is a Muslim," and then added, in Aunt R. style, "But Muslims are people too." It's that weird place I've gone before with her in conversations, where she says something inexpressibly racist or awful (In the last piece I had been ruminating on my thoughts about how she said that her old neighborhood in Philly was "all just blacks now" and how conflicted I felt about that as well) but follows it up with a sign of exactly who I normally think of her being: sweet to the bone. 

I'm going to miss Aunt R.. She was the only relative I had who did any appreciable amount of walking (which is perhaps why she lived to be 97-- five miles a day into her eighties, before balance issues started to slow here down). A characteristic move on her part would be to show up to your birthday and give you an unsigned, unsealed card ("Oh, Jimmy, take this. I didn't sign it. These Hallmark cards are so expensive! Give it to someone else!" and then launch into a story of how one of her children was doing, or what the mailman said today when she talked to him, or how the priest had something good to say at Mass).  Aunt R. always struck me as an unusually strong female model, and I feel lucky to have had such a person in my life. Other than in her very old age, when she became increasingly likely to spurt out unusually racist things, I don't think she's ever said a bad thing about anyone in my presence.

I have a couple thoughts about this. First of all, why do I regard someone who says things that would normally make my hair stand on end with such love? Try as I might to separate myself from those feelings, I do feel that way. Is that wrong? Like, don't so many bad things happen in the world because people who are kind to dogs or children or mailmen exert their power over other people in the world so as to make bad things go down? Also, following from my doubts about our own cause-and-effect morality, do I really know that there's anything better about me anyway for not thinking the things that my Aunt R. thinks? After all, I was lucky enough to have grown up in a time when thoughts about race had (started to. . . ) change. I was shocked when our first black neighbors moved in on the block to hear some people I'd know in our row my whole life express anxieties or crude jokes about the change ("It's getting dark around here," said one and didn't seem to notice that my face dropped as soon as the words came out of his mouth). Obviously fighting racism is good, but where do we draw the line between good and evil? I find myself especially with older people resigning myself to the idea that "that's just how that person is" and moving on. Does anything honorable or good within me really have good roots? Or are we just floating like dust particles, bouncing off of each other like cause and effect, spiraling around and making no real effect in the world? What is our responsibility, our power to act, and what are the things that act upon us?

Even in clearcut situations of morality, I wonder about causation in the other direction. Not only do I wonder what causes us to be good or bad, but how do the good things we do ultimately form the future? For instance, if you've read this blog at all, you've grasped upon the fact that a driving passion for me is getting us away from cars (or at least from cars-first) because I see so many ways in which this could change the resources we have to combat poverty, to prevent disease, to protect the natural world, and create wealth. But even though I'm certain that making the changes I propose will bring more good into the world per unit of bad, I'm never really sure in the long run how that's going to change things in total. If we save a lot of resources by biking or taking transit more, will we just spend those resources on growth somewhere else? In some ways this is good-- maybe people who are not well off will be taken care of with dignity, or maybe we'll have more fulfilled lives. In some ways it just opens up a new ball of anxiety for us to contemplate how different challenges will appear after we've solved this one. Will our more efficient use of resources allow us to grow the population to ever-expanding numbers? Will focusing our growth inward in places that use less transportation or land resources nonetheless cause us challenges in feeding all the new people or building all the new buildings that will accompany that change? What happens if our driving simply stays steady, but we grow biking or transit alongside it? Again, maybe it's odd for me to write a semi-eulogistic piece about a much loved relative and dive back and forth from abstract concepts like these from where I was a paragraph before, talking about deeper emotional memories. But I think one of the things that is challenging me about the concept of death right now is what our legacy is in the world. I think my Aunt R. always symbolized to me the fact that people could quietly age with dignity and honor, without fear, and with very gradual decay of their functions. And this is exactly what she's doing. But another thing that maybe I've seized upon from time to time to make myself feel more at peace with mortality is the idea that we have an opportunity to build a world for others who will live beyond us. What if we're not doing that well enough?

I think, What kind of person thinks about "the world" when there's something so personal in front of them? But then, I think for me, I think of this kind of similarly perhaps to how some people think of having a relationship with God. It's a feeling that there's something bigger and more important than yourself that will live on. And I think I find it very challenging at this time of loss to think about how unsteady I am in my faith that that "bigger than myself" is okay.

I've found myself crying from time to time over the past few days-- there we go again with the teetering back and forth from dry intellectual blah blah blah to more personal and emotional subjects. I think a thing I've been struggling with is how we grow into our lives, and how much changes around us. While I've been up here in Rhode Island, several relatives have died, only one of which I've really been able to go grieve. I think the changing landscape of my own family and my inability to balance the needs that come with those changes has made me wonder how this is going to play out in my own life too. I find myself thinking about Rachel and whether she might someday lose me, or whether I'll lose her, and I'm not sure which I find worse. I think about the tremendous weight of pain that comes with such a loss, and I'm transformed beyond my usual stoicism to my deepest bedrock feelings of loss. What if, even in creating joy around us, we set people up for the ultimate pain of not having that joy anymore? 

I've felt my feelings improve a great deal over the past several days, but I'm still feeling the weight of age. I'm relatively young-- 30-- but not as young as I was. In a past period of my life, I was extremely inclined to see good and evil in black and white terms, and the more than I've necessarily grown to see the complications, the more I've also felt uneasy with where that leads me. It's like Zugzwang, and I hope that it's not my move. Am I going to grow older, layered with cynicism, making deeper and deeper compromises with my values until I can't recognize myself anymore? Was it wrong to think that there was anything idealistic or good about taking a pure road in the first place? A kind of false generosity? What are our true natures as human beings, and what is our ultimate purpose? The good thing about feeling laid bare by sadness is that it tends to sweeten that part of me that focuses on small, immediate things. I listen better in conversations. I take note of things I need to do for people directly around me. I often am very present in a way that makes life enriched. But of course, I worry that as I get smacked into these types of moods, that I'm also abandoning some part of myself that strives for more. 

In any case, I didn't write any of this to drag other people into the mood I've been in. I certainly hope that I haven't spread the existential doubt like some kind of virus. But I think I needed to put my feelings down to paper, and this seemed like the appropriate place.

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Not So Fast on CF Parking Meters

A building falls for parking in Old Pasadena. Today Pasadena
meters street parking and returns the revenue to the local shops.

It has had a big resurgence as a result of this program.
Around April I recall seeing some Twitter posts pop up with an article linked to Central Falls getting rid of its parking meters and seeing a business resurgence. I worked for a year and change in Central Falls as a substitute teacher and summer school teacher, and I remember at the time scratching my head, unaware that there even had been any parking meters. I commented on them, @-ing the reporter and saying that I didn't think removing meters was a good idea, but then I put the matter out of my mind.

I never clicked through the article until today, when a conversation about an article I wrote on Providence's parking meter situation led to a branch-off about Central Falls having removed theirs. I was talking to someone else who has spent time in the city, expressing my dismay that Central Falls had become a poster child for meter removal, when the person reminded that Central Falls hasn't had any meters in the recent past.

"Central Falls doesn't have any parking meters. Seriously, not a single one! I think they were all removed twenty or thirty years ago," the person said.

As it happens, the article does refer accurately to the time period in which parking meters were removed, and if I'd read the article beyond the headline back in April I'd have seen that. The article plays some games with cause and effect though, claiming (accurately) that Central Falls is experiencing a business resurgence, and then quoting Mayor James Diossa saying he's not thinking about adding parking meters. The parallel facts don't really have any relationship to one another. It's been two decades since C.F. had parking meters, but the resurgence has followed from completely different causes.

Things Not Reported

Note the contrast with the postcard below.
Interviewed for a position as a city planner in Central Falls. One of the things I did to prepare for the interview was to speak with other planners and community members about the history of the town, and what I gathered from those informal conversations was that before Mayor Diossa, many of the city mayors and state officials who dealt with the city saw it as their mission to slowly suburbanize it. Houses and stores were torn down to make room for parking or drive-throughs. Certain types of new housing were discouraged, while other more suburban types were encouraged. Central Falls remains a highly urban and walkable community, but you can see the damage that was done to parts of it by these decisions. 
Note the contrast. "Rhode Island directions" two tropes: things that "used ter" be there, and Dunkin Donuts locations, merge.

I think the Central Falls, like other cities, should be looking to turn some of its on-street parking into protected bike lanes, while metering other parking for use by drivers. One of the things I was keen to look out for was what kind of parking occupancy there was, and I found out about this both by walking around and looking at things and talking to people. The street parking on Dexter or Broad is not always full, but it is heavily used in some areas (riding in the parking lane as a bicyclist is an option for many parts of Dexter and Broad, but you hit sections where it's not possible at all and have to go into traffic). Many times the parking off-street is not as full. Yet there's a strong perception of parking not being available in the city, and that continues to drive a lot of conversations.
One of many surface lots on Dexter Street (I don't know if this was one of the
one's created by RIDOT). 

In the 1980s, I was told by several people, RIDOT bought up a number of parcels on Dexter Street. These parcels were at one time buildings. Today, they're parking lots. The DOT and the city tore down buildings because it was perceived that there wasn't enough parking to sustain the local economy, a decision that mirrored actions across the country. Not having been in Central Falls at that time, I can't speculate as to whether the community approved of this or not. It seems totally likely to me that, as in many places, tearing down housing and shops for parked cars seemed like a good idea. But Dexter Street, despite many very nice shops and quite a lot of cool things to offer, still has the gap-toothed appearance of a place that's had too many demolitions. This is why.

Montreal.
Besides drawing too close of a causal link between parking meters and business success, a major flaw of the GoLocalProv piece is that it ignores this history. Hopefully, as Central Falls develops and experiences a resurgence, it will actually add some of these shops, homes, and apartments back (and, in fact, if resurgence isn't going to spell out displacement of working class residents, that's exactly what has to happen). As more demand for business grows, and less land is available for parking, there's going to have to be a way to figure out parking. That's what meters are.

The Shoup Way

In many places around the country, buildings have been leveled to make room for parking. It was the economist Donald Shoup that came up with the seminal text on how to fix this, The High Cost of Free Parking. In it, Shoup advocates for parking meters with flexible pricing based on demand to manage parking supplies on streets, for cities to remove off-street parking requirements from buildings, and for cities to give any money from parking meters back to the affected communities to do with what they please. Shoup has had a lot of success with this program.

The GoLocalProv article on C.F. was meant to question Jorge Elorza's choice to use parking meters as a revenue boost to the city. Two things need to be said about this: first, I would advocate that the city return the revenue to shops and residents just as Shoup says the city should. But second, where exactly do people think the revenue would come from if not from parking meters? Mayor Elorza did forego raising property taxes at the time that he implemented meters. If we had chosen to not meter parking, we'd have just paid a different way (and those of us who don't drive would pay more to subsidize those who do). Journalists who talk about parking meters need to start being more honest about what the economics of them are, so that we can get to better solutions. Some of those solutions are parking meters with revenue return, some are improving transit connections, some are biking or walking. 

I don't know if Central Falls is in a place for parking meters, or where exactly those meters would make sense if they were ever implemented. The way to go about it if there ever were meters would be to take stock of where the highest demand is to park, and to meter near those places. Above all, the money from those meters should never be thought of as revenue to be taken away, but as a resource to be given directly back to community members. That way meters help to balance supply and demand, but don't hinder business. Businesses can use the money to compete with lower prices, or throw festivals, or add street trees and nicer outdoor seating. They can pocket the money. It's all up to them. It's up to Central Falls residents to decide, not me, but I think they should take another look at parking meters.

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Bristol-Warren to Cut Back on School Buses

The Bristol Phoenix reported in its June 2nd edition that the Bristol-Warren School District intends to cut back on as many as five school buses due to half-empty seats. To accommodate doing this without leaving anyone out, the district is asking parents to register their students as either using or not using the buses for the 2016-2017 year. Currently the school district plans bus accommodations on the assumption that all students who are not 'walkers' will use the bus, which is normal procedure for all Rhode Island school districts.

Reducing buses in this way could save the district $500,000 per year, helping it to balance its budget for the 2016-2017 fiscal year.

What's interesting about the report is that it seems to view parental driving as the main way to pick up the slack from children not using yellow buses:
These days, many families drive their children to school pick them up after school. School drop-off zones and procedures resemble Logan Airport on a weekday morning. At the high school, when students reach driving age (or their friends do), they stop riding buses altogether.
The report goes on:
Ms. Silva [Finance Director] sees a practical upside. Fewer buses on the roads means fewer buses on the roads [sic]-- less congestion and traffic interruptions for Bristol and Warren commuters.
I wouldn't dispute that removing buses removes congestion and pollution, and I've pointed out in a Providence context that there is a huge cost associated with seeing busing as the main way of getting students from here to there. But changing out buses for single-occupancy driving isn't likely to help improve congestion.

There's a great inset (nerd attack!) of statistics on who does or does not use the buses:
Rockwell Elementary                           50% ridership, 3 buses
Colt Andrews                                         64% ridership, 7 buses
Guiteras Elementary                            56% ridership, 4 buses
Hugh Cole Elementary                         55% ridership, 8 buses
Kickemuit Middle                                 65% ridership, 14 buses
Mt. Hope High School                          39% ridership, 11 buses

When I was in high school (in Pennsylvania) we were not entitled to a parking space at my high school. I'm not sure how this affected the school buses' usage, but it did completely eliminate driving to school (except for prom-- though I walked to prom). 

British-born blogger David Hembrow, who writes about bike infrastructure in his adopted home of Assen, Netherlands, wrote a piece about British adoption of what he termed the "American" fashion of using yellow buses to transport students to and from school. The British effort to adopt yellow school buses came as a result of the realization that ""the average length of journey to school for 11-16 year-olds rose from 2.8 miles in 2000 to 3.4 miles in 2006." Hembrow points out that biking distances longer than this is routine in the Netherlands for students.

The most basic thing the school district could do to improve the mobility of students, reduce congestion, and costs for the school district would be to improve biking. Hugh Cole and Kickemuit, for instance, are both at the end of an existing bike path stub which unfortunately does not cross the water into the town center (it doesn't connect to any side streets either). 

Adding protected bike lanes to the towns of Bristol and Warren would be simple, as many main streets are very wide and could accommodate them. The East Bay Bike Path, which comes very close to the high school, could be better connected with just small improvements to sections of Rt. 114 and Chestnut Street.

The school district could also consider not giving away free parking to high school students. This would likely be resented, but if the district traded-off with students it might be better received. Mt. Hope High School is built in a hyper-modern style, almost all on one floor, and sits in the middle of a wetlands. Being able to reduce parking would help prevent runoff problems from that design (Mt. Hope did flood in 2014, but that was due to a faulty sprinkler system, rather than natural events).

A bike ride from Mt. Hope High School to the very furthest imaginable distance in Warren near the Swansea border would be 6 miles (Google estimates this as a 16 minute bike ride). Students living farther away would be more likely to choose busing as a means of getting around, which under the current registration proposal, would be their right to choose. But it shows that even the farthest-flung students are within an imaginable biking distance of school for a high school student. The area near Swansea is actually fairly sparse compared to other parts of the district, and would likely draw a smaller percentage of students than areas closer to the existing bike path.

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Imagining a South County Bike Network

I lived for a time in Kingston, and I grew to love the William O'Neill Bike Path (which I'm just going to call the South County Bike Path from now on). 

Picture from the internet: South County's bike path.

The best part of the bike path is that it connects a lot of population centers, so I could do all my shopping by using it. I was even more fearless (read, younger) then, so I found the last-mile connections to be mostly pretty acceptable. But for most people, the last-mile is a challenge. I put some time into imagining a fuller network of bike lanes-- I assume most of them would be protected bike lanes-- as a means of fixing that problem. I also suggested using "filtered permeability" in places, so here's a link to what that means.

I imagined a whole network, but I would focus early efforts on population centers and places near schools. Wakefield, Peacedale, URI, and Narragansett Pier are the big population centers of S. Kingstown. The protected bike lanes to Point Judith and other further-flung places may actually be really easy to do, though, because those roads are really wide, and would just need something physically demarcating the shoulder as the bikeway.


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Why Do We Make Our Best Neighborhoods Illegal?

I visited East Greenwich properly for the first time on Saturday. Kent County as a whole is kind of a Burmuda Triangle to me. It's really not that far from my home, and you would think I'd go there all the time. There are places I go to in Rhode Island that are much farther actually, and sometimes those places are so pleasant to get to that I'll even bike to them (I bike to Bristol all the time-- 18 mile bike ride-- but E.G. is 15 miles from my apartment). I don't even like to go to Kent County in a car. Awful!

I think part of the reason I never go to Kent County is that so much of it is a suburban wasteland. But there are treasures in between all that. The center of East Greenwich is one of them.

The thing that confuses me most about the horrific awful places in Rhode Island is that they're frequently located right next to, or even sandwiched in between two examples of, really nice neighborhoods. Wickford Village is nice. The center of East Greenwich is nice. In between is kind of awful.  And yet, East Greenwich's Hill District is obscenely expensive. Why is it that something that is clearly highly valued is not more plentiful in the town? Why is so much stuff that people don't like as much everywhere?
I turned to the zoning code for East Greenwich to find out why.

Lot Sizes and Exclusionary Zoning

Why is so much of East Greenwich a hell-scape worse than death? Because the town requires it by law. This was all zoned this way.
The code makes it clear that it values its historic center and the rural past of the western two-thirds of the town, and then proceeds to lay out a lot of zoning rules perfectly designed to destroy both.

A blogger from Los Angeles picked up on my tweeting about East Greenwich, and reminded me just how weird the lot requirements are for E.G.:
East Greenwich makes it illegal to build accessory units (also called "granny cottages"-- basically, small houses in the back yards of existing houses). The only exception is if someone in the family has a demonstrated disability that requires the granny cottage for access reasons. This is really at odds with the idea of preserving the rural character of the rest of the town. And also odd because why would anyone have a problem with granny cottages?
The only kind of housing allowed by right in East Greenwich is single-family housing. All other housing needs special approval. Different zones have varying lot size requirements, and they get even larger than the ones mentioned above. You can really understand what people are going for. They've probably seen a few decades of horrific sprawl, and they want to freeze things in place and hold onto the rural character of as much of the stuff around them as they can, so they create minimum lot sizes. But if I were in their shoes, what I would do is draw a simple map of the town, with two categories: No Development (Forest/Wetlands/Farm), and Develop Virtually Anything You Want (Infill Area). Chances are that if you allowed people to work things out on their own in the infill area, you could greatly expand the area you were preserving outright.

The only exceptions I might make to that would be ordinances fine tuning things. You zoning ordinance should be five or ten pages long, not almost two hundred. Maybe there are things you'd like to decide on as a community. Sidewalks should be x number of feet wide. Put trees in to provide shade. But if you collected all of these things together, they'd be less of a burden on developing new businesses or housing than the simpler looking lot sizes, parking requirements, and so on.

Parking
Parking is mentioned 69 times in the zoning plan. Some of the solutions the plan offers are kind of neutral (supporting valet parking is meh. . . ) but some are outright destructive and awful (page 99):
Innovative solutions [sic] will be required to solve the problem of inadequate parking on the waterfront. Sufficient parking facilities should be required [!] of new development projects and should be planned in accordance with the detailed master waterfront development plan. 
Many of the other solutions offered about parking involve some form or another of adding parking: requiring it of new development, subsidizing it through garage building, or coordination and top-down Poliburo planning of it to make sure everyone has valets or cooperative lots. There are innovative solutions, but they're not found in the E.G. plan.

Page 100:
Following state and federal approval, additional marina development may be allowed within the harborline provided there is adequate parking. 
Instead of using the success of a crowded, popular location to drive the development of non-auto transportation to help alleviate demand on parking, the town sees parking as a brick to be hung around the neck of any new marina. Kind of as backwards as you can get on this.

Lot of Empty Parking, But Nowhere to Park
Lots of empty, and semi-empty lots. Lots of space on the street
to park that was illegal to park in. No parking meters. Sad face.

When we visited, we were in a car, carpooling with Rachel's parents. We found no parking on the front street because it all was occupied (and free). We found lots and lots of open spots on the side streets, most of which were reserved for residents. We found lots and lots of parking lots which were reserved for various uses and couldn't be used. We did find some municipal lots, and those were free too, and luckily there was a spot in one of those. But if the town metered parking, returned the revenue to businesses, stopped requiring parking, and let people figure things out without all the reservations, all these varying reserved uses could be traded to better use. Chances are there's actually far more parking in the town center than is actually needed, it's just that people are encouraged to jealously guard it with these reservations.

The Indian food I got was $16. It was good, but not any better than the Indian food I got in my own neighborhood for $8. I can only imagine that the high price of my food was a testament to two things: the limited availability of real estate that looks like the Hill District (and thus, I gather, high rent on the restauranteur who served me, and no competition with that restauranteur), and the fact that the restaurants seem to have cooperatively provided "free" (as in, included in my bill) valet parking. This is an insane solution. Why would I suffer a high food bill to pay someone to take my car and stuff it into a lot when I could figure this all out by paying a meter, and by doing so, allow the development of alternatives to make it possible for me not to drive there in the first place?

Why is a tiny portion of East Greenwich heart-achingly beautiful and overpriced to the point of exclusion? Why is there no market to extend that beauty outward, to compete, and to add more greatness to the town? Why are parts of the town just outside that pale horrifically ugly, awful, and depressing? Because East Greenwich requires it to be so. The market could fix this if it was allowed to.

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Hazardous Mailboxes!

The Hummel Report in Motif Magazine reports that RIDOT is ingratiating itself with neighbors along Rt. 116's Pleasant View Parkway. The agency repaved some sidewalks, which required removing the mailboxes. Unfortunately, the replacements proved flimsy, and many of them are broken. RIDOT representative Robert Rocchio explained that the reason for this was to avoid creating a hazard out of the mailboxes:
Jim Hummel (Motif): Why would the stat insist on its own mailboxes?
Robert Rocchio: That's a very good question and it comes down to safety. Safety reasons. We have to make sure, while we want the mailboxes to be sturdy and stand up to the elements or to vandalism, they also have to be safe when struck by a vehicle. That means they can't be so rigid that if a vehicles hits it could penetrate through to the passenger compartment or launch a vehicle. The mailboxes themselves have to be light enough so if they fly through the air as a projectile they don't penetrate the windshield and inure someone. So it's really because of safety reasons.
Transportation writer Tom Vanderbilt has shared this image of a tree growing in the middle of a street. In a presentation he explains how the local transportation officials wanted to remove the tree, which they described as a "fixed hazard."

You could see where if someone came driving down this street really quickly and hit this tree, they'd be toast, or at least their car would be toast. But on the other hand, the "fixed hazard" has a strong psychological effect on the safety of this street, because it slows people down. It physically narrows the lanes and it also provides aesthetic cues that "this is a neighborhood."

In the case of 116, I do have slightly mixed feelings, because it is clearly intended to be a relatively fast through route in a rural area. Generally one of the things that DOTs across the country have done is remove "fixed hazards" from neighborhoods, so as to create ugly, tree-less, speed alleys for cars. There's probably some balance to be struck between maintaining safety for drivers on a street like this that would be different than the balance struck in a more urban or town-center setting.

From Motif's coverage of 116.
On the other hand, "fixed hazards", even on relatively fast routes, help to protect the people on the other side of the fixed hazard. 116 isn't exactly going to get Thayer Street-like pedestrian traffic, but the fact that RIDOT was putting in new sidewalks suggests that someone considers this a place to walk. Kids can't safely walk to school or play in their front yards along a route where all the fixed hazards have been taken away, because guess what the new fixed hazards become? The kids.

The neighbors interviewed for this piece seem to think that one of the things RIDOT did wrong was put the mailboxes too close to the road, saying that their location causes them to be hit by snowplows. This is probably not true. In reality, the plows are probably being charged with keeping the entire width of 116 completely clear, when they shouldn't worry about being so neat and tidy. There's a strong body of evidence that shows that drivers don't need nearly as much room as they're given, and that they respond to "sneckdown" conditions by driving more carefully. The images I linked to are from urban neighborhood settings, but I've observed some even bigger sneckdowns on some of Rhode Island's larger suburban roads, created by the spaces not trampled by cars. On 116, a wider throughway is needed than in an urban neighborhood, but not necessarily the whole width of the road.

Just another day, another example of DOT rules that don't make sense.

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